Given the international archaeology carried out by institutions in Berlin, as well as the city’s place in the more recent history of the West, not surprisingly there are some of the finest archaeology and history museums in Berlin.

Archaeology in Berlin display in the Neues Museum, Museuminsel.
The 'Archaeology in Berlin' display at the Neues Museum on Museuminsel, Berlin.

While there is no single designated ‘archaeology museum of Berlin,’ the German capital city has an exception set of archaeology and history museums. The history of the collections housed in these museums is as fascinating as the objects therein, starting with curiosities collected by the House of the Hohenzollern to artefacts recovered by German archaeologists working at some of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Many of these collections, managed by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (the Berlin State Museums), are housed in one of the most iconic museum settings in the world, that is Museuminsel.

And of course Berlin has been at the centre of European politics for at least 200 years. Numerous sites and museums around the city present this history for visitors to Berlin. These range from the more serious but not less interesting GDR Museum – the only museum entirely dedicated to all aspects of life in the former German Democratic Republic – to the fun Currywurst Museum. In fact it is said there are over 170 museums in Berlin.

Museuminsel across the Spree River by night.

Looking across the Spree River to the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museuminsel.

The northern section of the island in the Spree River, as it flows through the Mitte district of Berlin, is known as Museuminsel. Today it is home to five of the most outstanding museums in Berlin. When the James-Simon-Gallerie opens, which will act as the visitors centre, there will be close on 200 years of museum architecture on the island. Together these museums display collections of prehistoric artefacts to the objects of 19th century, from many areas throughout the world.

The Altes Museum was the first to be erected. Early in the 1800s King Friederich Wilhelm III of Prussia decided that the royal collection of ancient art should be on public display. Designed by Karl Friederich Schinkel, the Königliches Museum was opened in 1830. In 1841 it was renamed when Friederich Wilhelm’s son declared the island an area of art and science, and the Neues Museum was constructed.

A selection of artefacts in four of the museums on Museuminsel.

From top left, clockwise: a slab from a chancel screen from 12th century Constantinople in Turkey (Bode-Museum); Desert Palace of Mashatta in Jordan (Pergamon Museum); Neanderthal skull from Le Moustier in France (Neues Museum); the Medea Sarcophagus from Rome in Italy (Altes Museum).

During the early stages of World War II, the collections left the island for safety. After the war, and following the division of Berlin, so too were the collections divided. Museuminsel was located in East Berlin, but had suffered significant damage during World War II. Some of the museums were restored, but it was not until the unification of Germany did all artefacts return to Museuminsel. There followed a significant re-organising of the collections and exhibitions, as well as a substantial programme of renovation and development.

Four of the five museums will be connected by an ‘archaeological promenade’. Located at the basement level of each museum, this promenade will not only physically connect the great archaeological collections of these museums, but it will also provide a thematic connection between the collections displayed in these museums. The idea of connecting the museums and their collections was part of the original plans for the island dating back to the mid 19th century. The physical bridges and walkways were so destroyed during World War II that they were demolished and not rebuilt. In 1999 during the creation of a new masterplan, the idea of creating connections via basements was developed. Parts of this promenade are still under construction.

So significant are the collections and indeed the buildings in which they are exhibited, Museuminsel was added to the UNESCO list of world heritage sites in 1999.

Tickets can be bought for each museum individually, or jointly. In fact there are a number of different options available for tickets for museums on Museuminsel and Berlin >> or read on for more about each of the five museums on the museum island.

Altes Museum

The striking Neoclassical façade that serves as the entrance to the Altes Museum on Museuminsel.

The Altes Museum was the first of the five museums, built between 1823 and 1830. The building is itself an important example of Neoclassical architecture. The entrance of sweeping steps leading to 18 monumental columns and on to a grand staircase and the rotunda based on the Pantheon in Rome. These are architectural features that were until this period reserved for the residences of royal palaces.

Exhibitions are spread over two floors. The first floor has 12 galleries displaying art from ancient Greece beginning with the 10th century BC and ending with the 1st century BC. On the second floor are eight galleries displaying Etruscan and Roman Art. The collection of Etruscan objects is the largest outside of Italy. Do not miss the striking Green Caesar and Cleopatra.

The final gallery has a wonderfully innovative display of the history of the Classical Collection on display in the Altes Museum.

The Altes Museum houses the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Collection of Classical Antiquities (Antikensammlung, which includes Greek, Etruscan and Roman art, and the collections of antique coins, Numismatic Collection or the Münzkabinett.

Rome – Faces of the Empire, one of the galleries of Classical art in the Altes Museum.

Neues Museum

The Egyptian Courtyard in the Neues Museum, remnants of the original artwork survived damage during the war.

Neues Museum was the second museum on Museuminsel, having been built between 1843 and 1855. The building is considered a major landmark in 19th century museum construction and technology, applying building techniques made possible by industrialisation, such as the use of a steam engine to sink pilings into the river bed for the buildings foundations. Although partly destroyed during the second World War, other museums with similarly Neoclassical and ornate interiors, the Glyptothek and Alte Pinakothek in Munich, were much more severely destroyed in World War II. The Neues Museum then gives us one of the last remaining chances to see German interior museum layout from the 19th century. Initial restoration was carried out in the 1980s, but the most substantial renovation and refurbishment took place between 2003 and 2009, under plans from the British architect David Chipperfield.

Spread over 4 levels are displays from Scandinavia to North Africa, from the Atlantic to the Middle East; from prehistory to the Middle Ages. Perhaps one of the most well known artefacts is the bust of Nefertiti, but there are many other equally striking objects, including the Bronze Age ‘Berlin Golden Hat’, the Xanten Youth, and Berlin Green Head. Amongst the oldest is the Neanderthal skull from Le Moustier near Les Eyzies in the Dordgne (France).

The displays in the Neues Museum draw on the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, the Museum of Prehistory and Early History (the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte) and the Collection of Classical art.

18th Dynasty relief fragments depicting Egyptian soldiers and Nubian mercenaries from the Temple of Hatschepsut, Luxor.

Alte Nationalgalerie

The Neoclassical Alte Nationalglerie, taking inspiration from a Roman temple.

The Nationalgalerie is one of the most significant collections of the National Museums in Berlin, a collection of artworks from 1800 to the present day. This collection is at several locations around Berlin; the 19th century is housed in the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museuminsel. The museum was built between 1867 and 1876 with a mix of late Classicism and early Renaissance styles. The main features of the building – the church-like apse, the theatrical grand staircase and overall look of a Roman temple – were used to show that there was a unity of art, nation, and history. History and nation is further alluded to with the equestrian statue of Frederick William IV at the top of the stairs, while inside the staircase is a frieze depicting principle figures of German history from prehistoric times to the 19th century.

Artworks are displayed over three levels, the first exhibits Classical sculpture, the second Idealism, Realism and Impressionism, and the third Neo-Classicism and Romanticism.

The Age of Bronze by Auguste Rodin, one of a number of French Impressionists on display.

Bode-Museum

The Great Dome and entrance to the Bode-Museum.

Entrance to the Bode Museum at the very tip of Museuminsel.

Built between 1887 and 1904, the Bode-Museum was until 1956 called the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum. Initially intended to house the Gemäldegalerie – the collection of Old Master paintings – and sculptures of the Christian era. Although some ‘Old Masters’ remain in the museum, the Gemäldegalerie is now located at the Kulturforum.

Three major collections of the National Museums in Berlin make up the galleries in the Bode-Museum. The Skulpurensammlung, which includes the largest collection of sculpture in existence from the Middle Ages to the 18th century and includes works by Donatello, Tilman Riemenschneider and Antonio Canova. The Museum of Byzantine Art has an extraordinary range of Late Antiquity and Byzantine art, from the 3rd to the 15th centuries. And finally, the Numismatic Collection has over 4,000 coins and medallions, the oldest from the 7th century BC to currencies of today.

A 6th century AD mosaic from an apse in San Michele in Africisco, Ravenna.

Pergamonmuseum

The reconstructed Ishar Gate from Babylon, Pergamon Museum.

The Pergamon Museum is the most recent of the five museums to have been built on Museuminsel, between 1910 and 1930. When constructed three wings in a U-shape housed three collections of the National Museums in Berlin. They are the Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East and the Museum of Islamic Art. The Museum is currently undergoing major refurbishment, the U-shape being closed with the addition of a fourth wing. The Pergamon is well known for its reconstructions of monumental buildings.

Two of the monumental structures in the Classical collection are the Pergamon Altar and the Market Gate of Miletus. The altar is not accessible to the public while building proceeds, a tentative date of 2023 has been given for the re-opening of the Pergamon Altar gallery.

Over 6 millennia of Near Eastern history is covered with some 500,000 artefacts. Most of these obtained for the collection by German archaeologists working at the important sites of Babylon, Assur, Uruk and Tell Halaf. The highlight of this collection is the reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way.

The collection of artefacts in the Museum of Islamic Art is one of the largest in the world. On display are artefacts from the 7th to the 19th century, the highlight of which is a portion of the façade from the caliphate palace of Mshatta.

Wall panelling from a room in Aleppo’s Christian district, Pergamon Museum.

Topography of Terrors

Looking over the remains of the ‘house prison’ to the Documentation Centre, with the Berlin Wall in the background.

In what was a school of industrial arts and crafts, from 1933 to 1945 the building at 8 Prinz-Albrecht street became the headquarters of the Secret State Police Office. Here were the offices of Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and many other men who were responsible for the crimes of the Nazis across Europe during World War II. In the south wing of the building a ‘house prison’ was set up in 1933.

The Gestapo Headquarters was bombed several times during Allies air raids, what survived was partially destroyed in 1953 and then totally destroyed in 1956. Remnants of the cellars, part of the ‘house prison’ and one of the longest sections of the Berlin Wall are used to create an extensive outdoor and indoor history museum.

Visitors are able to take a self-guided walking tour throughout the site, following information panels that chart the changing landscape from the time it was a royal palace to the post-war era. A permanent exhibition in the remains of the cellars tells the story of Berlin in the Weimar Republic. Inside the Documentation Centre displays explores the crimes perpetuated throughout Europe by the SS and police of the Third Reich … Read More About Visiting the Topography of Terrors >>

A photograph showing Nazi youths burning books, part of the photographic exhibition in the remains of the cellars.