The Neues Museum in Berlin was the star museum of Germany, the abode of masterpieces like the iconic limestone bust of Nefertiti and the Helios colossus from late Roman Egypt. It was closed in 1939 and all its valuables put into storage in anticipation of inevitable war damage.
That was a wise move, because the central staircase was bombed in November of 1943, and the northwest and southwest wings and the southeast facade were damaged by allied bombs in February of 1945.
After that, the Neues found itself in East Berlin where it was left to decay until 1986. Some reconstruction occurred between 1986 and German reunification in 1990, but then it was halted again until full renovation and reconstruction began under English architect David Chipperfield in 1997.
On Friday, the decade plus of work finally paid off. The Neues is open again, and Nefertiti has her own room all to herself. Another 9,000 artifacts will be housed in the Neues, ranging from the Stone Age to barbed wire from the Berlin Wall.
And the neoclassical architecture, recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, has been lent a modernist touch by British architect David Chipperfield. His painstaking €233-million ($347 million) revamp has sparked controversy by leaving some of the historic decay untouched. White modern stairways sweep past old bricks pocked by bullets in World War II, original columns still have fire damage and neo-classical mosaics and pseudo-Egyptian murals still seem to flake away on ceilings and walls.
That’s not the only source of controversy. Chipperfield removed some of the damaged structures, including the remnants of the one once-famous Egyptian courtyard. German groups have signed petitions and tried to add the museum to the UNESCO World Heritage Site to stop what they saw as cultural destruction.
Then there’s the controversy over Nefertiti herself, exported under shady circumstances in 1913. Zahi Hawass wants her back, but now that she’s the star of her own gallery at the shiny new museum, I doubt that’s likely.