Berlin is a fantastic city, dripping in history and culture. The city has had many drastic and distinct transformations, from its roots in the early 13th century to the present day. For a fascinating sample of the city’s culture, below are my favourite museums that are a must-see if you are in Berlin.
me Collectors Room & Olbricht Foundation
This eclectic and often perplexing space, found on charming Auguststraße, makes you appreciate its name “moving energies” (me). Settled comfortably in the Mitte district, this untraditional gallery spans over two floors. The ground floor hosts temporary exhibitions that candidly challenge preconceptions of contemporary issues and of art itself. Upstairs is an extensive assortment of private art donated by Thomas Olbricht, a German chemist and doctor of medicine. This permanent exhibition includes Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities. These cabinets were begun to indicate a lust for knowledge and adventure, a concept originating from the Baroque and Renaissance period. Essentially it is a fusion of peculiar objects, including a 235cm narwhal tusk, a sphere crafted out of interlinking mice skulls, an Edu (Japanese siren) created from fish skin, teeth and claws, as well as a 19th century shrunken head and a figurine of a dissected pregnant woman. At the entrance is a gift shop and café that offers you the chance to absorb the collection, alongside an essential free audio guide and information sheets.
ME Museum | Interlinking mice skulls
Snugly situated on the Kupfergraben side of Museuminsel (Museum Island) sits the striking Pergamon Museum – an unassuming building that houses ancient Near East and Classical antiquities, as well as Islamic art. After queuing along a corridor of columns, you enter the museum on the ground floor and, although appearing large, the museum itself is relatively small with only two floors. Begin at the Pergamon altar, a Greek religious monument depicting a Gigantomachy, a battle between gods and giants. Fully excavated in 1886, this 40ft altar was so large that the museum was rebuilt in 1930 to house it. The spectacular altar was constructed around 170 B.C. and the contemporary Gigantomachy theme allegorises the struggle between good and evil, civilisation and chaos.
Leaving behind this Hellenistic splendour, you walk into the Trajaneum hall to find the striking market gate of Miletus from 100 A.D. The Ishtar gate of Babylon waits in the adjoining room – a fantastically colourful feature of ancient Near Eastern history that looms overhead as you walk underneath (while straining your neck to take it all in). Moving further into the room, you will see the lions of the goddess Ishtar that decorate the processional way of Babylon—deterrents for any enemies daring to breach the gateway. A variety of artefacts from Assyria, Asia Minor and Mesopatamia fill the rooms deviating from the corridor. Tear yourself away from this floor to explore the vibrant Islamic art above, including an intricate reception room from an Assyrian merchant of the 17th century. Also on this floor is the Mshatta hall, with an elaborate section of a Caliph’s palace, apparently dating back to 740 A.D. Pick up the audio guide upon arrival for more in-depth coverage of the exhibits, including musical accompaniment.
Pergamon alter | Lions of the goddess Ishtar
Deutsches Technikmuseum / German Museum of Technology
As their leaflet states, this is a museum for explorers. Consisting of a large compilation of buildings, it is heaven for tech fans as they investigate the history of technology. Start in the old building which houses exhibitions on textile equipment and computers, including the world’s first built in the 1930s. The most remarkable part of the museum, however, is the new building. Here you will find a menagerie of planes hanging from the ceiling, towering steam engines and immense ships, one of which you are even invited to embark. Also on display is 18th century balloon technology, aircraft wicker chairs from the 1920s, a Biber midget submarine and anti-aircraft missiles. Diverging from the new building is the engine shed that hosts a number of trains, with the earliest dating back to 1816 and the youngest to 1980. The museum doesn’t end here, though. It also offers exhibitions on jewellery production, photography and film, including interactive holograms, projection theatres, flick books and zoetropes. A peaceful contrast to this assault on the senses can be found in the museum park with several windmills and a forge. The excellent €2 audio guide will help you dissect and understand this pertinent piece of history.
Situated in the Olympic Stadium’s former signal room since 1997, this small but quaint museum covers over 100 years of Berlin U-Bahn history. Walk between two U-Bahn decorative train fronts and ascend a flight of stairs to enter a floor that is crammed full of train trinkets. These are distributed among five interlinking rooms and reveal the intricate work of the city’s underground. Littering the entrance hall are train maps from 1913 to 1983, old station signs, and an old ticket window from 1913. Head to the left and walk into a large signal cabin with a sea of levers and pulleys as far as the eye can see. An original from 1913, the signal box is over 13m long with more than 150 levers. In the adjoining room more signal equipment adorns the walls. An interesting feature is the picture gallery of U-Bahn train interiors, revealing how the very first seats from 1902 were mere wooden ones. Although all descriptions are German, there is a free English pamphlet available. Don’t be afraid to tinker with the exhibits, including the interactive train dispatcher’s platform, with a working microphone and video screen.
Museum für Film und Fernsehen / Museum of Film and Television
This small, but glamorous museum calls the developed area of Potsdamer Platz home. Opened since 1963 in the Filmhaus, it has permanent exhibitions spread over two floors chronicling 100 years of German film and TV. Chronologically laid out, you begin in the 19th century when cinema was first created as an industry. You’re immediately introduced to this image conscious world with a room full of mirrors and screens that continuously flash with images of actors and actresses. The Weimar Republic, from 1918-1933, is a highlight as it exposes violent themes uncannily prophetic of WWII, such as technology and horror. Yet the most fabulous section is the wing dedicated to Marlene Dietrich, whose life is preserved and presented with the utmost care. This includes her 1944 military certificate from when she entertained the troops during WWII. Film throughout the years 1933-1943 is exposed with displays on the artists exiled from Germany and who took refuge in Hollywood. Separated and much smaller, is the TV section that has an engulfing 30 minute presentation as its chief exhibition, found in the psychedelic hall of mirrors. Make sure to visit midweek to fully absorb yourself into this fascinating world of film.
Film Museum, Hall of Mirrors
Alte Nationalgalerie / Old National Gallery
This stunning building, nestled in the middle of Museum Island in the district of Mitte, was opened in 1876. The three-tiered 19th century Old National Gallery houses paintings and sculptures from the same period. Start with classicist sculptures on the first floor to see beautiful creations such as Christian Daniel Rauch’s graceful “Seated Victoria”. The small adjoining rooms take you on a tour of realism art, including Franz Krüger’s epic painting “Parade on the Opernplatz”, focusing on contemporary Berlin society. Vying for your attention also is Adolph Menzel’s impressive landscapes, alongside Franz Von Stuck, whose “Tilla Durieux Depicting Circe” portrait entices you to openly gawp for hours.
Neo-baroque sculptures welcome you on the second floor, including Carl Caver’s “Witch”, a powerful and determined, bat-wing clad woman glaring at you as you continue into the room. Also found here is Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker”, a small but powerful sculpture with an air of melancholy about it. The elegant painting “In the Conservatory”, by Édouard Manet, is another highlight. More idealism and impressionism art line the walls, including Victor Müller’s brilliant “Salome with the head of John”, portraying an unwilling, but dangerous and seductive woman.
Classicism and romanticism saturate the third floor, such as works by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose “Castle by the River” is magnificently idyllic with its ephemeral tones. Contrasting such impressions is the almost apocalyptic scene of August Kopisch’s “The Pontine Marshes at Sunset”, a particularly thoughtful piece when eyed with today’s environmental issues in mind. Carl Blechen’s works are also moving, with a myriad of astonishing scenes.
If you’re not an art connoisseur, do not worry as the free audio guide will help explain and guide you through the museum’s immense collection of 19th century art.