Extracts from chapter 3. Cultural Landscapes

(Extracts from Berlin for Young People)

Perspectives and Projects

by Michael Bienert
Since 2006, Berlin can no longer boast having an official Senator of Culture. This office has simply merged with the duties of the Governing Mayor. The city’s budget for culture has risen regularly during past years, reaching an amount of over 400 million. Regarded as a Culture Senator, but without this title, State Secretary Tim Renner has been managing the promotion of art and culture in the capital city since 2014. A former radio journalist, Tim Renner has a background in the music industry, and spent several years successfully running Universal Music. As he took office, Renner was considered an interim solution until the next parliamentary elections in the Fall of 2016. Who will then set a new course through the realm of cultural politics, nobody knows.

The fact that Berlin’s good reputation as a city of culture was not ruined by these drastic saving measures is owed first and foremost to the German Government and the Bundestag. During the past years, the federal politicians have helped Berlin out of its financial troubles time and again by taking over the financing of institutions like the Akademie der Künste, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the Jewish Museum Berlin or large building projects, such as the restorations of the Staatsoper and the Staatsbibliothek. Otherwise this economically weak city would not be capable of financing so many museums, theaters and festivals on its own. Meanwhile, the Federal Government spends more money for culture in Berlin than the Senate, who is actually responsible for its financing: according to the Constitution, the German Länder are responsible for the culture budget. However, Berlin being the capital poses an exception: it does not only represent Berliners, it represents the entire nation as a whole.

From a foreign perspective, Berlin is considered to be the showcase of the entire country of Germany. Consequently, it is not in any Federal Government’s interest to see some highly regarded Berliner cultural institutions close down or dry-out financially. As a result, the shock caused by the global financial crisis has had very little impact on Berlin’s cultural landscape since 2008. Both Federal Government and Senate reacted in an anti-cyclical manner: they simply continued spending money with no regard to mounting debt until the next economic upturn.

During the first years after the Wall collapsed and the cultural landscape of the competing half-cities East- and West-Berlin had to be re-organized, the responsible parties were not shy when it came to closing down established cultural institutions. The Schiller Theater was pronounced dead by the Senate in 1993; the ensemble closed down and its location was rented to private theater companies. In the 90’s, the then-presiding Senate not only closed down the “Schiller-Theater” but the “Staatliche Kunsthalle” as well, where new modern works by visual artists were exhibited. Although contemporary art was booming in a newly-reunited Berlin – which has led to the foundation of numerous private galleries, to the establishment of new art fairs and the Berlin Biennale festival – those important artists working in the city did not find adequate locations and spaces for larger exhibitions of their work back then.

You would actually expect to find contemporary Berliner art at the Berlinische Galerie or the Hamburger Bahnhof, the National Galerie’s “Museum der Gegenwart”. Until recently, rather than promoting Berlin’s artists, the Hamburger Bahnhof preferred the big collectors who brought high-caliber contemporary art for which there was no acquisition budget. That’s why the private collections Marx and Flick dominate the museum. Since 2009, when Udo Kittelmann took over the direction, a fresh spirit of innovation is coursing through Hamburger Bahnhof. He has gone to great lengths in making the museum more attractive to families and to Berlin’s cultural scene.

Plans for a new inner-city art center as well as the expansion of the Stadtmuseum (Marinehaus) were scrapped in 2011/12 due to a shortage of funds. The senate was pressing for a new cultural lighthouse: a new “forward-thinking” center for the Berlin Central Library and the State Library built on the edge of the Tempelhof Airport grounds. Construction on the the airport grounds was rejected by the majority of Berlin’s voters at a referendum in May 2014. Instead, they’re now considering an expansion project for the America Memorial Library, which was being discussed already in the 90’s: back then, the foundation for a building extension had been laid and shortly thereafter, the whole project was nixed due to lack of funds. Librarians remain skeptical about moving into a new building any time soon. There is hope for the Stadtmuseum since Dutchman Paul Spies was hired as its director in 2016. He was granted 65 millions euros in order to renovate the Märkische Museum. In his previous position as the director of the Amsterdam Museum, Mr. Spies had built up a network of international connections, from which the Stadtmuseum Berlin can hopefully benefit in order to gain a more cosmopolitan standing.

The Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz is currently the envy of the city’s other cultural institutions: the Stiftung surprisingly received a 200 million cash infusion from the Federal Government in 2014 in order to solve some of their most pressing issues: for one, the New National Gallery at the Kulturforum has too little exhibition space, especially for classical modernism. They have been closed to the public since the start of 2015 due to several years of renovations.

Thanks to the Federal Government, there’s at least money for the much anticipated Museum der Moderne for 20th century art. They intend on building it next to Neue Nationalgalerie at the Kulturforum. In the years to come, small portions of their early 20th century art collection will be on display at changing locations, mainly in the Neue Galerie, located at Hamburger Bahnhof as a temporary solution.

At Schlossplatz, Berlin’s most ambitious cultural project, the Humboldt-Forum, has reached the next stage of construction now that the foundation has been completed. The Stadtschloss, which was heavily damaged during the Second World War and dynamited following orders of GDR-leaders in 1950, is due to be rebuilt as a modern cultural palace with a baroque façade. Since the reunification, it has been the subject of heated debates as to what would become of this location. There is a consensus that it should be exclusively reserved for cultural purposes. This former Hohenzollern residence was transformed into a museum already back after the end of the Kaiserreich Empire during the Weimarer Republic. The former East-German Republic established a multi-functional cultural center in the Palast der Republik inaugurated in 1976, in which the GDR-People’s court resided as well. However, this was first and foremost “Erich’s (Honecker) lamp store”, a popular venue for concerts, shows, small artistry, exhibitions and gastronomy. In 2008, the last asbestos-infested relics from this prominent GDR-symbol finally disappeared from the face of the earth. The Bundestag (House of Representatives) decided to rebuild most of the façade and establish a Humboldt-Forum in the building. The conceptual design of Franco Stella from Italy, who was able to win the architectural competition, is closely following these guidelines.

The name Humboldt-Forum brings to mind the cosmopolitan brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt. While the former was leaning towards the humanities, the latter had a strong affinity for the natural sciences. The ethnological collections of the Stiftung Preußischer Kurlturbesitz (presently still in Dahlem) as well as the natural science collections of the Humboldt University will be exhibited in the Humboldt-Forum. In addition, one section of the Zentral and Landesbibliothek will move in as well. Wilhelm von Humboldt greatly influenced the modern concept of education while displaying the archetypal personality which develops and grows through commitment to culture. The Humboldt Forum will be a laboratory for this notion of culture, just as the first Berlin University – which Wilhelm Humboldt helped establish – was conceived as a laboratory for humanistic education. By the time you learn of its founding director, appointed in 2016, it becomes evident that it’s one of Germany’s most prominent museum projects: Scotsman Neil MacGregor is a world-class museum director who successfully navigated the British Museum in London for 13 years.

The idea of the Humboldt-Forum is noncontroversial, (as opposed to its architectural expression) because it is casually integrated in Berlin’s general museum history. The very first museum was actually the Royal Treasure Chambers in the Hohenzollern Palace, in which art objects, various specimen and all sorts of exotic things from all over the world were deposited. As an antithesis to the Palace, Karl Friedrich Schinkel conceived Berlin’s first museum building on the opposite side of the Lustgarten: the Altes Museum, completed in 1830. Soon, it became too small. Until 1930, the half-island area behind Schinkel’s art temple was filled by the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode-Museum and the Pergamon Museum. Today, the Museum Island is included in the UNESCO World Culture Heritage and is one of the city’s strongest tourist magnets. The renovations and new furnishing of each house, which began after the reunification, are expected to drag on until 2025 and cost at least 1.5 billion euros. The construction of a new entrance building at the Kupfergraben was late to start in 2013, because the marshy subsurface had once again caused a massive delay and an enormous budget deficit. British architect David Chipperfield was entrusted with the planning after his splendid success in creating an exemplary symbiosis of the old and the new in the reconstruction of the Neues Museum, which was completed in 2009.

Pertaining to space and substance, Frank Stella’s Humboldt-Forum will expand the Museum Island with the cultural heritage of non-European countries and the natural sciences. This ambitious plan is aspiring to create a kind of “Berlin Louvre” right in the middle of the city; a universal museum that shares the cultural history of humanity since antiquity.

Since the end of the Middle Ages, the palace had always been the power center of the city until the last Kaiser abdicated in 1918. Thanks to the cultural treasures which the Prussian kings and emperors had amassed, there was no vacuum left behind. In the future, the cultural resplendence should be enhanced with the expansion of the Museum Island and with the Humboldt-Forum. From there, only a few steps will lead to the Staatsoper, to the Deutsches Historisches Museum, to Humboldt University and to the imposing Staatsbibliothek Unter den Linden. The City Center as a treasure chamber, as a place of beauty, as a forum for discussion and a place for cultural education: this is the vision Berlin is building towards.

The author also publishes books and current culture news at, the blog and the Facebook page