Excavating layers of history at the Neues Museum
I’m a history buff. So, this year’s birthday present to myself was the whole day alone at Berlin’s Neues Museum.
The New Museum (so named to distinguish it from the neighboring Altes (Old) Museum) was originally constructed between 1843 and 1855 and is, essentiallym three museums in one — the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, the Museum of Prehistory and Early History and the Collection of Antiquities.
It’s most famous piece is the famous carved-limestone bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, which dates to 1345 BCE. The bust, acqired during a German-sponsored expedition to Amarna in 1912, has been the at the center of a dispute between Germany and Egypt for decades.
Egypt claims that archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt secretly smuggled the artifact out of the country in violation of the agreement that the expedition had to leave the most valuable antiquties to the home country. Germany claims to have documentation that the agreement allowed for a shared division of the expedition’s most important finds.
Upper part of a granite statute of the Nile god, Hapi, c. 1800 BCE. at the Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany.
The conflict is one example of the legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the 19th century that saw the major European powers rush to acquire what they called “ethnological collections” of important historical artifacts from Asia and Africa, writes Andrew Curry in a recent article for National Geographic.
Colonialism turned collecting into something of a mania. Just as colonial powers didn’t send explorers to map new corners of the globe for pure love of knowledge, objects didn’t simply fall into museums. Anthropologists, missionaries, merchants, and military officers worked with museums to bring wonders and wealth back to Europe. Curators even sent wish lists along with armed colonial expeditions. -Andrew Curry, “Are Museums Celebrating Cultural Heritage or Clinging to Stolen Treasure,” National Geographic magazine, Febrary 23, 2023.
Walking through the rooms filled with thousands of artifacts from Egypt and north Africa (and ancient Greece and Sudan and Uzbekistan …) was an unsettling experience. It is designed to be immersive. You don’t just look at pottery and sculptures and masks in glass cases. You walk next to wall-high slabs of stone carved with hieroglypics that are thousands of years old.
The collection includes three complete Egyptian burial chambers. One room is filled with sarcophagi that once held the remains of Egyptian nobility. The Greek court (Griechischer Hof) currently holds statues and relics from ancient Nubia.
I found myself asking, ‘Why am I seeing these here?’ The sheer amount of artifacts in a place seemingly so disconnected from the place the artifacts were created and whose stories they represent.
It made me wonder if museums are really serve more as a collection of acquisitions that are hoarded by wealthy countries instead of what I had thought they were – institutions dedicated to preserving artifacts for posterity.
To be fair, the Neues Museum is open about how its collections were aquired and the complicated nature of their current location. Information about Borchardt’s expedition (and the many others that both preceded and followed) is presented alongside the artifacts.
There is even an exhibit that discusses the Nile River Expedition of 1842-45 that details how the Egyptian government at the time allowed the Prussian emissaries to take an unpresedented amount of artifacts out of the country for preservation, but also mentions the damage that occurred to some of the objects due to their handling.
Many larger Western museums defend holding on to artifacts from other countries by saying that only they have the resources to properly preserve these items and to present them in the larger context as part of our shared human history.
The ongoing destruction of ancient sites in the Middle East by the Islamic State has galvanised the case for the universal museum, with advocates like Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, arguing that only institutions in the west can preserve the world’s cultural heritage. Isis’s cultural atrocities “will put an end to the excess piety in favour of the repatriation model”, he told the New York Times. -Kanishk Tharoor. Museums and looted art: the ethical dilemma of preserving world cultures. The Guardian, June 29, 2015.
Torso of a statue of a Roman emperor found in the Theatre of Miletus, Turkey 2nd century AD. Exhibited in the Neues Museum, Berlin.
The history of the Neues’ collections are complicated. Over the past century plus, governments have changed, even countries have changed at both ends of the equation. Agreements for the transfer of antiquities were often made between entities that no longer exist or represent the cultures involved.
For example, part of the collection of Nubian architecture was sent to Berlin by the governments of Egypt and Sudan to preserve it. The Kalabsha Gate was part of UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, launched ahead of the construction of Egypt’s Aswan Dam, which resulted in the flooding of ancient Nubian cities.
The photograms from the 1895 expedition are some of the only known remaining images of that region that still exist.
While German museums have made strides to restitute art in its collections that was stolen during the National Socialist regime – and they agreed in 2021 to return ownership of the disputed Benin Bronzes to Nigeria -they have been less inclined to look at earlier acquisitions.
As recently as 2011, the director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs the Neues Museum, reiterated their position that the Nefertiti bust was acquired legally and will remain where it is.
“The foundation’s position on the return of Nefertiti remains unchanged,” foundation president Professor Hermann Parzinger said in a statement. “She is and remains the ambassador of Egypt in Berlin.” -Eric Kelsey, Patrick Werr, Brian Rohan. German foundation refuses to return bust of Nefertiti. Reuters, January 24, 2011.
*Credit: The featured image is a photograph by Emrecan Algül from Pexels. Used with permission.
Visitors to the Neues Museum in Berlin are not allowed to photograph the bust, but are allowed to photograph other artifacts in the collection. All other photos in the blog were taken by the author.