Not my birthday. I’m not ready for another of those, just yet. My friend Ollie’s. And we celebrated with a nice wander around the heart of Berlin and a visit to the remarkable Neues Museum.
The Neues Museum is situated on the ‘Museum Island’, amongst some of the grandest and greatest old public buildings of the city, but it is, itself, a re-born building, recreated from a badly war-damaged original – over a period of many years – under the management of the architect David Chipperfield.
It is not a ‘kitsch’ recreation of the original: it is a combination of the remnants of the C19th building with modern elements .. something that we have seen, time and again, can be either an great and imaginative success or an uncomfortable neither-one-thing-or-the-other flop.
This one – with its wonderful, uncluttered, looming rooms and crypts and its dizzily monolithic staircase -- is a great and imaginative success, one of the most enjoyable old-new exhibition buildings I have ever seen. And the collection – largely of Egyptian relics – that it has been built to house, make up a really enjoyable museum-visit.
The Big Star Item of the collection is the famous bust of Nefertiti, perfectly housed and lit, in a dark room (photographs not allowed) in a kind of space canister. However, I was just a tad disappointed in Nefertiti. She was just too perfect, too painted, her restored (?) nose impossibly pert, her make-up looking as if it could have been done yesterday. I grew up with a repro Nefertiti in the museum of Wellington, NZ. She was a little tatty, and somehow more convincing.
But there was plenty less famous material here to see and enjoy, the Egyptian items mixed with ancient pieces from other parts of the world – splendid! history is ‘of the world’ after all, not of just one area – and if we skipped through the cases of bronze-age adzes (sorry, one adze to me is just like another), we found plenty to admire as we struggled to refresh our knowledge of such subjects as the Egyptian pantheon and ancient funerary rites. Splendid statuary and sarcophagi, beautiful mummies and grave objects, and amongst all the major pieces, some marvellous little gods and animals and even a skeletal elk!
The Neues Museum is, for me, with or without Nefertiti, a total success. Both the building and the collection. And we spent a splendid 90 minutes doing the rounds before moving back into the modern world, and on to a sushi supper at Prenzlauerberg…
A decidedly nice way to spend a birthday. Even someone else’s.
Postscript: on our way, Ollie introduced me to his favourite Denkmal (‘monument’). It is now one of mine, too. The subject commemorated is the devastating 1933 Nazi episode of ‘the burning of the books’, and the monument is below ground. You look, at your feet, through a glass panel set in the cobbles of the Bebelplatz and you see … nothing. Rows of achingly empty white bookshelves. It may sound simple, but its effect is chilling.