Dr Julien Drouart
Neues Museum: Meet Queen Nefertiti
Updated: Jan 11, 2022
The Neues Museum is the state museum for the city's Egyptian collections. It has beautiful architecture and some remarkable exhibits.
The Neues Museum deserves your attention.
The history of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, which was built around monumental challenges and new ambitions, namely those of a universal cultural capital in the making, curiously follows the history of national identity from the time of the German Confederation until the Reunification. The Egyptian collections, which had been on display at Monbijou Castle for a time, were relocated to the New Museum (Neues Museum) in the middle of the 18th century in a complex that gradually became the Museum Island.
The works of art were initially acquired from donors and the Sultanate of Egypt. Archaeological expeditions later led to the acquisition of numerous relics, and in 1913 the Egyptian Museum obtained its masterpiece: the bust of Nefertiti. An extraordinary ancient treasure whose authenticity is becoming increasingly controversial, the bust was to remain in Germany. Evacuated to a safe zone, it was spared during the Second World War when the Neues Museum was severely damaged during the Allied bombing of the city.
As a result of the German division, the bust of Nefertiti was displayed in a further museum, this time in West Berlin, in Charlottenburg. It was not until the reunification years and the restoration of the Neues Museum that the Egyptian collections returned to the Museum Island in 2009. Today, the Neues Museum is one of the most visited national museums in Germany.
This is not an Egyptology Museum
The restoration of the building under the direction of the British architect David Chipperfield is in every way grand and majestic. It is a remarkable architectural feat in which the original elements, notably the exterior facades still bearing the scars of the war, are perfectly enhanced by an impressive interior design. Some of the rooms reverse the perspectives, playing on the sometimes colossal and sometimes intimate spaces. The combination of new and old makes for total immersion.
This incredible impression remains constant, but it perhaps exacerbates the various problems associated with a sometimes inconsistent, if not antagonistic, museography. Firstly, the Egyptian collections share the space of the museum's four floors with those devoted to prehistory and protohistory, the archaeological excavations carried out in Berlin, and here and there the addition of ancient or medieval elements. Like the Egyptian Museum, other museums have had their collections relocated to the Museum Island and the Neues Museum.
The result is a rather incoherent collection. The Egyptian collections never occupy an entire floor and are instead unevenly distributed over all four floors. This is disappointing. Secondly, the Egyptian collections lack a clear chronological thread and combine artefacts from different centuries and millennia in the same room. The inconsistency of the informative inserts and the wobbliness of the audio guide make the visit an essentially contemplative experience, at least as far as the non-specialist is concerned.
The bust of Nefertiti alone is worth the trip
Clearly, the excellence of the restored premises contrasts with the ultimately unstructured museography. Although the Egyptian collections are uneven in terms of quality and quantity and are presented in different ways, they remain the museum's main interest. The fact remains that the Neues Museum is not a documentation centre on ancient Egypt but an exhibition space and, in view of certain absolutely grandiose artefacts, a visit can be content with the contemplative without detracting from the museum's educational dimension.
Despite the criticisms and controversies about the restoration of the building, the authenticity of certain elements or a possibly disconcerting museography, seeing the bust of Nefertiti is a wonderful and unique experience. Of course, a museum can hardly be reduced to its single centrepiece, and yet that is the case here. The enigmatic smile of the Egyptian queen beckons the visitor in a moment of great delight. Nefertiti the Egyptian turned Berliner?
So, if you choose your time carefully to avoid the crowds on holidays and weekends, and if you ignore the inquisitive eyes of the museum guards, whether it's for 30 minutes or three hours, whether it's with your family, in your free time, on a guided tour or on your own, you'll be sure to meet Nefertiti. Note that admission is free for minors and that adults can benefit from a very advantageous day ticket allowing them to visit all the national museums in the framework of what will then be an unforgettable cultural journey.
Reasons to go
A beautifully restored building
The bust of Nefertiti
A remarkable Egyptian collection in the basement
Reasons to avoid
Lack of a chronological thread
An unsatisfactory and uncertain audio guide
The impression of a catch-all museum