On a museum high in Berlin
I have been to Berlin before. I have done the ‘free-but-not-really-walking-tour’, the ‘strolling-down-Under-den-Linden-street’, the ‘gaping-at-the-Reichstag’, the ‘taking-pictures-of oneself-under-the-Brandenburg-Gate’, the ‘peering-at-the-wall-remains’ etc. But my previous trip being a short one, I had allowed myself only a visit to the Pergamon museum and a lightning run through the Alte Nationalgalerie. I had therefore been promising myself a return visit, this time to concentrate on the museums alone. And finally, after 5 years, I got the opportunity.
So here is an account of what museums to see in Berlin, and how.
Time of my visit : Last week of October
Weather : Miserable, dreary, wet, cloudy, gloomy, at times windy, permanently in a kind of half-light throughout the week. Temperatures ranging from 7 to 15 Celsius. However, the fall colours were wonderful to see, almost enough to forget the shades of grey everywhere else !!
Accomodation: Luckily I got free bed-breakfast-and-dinner at a friend’s flat in a central location with easy access to all kinds of transport !! For those looking for a place to stay, choose somewhere close to public transport, you will appreciate this at the end of a long day of museum hopping.
Flight : I flew Swiss Air, changing in Zurich. They offer great last minute deals within Europe on Wednesday afternoons, for flights the following weekend.
Transport : During my week in Berlin, I travelled on buses, the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn and once on a tram. I bought a 7 day Zone AB transport pass for Euro 26.20. This is a very good deal indeed, Berlin attractions are spread over a large area and I used public transport extensively. As the Tegel airport is within zone AB, this covered my from-and-to airport trips as well. If you want to venture out to Zone C, its possible to get an extension ticket. There are passes available for one or three days as well. If you are mobility-impaired in any way, buses are the best as many U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations have either no elevators/escalators or those running in one direction only. I hurt my knee on the first day and then spent the whole week limping up and down staircases feeling very sorry for myself !!
Food: As I had a substantial breakfast at my friend’s home and a nice dinner at the end of the day, I didn’t stop for long lunches. Most museums have a cafe, some with good menus, others with almost nothing. The Museum Island is just a 10 minute walk from Friedrichstrass, a busy market street with many food offerings. Hackescher Market is also just 10 mins away, another place where you can find many eateries. The other site for museums, the Kulturforum, is walking distance from the Sony Center and Potsdamer Platz. Generally, I found that there were take away places in almost all S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations. The variety and quality of food outlets available in Berlin is on par with the metropolises of the world like London and New York, with the prices being much more reasonable. The bakeries were just superb.
Museum entry tickets : I bought a three day pass for 19.90, which is an excellent deal. This pass covers approximately 70 museums, impossible to see within three days. I thoroughly recommend it for fellow museum lovers. I bought the museum at the Berlin Info centre but I think its also sold at the museums. Most museums are closed on Mondays. Thursdays, many museums close late and the last 4 hours are free. All museums offer an audio-guide for free. For the Neues Museum, you need to get a timed entry ticket (for free with the pass) in advance.
Which Museums ? : A tough one, that. I sat with the list of museums covered by the pass and used online resources to decide which ones to visit. The Berlin museums are clubbed together in certain locations and it makes practical sense to visit museums which are next to each other on the same day. Again for the mobility-impaired, check before you go. There seemed to be a lot of stairs to climb up and down even within museums. I have a passion for art and enjoy small doses of history as well. Accordingly, the following lists the museums I selected for each day and what I actually managed to see !! This was pushing myself hard, I was bone tired at the end of each day.
Day 1 :
a. Gemaldegalerie, Kulturforum, European Paintings, 13th to 18th Century : An excellent collection!! I spent about 4.5 hours at this museum, even though I was selective as to what to listen on the audio guide. This museum houses an impressive collection of Dutch masters including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Steen, Halz, de Hooch, van Dyke and Ruisdael. A small collection of British artists included works of Gainsborough, Raeburn and Reynolds. By the time I came to the Italians, I was a bit tired but noted with pleasure the presence of Caravaggio, Botticelli, Titian, Florentino and Panini. Though I know the Spaniards the least, a couple of interesting Velazquezs caught my attention.
b. Museum of Graphic Arts (Kupferstichkabinett), Kulturforum : I am much interested in works on paper but unfortunately I realised too late that they do not have a permanent display, only temporary ones, none being held when I went. One can, I understand now, demand to see particular works on an individual basis but as I did not have time to do this, I am not sure how it works.
c. Museum of Decorative Arts (Kunstgewerbemuseum), Kulturforum : I made a quick visit to this museum even though its not of primary interest to me. I spent about half an hour here. Nothing grabbed my attention really.
d. Neues Nationagalerie, European Paintings, 20th Century : This has a good collection of artworks that I wanted to see but unfortunately, when they have a special exhibition on, they do not show their permanent collection. For those bound to be disappointed like me, time your visit correctly.
Day 2 :
e. Hamburger Bahnhof, Paintings, Sculpture & Installations, Contemporary : In a bid to be more ‘open’ towards contemporary art, I decided to visit this museum. I came out quite convinced that contemporary art is not my thing, especially installations which do not ‘move’ me at all !! There were a few works on canvas which did interest me, Andy Warhol’s Mao in particular. I was perplexed to see an installation which resembled most people’s tool area in the garage!! Other works included a video of a man constantly shouting as if he were being tortured, a little sculpture of Michael Jackson with his monkey, a room full of what looked like concrete building blocks, to name a few. I know a number of young people who would have found this fascinating, my son included, and I still puzzle over why all this leaves me cold.. I basically walked from room to room with a bewildered expression on my face, and even this took more than an hour and a half.
f. Museum of Natural History : I went mainly to admire the Guinness book record holding dinosaur skeleton but stayed on for an hour to browse through random rooms of this museum. It was inundated with tiny tots and older school going children, all talking at the top of their voices. Not a restful place. I kept comparing it to the wonderful Natural History Museum in New York and found it wanting. Still, interesting for anyone with a curiosity about this world.
g. Alte Nationalgalerie : Another great collection of paintings, somewhat smaller than the collection at the Gemaldegalerie I reckon. The Germans are wonderfully represented here and I enjoyed acquainting and reacquainting myself with some great artists like Leibl, Schuch, Baum, Von Uhde, Liebermann, Lenbach, Defregger (he is such a great story teller !!), Bocklin, Beckmann, Konig and Menzel. I felt really ignorant here because though I recognize most names, I am not really acquainted with their oeuvre. I came out determined to get myself some books as many of these artists fascinate me. This museum also had a small but stunning collection of French impressionists with works by Monet, Manet, Renoir and Cézanne, to name a few. I needed approximately 4 hours here.
h. Altes Museum, European Antiquities : This houses Greek and Roman antiquities, including sculpture and decorative arts. The building is very impressive. If my feet had ached less, I would no doubt have spent more than the quick hour I spent here.
Day 3 :
I. Berggruen Museum, European Paintings & Sculpture, 20th Century: This is a small collection of paintings of a private collector, with the majority being works of Picasso and then to a smaller extent, Klee. I spent about an hour and a half here though neither of these artists are really my ‘thing’. Picasso is very well represented, with works from his different periods which make an easy study for someone learning about him. There are some excellent drawings of his as well. I have seen a museum full of Paul Klee’s work in Bern, so I did not linger much over him.
J. Brücke Museum, German Expressionists, 20th Century : I failed to find this !! I went to the BVG (Public transport) Information desk near the Zoo and was given wrong directions by two wet-behind-the-years young men. At the place where I landed up, I asked directions of the only four non-English speaking Germans in the whole of Berlin !! Not much luck there…The museum isn’t marked in the BVG map either. If you would like to go there, its best to Google the information beforehand. It would take at least 45 minutes from the centre of Berlin I reckon. I was keen given that I like German expressionists but this was a failed mission and I had to give up after wasting a couple of hours.
k. Neues Museum, Egyptian Antiquities, pre & early-historical European historical artefacts : I was lucky. This had just opened a few weeks before I went. Its worth a visit if for nothing else but to admire the building. They have integrated the old bombed out remains with the new portion in a very interesting way. The famous bust of Nefertiti is housed here; she is worth the hype, a stunning sculpture beautifully displayed. But this museum has far more to offer than Nefertiti and though I hurried, it took me more than two hours here. It’s mostly Egyptian antiquities but there are artefacts from early history as well.
l. Pergamon Museum, European antiquities, Islamic Art and Near-Eastern Art : I had been here before and loved it; this was a second visit. Its a great museum and has stunning artefacts on display but even just three of them, from my point of view, make it worth the visit – all others are icing on the cake. The Pergamon Altar is breathtaking and photographs don’t do it any justice. The Ishtar Gate left me speechless the first time I saw it, and I came away this time with more details etched in my mind. The Islamic Art collection is beautiful, but the room from Aleppo is simply exquisite.
I had planned to take in some art galleries and visit Potsdam or even go to Dresden once I had finished seeing the museums on my list. But in truth I was quite content to devote myself to the low-brow activities of window shopping, eatery hopping and book browsing for the rest of my holiday. Even for devoted museum fans like myself, it seems that there is a limit to what one can see in a week 🙂
For those of my friends who are wondering what happened to my better-but-less-interested-in-museums-half, he was in Argentina on business that week. I am including a picture of the soccer game he attended so that he does not feel left out 🙂
So what’s left for me ?
I need to return to see at least some works on paper in the Graphic arts museum, to find the Brücke museum and to see the permanent collection of the Neues Nationalgalerie. In addition, I would like to see the Jewish Museum, the Technical Museum and the Bodes museum as well. With so many competing priorities, it will probably be a number of years before I return to Berlin…too bad, I like it very well indeed!!