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Berlin Aiming to Be Europe's Cultural Jewel


BERLIN — Now this is an island to get marooned on.

Five major museums spanning the history of art, each linked by subterranean passageways offering hints of the treasures above. A colonnaded walkway enclosing a grassy courtyard, all lapped by the lazy flow of Berlin's Spree River.

Finally on the mend after six decades that witnessed bombings, lootings and division, the once-glorious Museum Island is proving that art does triumph over adversity.

An ambitious 15-year project to restore all the museums on the tiny island will transform this German capital into the cultural heart of Europe, proponents insist. Once completed, the insular gem will dwarf Paris' vaunted Louvre in both the size and scope of its exhibits and offer visitors a more convenient art experience than the widely scattered museums of Rome and London, they say.

In politics, economics, foreign relations and social welfare, Germany already sets the pace in Europe. Now Berlin has set its sights on the cultural crown, and its art stewards are furiously tunneling and hammering their way toward that title--and hoping that funding glitches in the $1.3-billion project don't slow them down.

"We are creating a whole new Germany with these museums," boasts Peter-Klaus Schuster, director of the Prussian Cultural Foundation, which administers most of the country's art collections. "The idea is to tell the whole story of art, from the antiquities to the present, in one great cultural center."

He likens the emerging art complex to the Roman Forum, "where you move from temple to temple and see how civilization developed."

Museum Island in its heyday existed for only 15 years, although the first construction, the Altes Museum designed and built by Berlin's renowned architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, opened in 1830. It was another century before the fifth structure, the Pergamon Museum housing classical antiquities, was completed in 1930. By then, Germany was in the grip of a depression so severe that it gave Adolf Hitler a path to power three years later.

Allied bombing at the end of World War II destroyed 70% of the structures on Museum Island, and the postwar division of the city left the looted and ruined buildings in the Communist eastern sector, where there was never the money to rebuild.

The Pergamon Museum was the cultural jewel of the East German capital, with its namesake altar and other purloined treasures, such as the Babylonian Processional Way, the market gate from Miletus in Asia Minor and the Ishtar Gate. But the Neues Museum, completed by Schinkel student Friedrich August Stueler in 1859, was left in ruins after the war and will reopen only in 2008 after a $250-million reconstruction.

The challenge and opportunity to restore Berlin's short-lived legacy as the aspiring cultural capital of the continent emerged less than a dozen years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. Now that the Reichstag parliament building has been refurbished and a new chancellery completed, the Museum Island works have risen to the top of the priority list in the city, whose skyline remains dominated by cranes and scaffolding.

The first fruits of the project are already visible on the horizon. Restoration of the Alte Nationalgalerie has just been completed, and curators are eagerly awaiting return of the paintings and sculptures that will be displayed there once the museum reopens Dec. 2. The artworks have been touring while the painters and plasterers were at work and were most recently on display at the National Gallery in Washington.

Next to reopen will be the Bode Museum in 2005, the 100th anniversary of its debut. Some of its collection of late antiquities and Byzantine art is now displayed at the neighboring Pergamon but will be returned to the Bode after a face lift by Viennese architect Heinz Tesar.

Once the Neues Museum opens three years later, the Egyptian Collection and the Museum for Pre- and Early History will be housed there. Among the museum's belongings now in foster care is the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti from 1340 B.C. A new glass-paneled entrance designed by British architect David Chipperfield will augment the original structure.

The Altes Museum and the Pergamon--the only two Museum Island venues now open--will be the last to be spruced up, with reconstruction to begin respectively in 2006 and 2007. The U-shaped Pergamon will get a new connecting tract between its north and south wings to create an inner courtyard and provide access to the underground passageways.

As with most construction works in Berlin, a city built on sand and ubiquitously challenged by rising ground water, the museum projects have encountered numerous problems with rotten foundations and flooded cellars.

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