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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of the Neues Museum in Berlin

What is the Neues Museum?

The Neues Museum is a museum in Berlin that was founded in the mid-19th century and displays an impressive collection of Egyptian artefacts (including the world-renowned bust of Nefertiti) and archaeological finds from Europe and Asia.

Neues Museum

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Neues Museum History

The Neues Museum (or New Museum) was designed in the mid-19th century by architect Friedrich August Stüler, a student of the great Karl Friedrich Schinkel (who designed the Altes Museum next door). Of all the buildings here on Museum island, Stüler’s structure was the most damaged by wartime bombing. Reconstruction started in the late 1980s and was taken over by British architect David Chipperfield in 1997; the project didn’t conclude until 2009. Unlike the reconstructions of the Altes Museum and Berlin Palace, the approach here was rather different. Damage inflicted during wartime and by neglect in the intervening decades has been left exposed. Marks from bombs and bullets remain visible, both on the outside of the building and in its interior. The reconstructed parts of the façade are easily recognisable: they deliberately display their modern nature, just like the façade of the Berlin Palace that faces East. The decision to preserve the evidence of damage provoked controversy, since many believed that the Neues Museum deserved to be restored to its former glory and because it would ‘subordinate the plan of the original architect to the design ideas of a descendant’.

The museum is today one of the most popular of Berlin’s state museums, and there’s no denying the reason: the Neues Museum has the honour (or burden) of housing the 3,400-year-old bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. The bust was excavated by the German Oriental Society in Amarna in 1912 and transported to Berlin the following year. Its export was likely only allowed because German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt misrepresented its value to the French colonial authorities, who at the time controlled the export of antiquities. French authorities later complained that Borchardt had the bust wrapped and placed in a box in a dimly lit room so that the inspector gravely underestimated its value. Its unique beauty was immediately obvious to the archaeologist who, in his excavation diary of 1912, noted: ‘Description is useless, must be seen’.

Shortly after Egyptian independence, the first request for the repatriation of the bust was made, a demand which has been repeated multiple times until today. In 2016, the artists Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles claimed they had been able to create a covert 3D scan of the bust which they used to display a high-quality copy of the artefact in Cairo, thereby discrediting the German state’s asset. The Neues Museum had previously declined to release detailed scans of the bust, though they were ultimately made available in 2019 to the artist Cosmo Wenman (following a three-year legal battle), who subsequently released them online.

At the end of the Second World War the holdings of many of Berlin’s museums were split between East and West, and only occasionally cultural exchanges occurred between the two states in order to reunite collections left especially sundered. Nefertiti’s bust, for example, was only reunited with that of her husband, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, after reunification.

Alongside the iconic bust you’ll find several other sculptures of Nefertiti, an impressive collection of royal Egyptian portrait busts, an unrivalled collection of ancient manuscripts, and rooms dedicated to Heinrich Schliemann’s collection of artefacts from Troy. Despite the implications of its name, the Neues Museum is the perfect place to immerse yourself in thousands of years of history and culture spanning Europe, North Africa and Asia.

Planning a trip to Berlin? Get to know the city through our GPS audio tours of Berlin.


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