Neues Museum reopens, not without controversy

Berlin’s Neues Museum, boasting ancient treasures such as a famous bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti and a magnificent Bronze Age golden hat, is finally reopening to the public after standing for decades as a bomb-damaged shell.

The museum opening will mark the first time since World War II that the whole of Berlin’s neoclassical Museum Island complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been open.

“It is a special day … 70 years after it was closed, this building can be handed over to the public again,” Hermann Parzinger, the head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s museums, said Thursday. “It is, in a way, the end of the postwar era for the Museum Island.”

The museum’s best-known exhibit is the limestone-and-stucco bust of Nefertiti, which dates back to about 1340 B.C.. The graceful, delicately detailed piece was found by German archeologists in 1912 and went on display at the Neues Museum in 1924.

Also given pride of place is the “Berlin golden hat,” a tall, conical artifact made of hammered gold and decorated with astronomic symbols including the moon. It dates back to about 1000 B.C. and may have been used as the ceremonial hat of a high priest or ruler.

The Neues Museum, designed by Prussian architect Friedrich August Stueler, first opened to the public in 1855.

Stueler worked “to bring art collections with differing directions and from different origins together here in such a way that it was possible to take a walk through the earliest cultures of humanity,” Berlin museums director Michael Eissenhauer said.

The restored Neues Museum reflects that approach, bringing together Berlin’s Egyptian collection with its artifacts from the prehistoric and later eras, along with some of the city’s classical antiquities.

The museum shut at the beginning of the war in 1939, and the contents were put into storage. Major bomb damage went largely unrepaired by cash-strapped East Germany, and it has taken until now for the exhibits to return.

British architect David Chipperfield’s $298 million restoration, completed in March, incorporates original material that survived wartime bombing and decades of exposure to the weather.

A faux-Egyptian painted ceiling hangs over a room dedicated to the history of Egyptology, while monumental sarcophagi are exhibited below 19th-century murals depicting scenes from the Nile Valley.

The museum “is a palace for things marked by history that itself is marked by history,” said Matthias Wemhoff, who is in charge of the prehistoric collection. Link.

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As exciting as it is the see the museum reopened after 70 years, it isn’t without controversy as this article from the New York Times points out.

Culture lovers reveled in the reopening of the Neues Museum in the heart of Berlin on Friday, the culmination of decades of efforts to renovate the site, which was destroyed during World War II.

But the celebrations have been marred by a growing dispute between the German and Egyptian governments over the star of the show: the 3,500-year-old limestone-and-stucco bust of Queen Nefertiti, a wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Nefertiti has been in Germany since 1913. But now Egypt is demanding that the fragile object, perched alone in a domed room that overlooks the length of the museum, be returned home.

Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told German newspapers over the past few days that Nefertiti belonged to Egypt.

In interviews with Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger and Spiegel Online, Mr. Hawass said an official investigation had been started into how Nefertiti arrived in Germany. “If she left Egypt illegally, which I am convinced she did, then I will officially demand it back from Germany,” he said.

German art experts deny that Nefertiti was taken out of Egypt illegally.

Mr. Hawass made his comments just weeks after Egypt’s culture minister, Farouk Hosny, complained over his failure to win election as the new director of the United Nations culture agency, UNESCO, based in Paris.

Once considered a front-runner, Mr. Hosny stirred controversy because of remarks made in 2008, when he told the Egyptian Parliament that he would burn Israeli books if he found them in a library in Egypt.

Even though he distanced himself from those remarks, the United States, France and others fought his appointment.

A German Foreign Ministry official said there was “no connection between the Egyptian request to have Nefertiti returned and the outcome of the Unesco vote.” The official, who requested anonymity according to diplomatic protocol, would not say how Germany voted.

Days after Mr. Hosny’s defeat, Mr. Hawass accused France of stealing antiquities — including five painted wall fragments dating from the Pharaohs that ended up in the Louvre in 2000 and 2003 — and insisted that they be returned.

After Egypt threatened to suspend cooperation for exhibitions organized with the Louvre as well as any work done by the Louvre on the pharaonic necropolis of Saqqara, south of Cairo, France’s culture minister said his country was ready to return the antiquities if they were stolen.

In the case of Nefertiti, Mr. Hawass said that Egyptian officials may have been misled over how the bust had been taken to Germany in 1913, but several German art experts disagreed.

“There was a complete understanding about what would remain in Egypt and what would be taken to Germany,” said Monika Grütters, an art historian and cultural expert in the Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel. She added, “The process was legal.”

According to Der Spiegel, a document written in 1924 that was found in the archives of the German Oriental Company recounted a meeting in 1913 between a senior Egyptian official and the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, who found the bust during a dig in 1912.

The secretary of the German Oriental Company, who was present at the meeting, said it had been called to divide up the spoils of the dig between Germany and Egypt. He claimed that Mr. Borchardt “wanted to save the bust for us.” Link.

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