Museum Island

In Berlin, Art of Travel Spring 2016, Spirit of place by Charlotte1 Comment

Museum Island captures the spirit of Berlin, not only because it is a place unique to this city, but because it is a place representative of German history and soul. Museum Island is exactly what it sounds like — an island full of museums, with it’s locus smack dab in the centre of this bustling city. In the midst of East-bloc style buildings, office towers, and Humboldt University student coffee shops, a floating isle of the past lives on. Museum Island has been at the centre of Berlin since Berlin was a glorified town, a mere merchant zone far from the metropolis it is today. The first museum on this island is known as the Altes Museum (the “Old Museum”) and the museum built directly after it is known as the Neues Museum (the “New Museum.”) And if that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the German propensity for plainspoken directness, I don’t know what could.

A few other museums are on the island, and these massive buildings are fascinating not only due to the art they house, but due to their own architecture. Though mostly constructed in the past couple hundred years, these buildings were made to look like Roman structures, in the Neoclassical style. Just one look at these faux-Pantheon structures reminds one that German identity was a question these people have struggled with far before the post-WWII post-Nazi reckoning. Museum Island is a testament to German history and glory, but also to the German need to be the best and compete with the rest of Europe. We all know how competition with the rest of Europe turned out for Germany: two world wars.

All the stereotypical German things are here — currywurst stands, street performers utilizing woodwind instruments and half-filled water glasses alike, stern looking grandmothers and joyous young children. There’s a flea market that can be seen across the canal that separates this island from the rest of the city. Seeing this very special place and trying to describe it reminded me of a particular part of Alain de Botton’s description of Provence:

“I now noted an angularity that I had earlier missed: the trees resemble tridents that have been flung from a great height into the soil. There is a ferocity to the olive trees’ branches, too, as if they were flexed arms ready to hit out. And whereas the leaves of many other trees make one think of limp lettuce emptied over racks of naked branches, the taut, silvery olive leaves give an impression of alertness and contained energy.”

While de Botton focuses on the trees of Provence to explain the strange and unique energy of the region, I would like to focus on the pavement. The stone streets of Museum Island have been trodden on for hundreds of years, by feet from many a different story, background, or political affiliation. The years have passed by Museum Island without notice. Near the Neues Museum, some bullet holes from the first World War still dot the pavement; they have been unpaved over, purposefully.

What is interesting about Museum Island is how this rich history is overpowered by a happy modern scene. In a flat grassy park in the middle of the island, young families sit alongside readers, daydreamers, and suntanners. It’s an unusually warm and bright day in February, and Berliners are soaking up the nice weather before it gets grey and dreary again. The Germany of 2016 is content, stable (recently voted to be the greatest country to live in) and yet still in touch with it’s rocky past.


  1. Hi Charlotte,

    I visited Berlin in June last year and only visited Museum Island on my last day there. I was surprised at how different the architecture and surroundings of the island were from the rest of Berlin. Perhaps it was because of the monumental architecture or the seemly “un-German” style of buildings that hark from the Roman and Classical era. I like how you have related this aspect to the history and past of Berlin. I enjoyed how you also looked into the ordinary, such as the cobbled streets, to appreciate the historic city you are in!

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