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Refurbished museum to display Berlin's priceless sculptures

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Thursday October 12, 2006

Berlin- One of Berlin's great museums from the age of the kaisers, full of Byzantine, medieval and renaissance sculptures, is to reopen next week after eight years of closure and millions of euros of refurbishment. The Bode Museum is one of five monumental treasure-houses on the German capital's Island of Museums.

The Bode, originally known as the Kaiser Friedrich Museum and renamed in 1956 after founding curator Wilhelm von Bode, occupies the tip of the island in the Spree River. Topped with cupolas, it makes a dramatic sight with stone bridges and water on both sides.

Part of the 1.2-billion-euro (1.5-billion dollar) restoration project for the island will be an underground walkway, not yet completed, to join the Bode with the island's other four museums, which are built in the style of Greek temples.

UNESCO has declared the complex a part of world cultural heritage, with the grandeur and decoration of the lofty exhibition halls just as fascinating as the hoard of art acquired in Europe and Asia by late 19th century German collectors.

The first fruit of the restoration project was the 2001 re-opening of the Alte Nationalgalerie art museum, and the Bode is the second of the museums to get a new lease of life. The semi-ruined Neues Museum is to be rebuilt by 2009 and the Altes Museum will be renovated too.

The project will climax with a revamp of the Pergamon Museum and its stunning collection of Babylonian and Greek stone buildings.

The treasures of the Bode, which first opened in 1904, are perhaps less glamourous than the Pergamon Altar or the Bust of Nefertiti displayed elsewhere on the island, but offer an insight into several lost worlds of Christian art.

An ivory carver in Byzantium created a pyx, or container for communion wafers, in about 400 AD that is one of the Bode's most prized treasures. It depicts Christ among the Apostles as well as the Prophet Abraham offering his son in sacrifice.

The Bode also contains one of the world's best collections of late Coptic art, recovered from tombs of Christians in Egypt.

For the tourist visiting Europe who may not have the time to tour dozens of churches, where most pre-modern art is still found, the Bode offers a focussed collection of Gothic carving.

Its collection of 16th to 18th century Italian sculpture is the best north of the Alps, notes the Bode's chief restorer, Bodo Buczynski.

The museum itself is a work of art, with Florentine or Venetian doorways, fireplaces or ceilings to match its contents. At its opening in 1904, it gained world attention and influenced art-museum design in the United States, Buczynski says.

Wilhelm von Bode conceived it as a series of "period rooms" where art from each epoch could be shown in its context. The finest of these rooms is the "basilica," which recreates a 15th century Tuscan church with four side-altars to display religious art.

The restored Bode Museum has remained true to its founder's vision, but with modern technology and a tighter focus on sculpture.

The emphasis on context marks a contrast with what a Berlin art historian, Lutz Stoeppler, calls the "white box" museums of recent decades where art has been displayed without associations on grey walls.

The empty Bode was thrown open to the public last December so that German taxpayers could see the construction improvements which cost 152 million euros, including air conditioning to cope with the Berlin summer heat.

Modern exhibition lighting has been installed. The original 1904 museum relied on daylight and used to close on the dark days of winter. The windows and skylights are still there, but now have ultraviolet filtering to protect the art from the sun's rays, Buczynski explains.

Some 150 paintings from the island's collections are being placed on the Bode walls to enhance the 1,700 sculptures. The Bode's numismatic department will show some of its 500,000 coins and medals.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, who heads the Prussian Museums Commission, says the Bode reopening is historic, because it is the first time since the 1930s that all of the art collections are finally back on the island and open to the public.

The island was reserved in 1841 to exhibit paintings belonging to the Prussian kings. Later, with the rise of Germany as a great power, Berlin was eager to match the magnificent museums of Paris and Vienna and began collecting world art.

From the 1890s, Bode sought art from archaeological digs in western Turkey and Egypt, and shopped in Rome to stock the museum.

After World War Two, the Bode was in communist East Germany, lacking much of its art, which was in West German hands.

The communists considered demolishing the building before they fixed up war damage. However, they could not afford a major modernization. The Bode exhibited prehistoric artefacts that had no connection to its interior design. It has been closed to the public since 1998.

Key items have been displayed elsewhere in the interim, but some of the Bode's collection has been in storage since 1996.

After inaugural celebrations on Tuesday with national television coverage in Germany, the museum will re-open to the public on Thursday, October 19. An adult entrance ticket will cost 8 euros.


© 2006 dpa German Press Agency