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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of the Altes Museum in Berlin

What is the Altes Museum?

The Altes Museum is a museum of antiquities in Berlin that was founded by King Frederick William III of Prussia and built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the early 19th century.


Altes Museum

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Altes Museum History

The Neoclassical Altes Museum (or Old Museum), built in the early 19th century by the influential Karl Friedrich Schinkel, was the first of the five museums to appear here on Museum Island; in fact, it was the first public museum in Prussia. In response to a clamour among the emergent bourgeoisie for access to royal art and antiquities collections, traditionally private, King Frederick William III of Prussia opened his collections, and soon after commissioned a purpose-built museum, known initially as the Königliches Museum (or Royal Museum). Frederick subscribed to the ideal of holistic humanist education articulated by Wilhelm von Humboldt, who headed the royal commission for the new museum’s foundation and planning. The Danish cultural critic Georg Brandes wrote that at the time of German unification in 1871, Berlin’s museums ‘played for edification-seeking Berliners a role similar to cathedrals in Gothic countries’.


In the early 20th century, the art historian Wilhelm von Bode – after whom the nearby Bode Museum is now named – played a major role in bringing to Berlin numerous paintings by the ‘Old Masters’. Works like Rembrandt’s The Man with the Golden Helmet and Dürer’s Portrait of Hieronymus Holzschuher were initially exhibited in the Altes Museum, though today you’ll find them in the Gemäldegalerie. Though Frederick William initially intended his museum to house Prussia’s royal collections, those did not form its core. Rather, the museum acquired a diverse range of holdings, as in 1821 when Edward Solly, an English businessman, sold to the king his impressive collection of 3,000 paintings (677 of which were selected for the museum).


In the early 1940s the Nazi Albert Speer, Hitler’s favourite architect (and Minister of Armaments, overseeing an extensive eviction and forced labour programme for which he was convicted in 1946 of war crimes), had scheduled the Altes Museum and the rest of the museums on the island for demolition. In Speer’s fantasy they would make way for new monumental institutions, which would house the chief cultural spoils of the Thousand-year Reich’s capital, to be renamed ‘Germania’. The Nazi conquest of Europe was to be commemorated by the erection on the island of two museums in particular: one dedicated to the Second World War, another to Nazi racial science. During the Second World War, the Altes Museum was damaged by Allied bombing and burned out nearly completely on the 8th of May 1945. Following the division of Berlin into Allied occupied zones, Museum Island was located in East Berlin and soon thereafter in the newly founded East Germany. Unlike the Berlin Palace and the Neues Museum, the Altes Museum was restored in the 1950s and ‘60s to a largely original state.


The reconstruction of the Altes Museum prefigured a programme of reconstruction in East Berlin under the regime of Erich Honecker. Rather than highlighting in Prussia and its culture the bedrock of German militarism which had led to defeats in two World Wars, the East German government now emphasised the progressive tendencies of, for instance, Frederick the Great, whose equestrian statue was moved back from Potsdam to the Unter den Linden boulevard where it still stands today, just west of here.


Today, the Altes Museum no longer showcases the Old Masters that once formed its early collection, but instead offers you an impressive variety of antiquities from the Greek, Etruscan and Roman worlds. Although its holdings have changed over the years, the museum still lives up to the enormous gold inscription above the building’s ionic colonnade, which reads: ‘Frederick William III founded this museum for the study of all objects of antiquity and of the liberal arts in 1828’.


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