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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Bode-Museum in Berlin

What is the Bode Museum?

The Bode Museum is a museum of sculpture, Byzantine art, coins and medals that opened in 1904 in magnificent Baroque Revival surroundings on Museum Island in Berlin.

Bode-Museum - exterior at dusk

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Bode Museum Collection

At the northernmost tip of Museum Island, the Bode Museum sits with its ship-like exterior appearing to cut through the waters of the River Spree. Until the Second World War, the museum housed the art collection now based at the Gemäldegalerie. Severe bomb damage to the building and the city’s subsequent division meant the collection was split up. Though today you will still find some 150 Gemäldegalerie paintings on the walls, in the main, the Bode Museum now focuses on three areas: sculpture, Byzantine art, and coins and medals.

Bode-Museum - Bishop Sculpture

The museum’s wonderful collection of sculpture contains works dating from the Middle Ages through to the 18th century, including masterworks by Donatello and Canova, as well as a collection from the prolific German late-Gothic master Tilman Riemenschneider. The first-class Byzantine art collection encompasses art and fine craftsmanship from the 3rd to the 15th centuries, including sarcophagi, sculptures, ivory carvings and mosaics. Finally, the museum’s coin collection, or Münzkabinett, is one of the world’s leading numismatic collections. Containing not just coins but also rare medals, seals and minting tools, the collection comprises over half a million objects. On the second floor, you’ll find a 4,000-item collection, illustrating the beginning of coinage in the 7th century BC and continuing right up to the euros in circulation today.

Bode Museum History

As you cross the Monbijou Bridge, you’ll have the perfect chance to admire the exterior of this majestic, domed structure. (And as you’re here, you might like to know that the south side of the bridge is the perfect place to enjoy a Berlin sunset!) The grandiose Baroque Revival building was designed by German architect Ernst Eberhard von Ihne and opened in 1904 as the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, conceived as a museum of Renaissance art and named after the recently deceased German Emperor Frederick III. You’ll meet another Frederick (on his horse) in the centre of the stunningly grand entrance hall, the 17th-century Elector of Brandenburg who contributed to the foundation of the future Prussian monarchy.

Just over 50 years later, the museum was renamed the Bode Museum, this time in honour of its first director, the innovative Wilhelm von Bode. He believed in mixing different sorts of artworks to create what he called ‘style rooms’. Although today’s collection is presented both geographically and chronologically, you’ll notice as you wander through the luxuriant rooms that painting, sculpture and crafts are all displayed together, each medium complementing the others. The Tiepolo-Kabinett is a lovely example of this – the small white and pastel room lavishly decorated with stucco ornamentation, which features wonderful frescoes by Baroque artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (that were originally created for a north Italian villa in the 1750s).

It doesn’t seem so unusual now, but back in Bode’s time, this intimate and inclusive style of curatorship broke with traditional museum practice and was something only seen in private collections. Bode believed that the visual impact of each piece would be heightened by displaying works in surroundings that conveyed the spirit of the age. It’s hard to disagree with him.

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