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Staging with Artefacts – Production of History on the Museum Island in Berlin, Part 2 “Higgledypiggledy Presentation”

by [Artefakte // anti-humboldt]
18 Nov 2013 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: Afterlives [11] | Commons

Production of History on the Museum Island in Berlin, Part 2  “Higgledypiggledy Presentation.”[1]

The master plans for the Museum Island provided for a reconstruction of the ruin of the Neues Museum, which was secured during GDR times “according to the regulations for historical monuments.” The contract was awarded to the British architect David Chipperfield, who with his concept of a “complementary restoration” planned to remove “no original material.”[2]

“The aim was neither an historicising reconstruction nor the display of a ruin, nor contrasting old with new; instead, the attempt was made to harmonically combine the idea of Stüler[3] in a modern language with the traditional material, without obscuring the original and the additions,” stated Annik Pietsch in 2010 at the symposium “Neues Museum Berlin–Restaurierung und Denkmalpflege im Weltkulturerbe,” organised at the Altes Museum in Berlin.[4]

On the occasion of the opening in 2009, the press responded enthusiastically: “Fragile Sensation”, read Die ZEIT’s title on October 26th, 2009, “Will the Parts Become a Whole?”, “Beautiful in a Maltreated Way,”[5] awestruck by the tangible bullet wounds. “The ruinous character of the building testifies to the transience of all earthly things, on the one hand; on the other, all that is transient is rendered immortal here. The museum thus offers consolation in face of finiteness–it is precisely by showing its wounds that it promises timelessness.”[6]

Even though already four years have passed since the opening, a second glance at this rescue is worthwhile, since the Neues Museum is at the heart of the debates on the planned union of Museum Island and Humboldt Forum that is announced to become a Universal Museum of the 21st Century. The five buildings on the Museum Island have been reconstructed based on different concepts of building restoration; the Humboldt Forum is being added as a “total addition” to the facades of the Berlin City Palace. What is lacking is a critical consideration of how these different decisions regarding the restoration of the various buildings reflect the specific moment of the Second World War and how the “complementary restoration” of the Neues Museum situates itself within it.

A tour with the camera on March 23rd, 2013:

(N) = new room titles, (A) = historical room titles


- The construction site leading to the James Simon Gallery as the entrance to the Universal Museum of the 21st Century, the building behind it was the Neues Museum.

- To the left of the Neues Museum we saw a part of the Pergamon Museum where the exhibition “The Tell Halaf Adventure” had taken place, to the right the Altes Museum, behind it, outside of the frame of the photo, was the excavations for the future Humboldt Forum’s foundations (cf. the contribution and the picture spread by Friedrich von Bose in this issue).

- On the facade of the Neues Museum we recognised two different surfaces of the “complementary restoration”: on the left part of the facade, a supplement in the style of the sub-construction–brick; on the right part, a supplement in the style of the facade render.

ROOM 2: “Afterworld” (N)

- In the basement vault, which was designed as a sepulchre, there were sarcophagi made of stone and wood, death masks and effigies, dried filigree flower ornaments, spices, seeds, clay vessels–burial objects of the pharaohs. Magnificently gilded sarcophagi were presented under protective glass, bearing the label “mummy-shaped sarcophagus” (sic!).

The lid was presented slightly ajar granting a view on the dead, conserved body. The mummies had apparently been removed from the sarcophagi, though.

All that remained was the form that replicated them as a coverlid; the mummy, part of the structure of human and thing, was literally a named, but de-thematised absence here.

The Neues Museum thus followed a manner of treating human remains that can currently be found in many museums. While in earlier times mummies were usually part of the museum display and thus understood as artefacts, they have, in the past decades, been categorised in European museums as human remains demanding a ‘more sensitive’ treatment, or adding information panels asking the visitors to treat the displayed human remains respectfully, or warning them of possible irritations caused by their sight. It seems as if in Western Europe today, one tends to perceive the corporeal character of mummies more strongly than in the past, grasping them more as products of nature, i.e., as corpses, than as products of human labour.

Yet the way in which the display at the Berliner Neues Museum was designed could also be interpreted in a different way: When cultural meaning and legitimacy start to dwindle–in our case the mummy as an exotic and fashionable object of contemplation and scientific edification–then problems arise on a level that one could call material culture: be it leftovers that could not be discarded nor be brought to light, or also a judicial body. As such–one can presume–it was banished to an even further remote basement vault.

ROOM 3: “Egyptian Courtyard” (A), “Journey to the Netherworld” (N)

- A locked ‘grave gate’ in the basement (that will serve as the future entrance gate to the Pergamon Museum).

ROOM 4: “Greek Courtyard” (A), “The Repression of Chaos” (N)

- What techniques of restoration were visible? How did the restored artefact relate to the restored building?

- One example: An Egyptian relief and its passive/plane supplement placed on a plane plinth. Behind it, a wall. The plaster was partially undamaged, partially missing and partially flatly supplemented. Like an artefact, the wall protruded from an added wall cornice that simultaneously functioned as a pedestal and partition. A demonstration of the analogous restoration of artefact and architecture.

- Restoration techniques: Restoration today is characterised by passive, plane and recognisable ‘supplementary interventions’ and by the closing of surfaces: the reversibility of the supplement, transparency, documentation of the history of restoration, the original state is to remain retraceable and conspicuously separated.

In the Neues Museum, historical bricks from demolished buildings and historical building materials were used. And old techniques were recovered. Smaller imperfections were remedied using an equivalent technique, larger ones on the level of the shell construction were visually closed with seal coating.

- The relationship between artefact and restored architecture was complex in this room, there were not only ancient artefacts but also artefacts from the 19th century produced as props–friezes and cycles of wall paintings–like, for example, Hermann Schievelbein’s relief “Der Untergang Pompejis” in the upper part of the hall.

Schievelbein’s narration of the “downfall” was taken up by the staging of the hall under the title “The repression of chaos”; the damages in the room from the Second World War were commented on in the display text: “Signs of destruction are also visible in the walls of the courtyard; (passages in their) plaster remain struck by shell splinters.”

- In the total view, the space became a construction site: Two things happened at the same time. Neither the artefacts up front nor the wall were ground flush; instead they were placed upon each other as layers from different times. Thus, the wall was artificially archaelogised to a building pit and staged to expose an excavation on the wall.

A dramatic effect: One saw the destructions of the 20th century, the building techniques of the 19th century, 2000- to 4000-year-old Egyptian, Byzantine and Greek reliefs, a historicizing relief from the 19th century, and finally the “sensitive”[7] aesthetics of “complementary restoration” from the 21st century.

- The feature of equalization–age, damages and their restoration–merged these different contexts without resistance into one, since the layers were separated visually, but not textually and analytically: Standards of restoration were missing: A standard would be a documentation, minute with the exact description of the object as a means of ‘identification’, of the findings regarding condition and technical aspects, a concept (if necessary, with the discussion on decision-making) and the description of the measures taken; classification of the meaning of the material, changes and soiling.

We found neither of these documentations next to the historical contextualisation, nor their unambiguous attribution to the artefact or the interventions in the building structure. What was missing was the text which could have separated the different contexts of the artefacts, their appropriation, their damages and the restorative interventions. We found matter pasted together, one single scuffed chunk–a constructed sediment as a continuum of all times. We found traces of alchemy.

ROOM 5: Room of the special exhibition “In the Light of Amarna. 100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery” (N)

Here, the specific history of an object was presented. It was that of Nefertiti, in the darkened room were the bronze busts of the excavator Ludwig Borchardt and the financial backer James Simons; a large stand-alone vitrine held a photocopy and the translation of the report on the division of finds dated 01/20/1913; photos of the exhibition of the find in 1913 (a photo of Nefertiti was not included at the time), copied excerpts of the early restitution discussion in the 1930s.

All in all, a documentation seeking to secure legitimacy of the possessions in the Neues Museum, less correct in a present-day legal sense–the compilation was too selective for that–but instead correct in its explication of the attempted restitution demands that failed in the past. The incorrect designation of the materials during the division of the finds at the time is addressed in passing, the scientific-museal agreement of the 1930s between the museums of Berlin and Cairo on a renewed division of the finds that–compensated accordingly–was to assign Nefertiti to Cairo remains unmentioned, as does Adolf Hitler’s intervention to prevent this restitution.

- Taking photographs, even without flashlight and tripod, was forbidden in this area–although bronze and reproduced artefacts are hardly photosensitive.

- A racist joke the daily newspaper Berliner Morgenpost made was expanded to become a museum slogan, a slogan claiming “cosmopolitanism”, formulated in the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums that–quite evidently–contradicts the migration policies of European states.

ROOM 6: “Patriotic Room” (A), “Odin, Urns and Looted Art” (N)

- We once again encountered questions as to legitimate possession and restitution demands, tellingly in the “Patriotic Room” (“Vaterländischer Saal”)–in reversed roles: “To this day, tens of thousands of objects, including the contents of the three ‘gold crates’, remain in the storage in Russia as spoils of war and in breach of international law,” it says in the corresponding vitrine, while the object plaque notes, “The original is part of the Russian looted art”.

The golden artefacts were described as “reconstruction”, as part of Heinrich Schliemann’s “Gold of Troy”, which was brought to Russia at the end of the war in 1945. This is where it became piquant. The gold treasure was regarded as lost in Russia, it was rediscovered in 1994 in the Pushkin Museum, where it has been on display again since 1996. Since then, Turkey, regarding itself to be the legitimate owner, has been seeking restitution: For in order to avoid confiscation or division, the finder, Schliemann, had smuggled the artefacts past the Ottoman authorities to Germany.

- Another vitrine is dedicated to the “patrons” Rudolf Virchow and Heinrich Schliemann, Virchow persuaded Schliemann, as it says on the panel, to leave his “Trojan antiquities” to the museum. There are human remains in the vitrine. The initials –“RV” for Rudolf Virchow

–with the collection number written directly on the skull indicate the brutal directness in the act of appropriation, in which the collector took possession with his name; the names of the dead almost always disappeared.

- For the southern wall, the wall design of the “Patriotic Room” provided for pictures of the burials of Nordic princes from the stone, bronze, and iron ages. The lunette in the opposite wall showed–as stated on the panel–“to the left Valhalla, as a place to where the heroes honourably killed in action go, in the centre the Father of All as the Creator with the rune plaques ‘Peace’ and ‘Salvation’, and to the right the way to the netherworld”. A first comprehensive depiction of the Edda, it is said, the direct predecessor of the Song of the Nibelungs. From here, the gaze was organised by a suite of staggered rooms–to remain in the metaphor of the sediment–as a longitudinal section through the cultural mises-en-scène, ending in the Egyptian “Grave Hall”.

- The Neues Museum chose the “Patriotic Room” (sic!) to present its demands for museal possessions elsewhere.

On the way to the pharao…

ROOM 7: Surfaces 1, “Vaulted Room” (A), “Pharao” (N)

In the sand-coloured patina, original and restored surfaces were levelled, shrapnel holes were sealed. In a few wall reliefs, we recognised, upon closer inspection, the one as a perfectly photographed reproduction, the other as the original–repeatedly photographed by us, this barely discernible difference, to which the object plaque did not refer, vanished for good.

ROOM 8: “Thirty Centuries” (N)

- What is astounding in the sequence of rooms is that this room was entirely complemented, in the previous room only the surface damages on the walls had been sealed.

- As part of the complementation of an entirely missing room volume, we came upon a further architectural element. Sand-coloured concrete elements that were apparently layered: thin boards vertical to the walls, beams layered horizontally crossways and lengthways to the ceiling construction.

The material was reminiscent of stone, sediment (concrete with stone inclusions), also of wood, cardboard, or–as the already mentioned Die ZEIT critic Hanno Rauterberg wrote–of “particle board”.[8] So there was a double play for this apparently stupid architecture of boards and little blocks: ‘Archaic’ in approximation to the ancient exhibits, ‘provisional’ in regard to the profane impression that the material gave. At first this contradiction was sympathetic, yet soon became bothersome, annoying–this material showed little faith in the principle of ‘complementing’.

- We now counted at least three forms of ‘complementing’ something missing in the Neues Museum: as a (halfway) plane substitute with a foreign material like in this case, as a plane complement in the original material (e.g. in the brick walls in the openly visible sub-construction), and as a reconstructive, sealing surface (e.g. the plaster). The ‘complements’ were at times more, at others less distinguishable. The architect was a painter of the nice spots.

- Yet the room reconstructed in concrete formed a kind of plinth for the original part of the museum, like the plinth for the artefact. From the museological point of view as of 2009, this was a stroke of luck–it was possible to project museum-technical topicality onto these surfaces.

- With the vitrines, a similar phenomenon regarding design could be discovered: The more delicate the framing structure, the thinner it was, the more it extended in height, giving (and taking) space, the more ‘modern’ and ‘scientific’ its appearance. In the Neues Museum, the glass surfaces of the vitrines moved in as a ‘modern membrane’. The objectifying frame was reduced to it (and the mentioned architectural supplements), when the building structure becomes an artefact.

- Projected numbers on the added walls–the pragmatic? Or perhaps ironic (?) dating of the walls?

ROOM 9: “Egyptian Courtyard” (A), “The Egyptian Temple” (N)

- The same element that as a material ‘passively’ indicated the “complementary restoration” of missing parts of the building was made ‘active’ here: An expansive element that stages perception, a free-standing stool, as a stand above, from below (basement and the first level) a view like from a ‘vitrine’ housing. Or also–with the wall frescos of Egyptian temple ruins in sight–like from a ‘temple’ (the museum temple).

A view from the centre of the room was not possible here because there was a hole: This implant constituted the view to the wall pictorially, in close and distant sight, as a painted wall picture of an ancient ruin in the wall-section picture of the building as a ruin.

- It belonged to the mise-en-scène of the Neues Museum to contextualise ancient exhibits by means of wall paintings of ancient architectures or ruins. A programme according to Hegel’s notion of history that even today permeates the Neues Museum with a (Eurocentric) one-dimensionally progressing development of so-called high cultures.

What happens when the building of this programmatic staging is now itself visualised as a ruin?

The violence behind the ‘building ruin’ falsifies this programme–that would be the culturally pessimistic interpretation–the press comments mentioned at the beginning came to mind. In this interpretation of a museum, an ’archaisation’ and ‘neutralisation’ of the specific violence that was behind this building ruin of the 20th century was superimposed expressing a sort of universal ‘death machine’. Or could the fact of the costly and in conservational terms ‘highly cultivated’ staging of the death ruin in/of the Neues Museum be read as an assertion of the Hegelian concept of progress? Either way, both interpretations remain Eurocentric in the vocabulary of the 19th century. It appeared to us as if the patina in/of the museum building reproduced an historical modernity in an airtight hermeticism–no museal, architectural, scientific or postcolonial posit penetrated through it. Once more, we encountered alchemy, a steaming universal history of decline, vanitas, in which the specificity of 20th-century violence was diffused to irrecognizability.

ROOM 10: “Stairway Hall” (N)

- A triad:

One: The “complementing” of the missing part refines the original building substance, its investment in conserving and securing indicates the cultural and material value of the artefact. (A sour taste remains whether, according to this formula, there is not a notion of a kind of ‘deep restoration’ as ‘highest ennoblement’ towards the serious, meaning ‘deep violence’ of the Second World War).

Two: The elements of “complementing” are employed not only as substitutes for the missing parts, but simultaneously as a platform (actively as plinth, stage, pit footbridge in the original substance), staging the walking and viewing paths. In the Neues Museum, restoration was stylised to a programme of museal mediation.

Three: The preservation of the artefact and its public staging–in light of an existing postcolonial perspective, the museal work falls short. Yet the staging materialises the sound of the Universal Declaration in stone, so to speak: The protection of the World Cultural Heritage–the historical and current (financial) ability to preserve the artefact legitimises itself beyond the doubts, beyond the shadiness in colonial appropriations. The Universal Museum has ‘worked hard’ on (‘rescued’) its possessions–not least in the restoration displayed here.

- A choreography of shrapnel holes: There were many on the outer facade, most were in the stairway hall, hardly any or none in the exhibitions rooms, where they were sealed behind plaster. The result and the method of the restoration were motivated less by science than by staging: Upon stepping from the outside to the inside, Chipperfield staged the Second World War in allusions; when walking through the museum halls, in contrast, as patina, as refinement and in assimilation to the exhibited ancient artefacts.

- At this point we must raise the question of the ‘memorial’–regardless of the impulsiveness with which those in charge of the museum have denied it this function. In the stairway hall there was no artefact and hardly any restoration to be seen; instead, we saw the rhythmic holes of the machine gun volleys, precisely they formed the preserved original structure here.

- Could a memorial to the Second World War simultaneously function as a museum with a colonial collection? Probably not, the collection would then have to be subjected to a critical and sensitive revision in the sense of the demands. The ‘memorial’ should consistently extend all the way to the museal policies, to representation, mediation and the collection stock. This was not the case here. The impression of a memorial was only occasionally in the air, in an all but feloniously harmless way, as a harmonising scent.

Lubitsch and Armana

- The broad stairway hall in the Neues Museum evidently functioned as a square, a further ‘forum’ in Berlin. We found the banner of the special installation “In the Light of Amarna. 100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery“ here.

- An exclusive event was a film concert–the “premiere” (sic!)–of the restored version of Lubitsch’s “Das Weib des Pharao” on September 17th, 2011. The WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne played, and the concert was simultaneously transmitted to the internet and the Berlin cinema Babylon. The common topos of restoration was most likely present, the film was restored from Russian nitrate film fragments and digitised, 600 metres of missing material were supplemented by stills with intertitles.

We experienced a learning effect on the display design of the Armana show, whose illumination in orange copied the emotional colourings of the silent film sequences.

- For the Lubitsch film, original-size sceneries, a temple complex, were built in the then-existing dune landscape on the eastern fringe of Berlin-Steglitz. In 2011, for the screening of the film from 1922, the museum used the Egyptian parts of the Neues Museum as an original display, as verification and mood provider for the Egyptomania of the 1930s, shaped by the year-long Tutankhamen excavation that started in 1922 or the first presentation of Nefertiti in 1924.

- No matter how one sees it–a place of contemplative cigar smoking.

ROOM 11: “Fragmentarium” (N)

- We have repeatedly noted this: What was missing were the minutes, the documentation, of the restoration–as well as that of the Museum Island, its individual buildings and the object histories of all of the artefacts.

In the “Fragmentarium” we found the only text panel explicitly referring to the specific destruction (from the Second World War) and outlining the concept of restoration. That was meagre, the room looked sad, like from yesteryear–not as a modern research project of the “most comprehensive restoration project in post-war history”.[9]

On the way to Nefertiti…

ROOM 12: “Roman Room” (A), “North Dome Room” (N)

- We saw the historical contextualisation of the original form of the staging in the Neues Museum, the exhibited artefacts in the wall designs, reversed through the wall pictures: In 2009, precisely the dome hall in the Neues Museum was chosen for the figure of Nefertiti; its colours in the old wall and floor design perfectly matched with her–its walls and floors simultaneously made on older impression than the figure. We were quite astounded that the (ironic? non-ironic?) staging in topographical and temporal terms approved of the slogan of the “original location”–the “Roman Room” (“Römischer Saal”) from 1855 was certainly not Armana in Egypt. Was this to seriously serve as a proposal relevant in the context of restitution–to claim[10]that Nefertiti is returning to her original location on the Museum Island?

- The vitrine of Nefertiti is the highest in the building–the higher the vitrine, the greater the impact of its intervention as a modernist architectural element in the continuum of the patina.

We already mentioned that. Except that in the case of Nefertiti, taking photos was forbidden–this applied to both the object and the history of the object–therefore the photos from the web.

Translated from German by Karl Hoffmann

(All images if not indicated otherwise by Artefakte//anti-humboldt).


1. Samuel Beckett on the Neues Museum, diary note from 01/07/1937. [↑]

2. “Complementing restoration” designates a concept developed by David Chipperfield and his advisor Julian Harrap. On the website of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, “Masterplan Museumsinsel Projektion Zukunft”, it says: “The guiding theme of the reconstruction and restoration works that began in 2003 was ‘gentle reconstruction’.  According to the plans of the architect David Chipperfield, the original substance of the building was preserved and the given structure and cubature of the Stüler building was taken up. New additions can be perceived as such, yet they are integrated in the old. Depending on the type and extent of the damages, the architects looked for an individual solution for each room. They were restored, refurbished, complemented or reconstructed to different degrees.”, last accessed on 04/28/2013. [↑]

3. Friedrich August Stüler (1800-1865), Prussian architect, among others, of the Neues Museum (1843-1855) and the dome structure on the triumphal arch of the main portal of the Berlin City Palace[↑]

4. Annik Pietsch, “Neues Museum Berlin – Restaurierung und Denkmalpflege im Weltkulturerbe, Ein Bericht der Tagung vom 4.-5. Juni 2010”,, last accessed on 04/ 28/2013. [↑]

5. Heinrich Wefing, “Brüchige Sensation”, Die ZEIT, 10/26/2009. [↑]

6. Hanno Rauterberg, “Geschunden schön”, Die ZEIT, 10/08/2009. [↑]

7. “Brüder im Geiste, über 150 Jahre hinweg: Friedrich August Stüler und David Chipperfield, die beiden Architekten des Neuen Museums, sind Meister des sensiblen Weiterbauens”, in: “Eine Frage des Taktgefühls”, Der Tagesspiegel, 10/15/2009,, last accessed on 04/28/2013. [↑]

8. Cf. Ref. 6. [↑]

9. Cf. Ref. 4. [↑]

10. “Glanzvoller Ruinencharme für die Nofretete”, 10/16/2009,, last accessed on 04/ 29/2013. [↑]

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Artefakte//anti-humboldt is a Berlin based group of artists and scholars - Lotte Arndt (until 2009), Brigitta Kuster, Regina Sarreiter, Dierk Schmidt, Elsa de Seynes - that was founded in 2008 as part of the event Der Anti- Humboldt ( against the re-construction of the Prussian castle and the Humboldt-Forum in Berlin. Artefakte//anti-humboldt pursues its questioning of the ethnographic museums by organizing a workshop on restitution (2008), a lecture and a debate with Françoise Vergès on the “Museum of the present” (2009), an open-air film lecture with mummy films held at the construction site of the to-be-built castle in Berlin (2010) as well as at the musée du Quai Branly invited by bétonsalon in Paris (2011). The lecture formes the basis for the installation “‘Rise for you will not perish’ (on mummymania)” showcased at the exhibition Animism at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2012. Artefakte is currently working on the project “Künstliche Tatsachen/Artificial Fact” in collaboration with the Kunsthaus Dresden (Germany), and partners in South Africa and Benin.
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