30 March 2023

Beautiful Museum Island in Berlin; terrible vandalism.

Bode Museum
on the Spree River

Museum Island museums in red
Spree River in navy, Wiki

Berlin’s best museum emerged when a group of buildings finally came together on Spree Island in the Spree River. The 5 individual museums were built over time, starting under the Prussian rulers: Old Museum 1830, New Museum 1855, Old National Museum 1861, Bode Museum 1904 and Perg­amon 1930. Read a his­tory of Museum Island and note that the mus­eums comprising the Museum Island were declared a UNESCO World Her­it­age Site in 1999. Today the complex is among the most-visited cult­ur­al institutions in the nation. Pergamon Museum alone attracts 1 million visitors a year.       

Altes Museum stars classical antiquity i.e exhibits dedicat­ed to Greek, Etruscan and Roman art and culture. On the main floor, anc­ient Greece art displays vases, jewellery and stone sculptures. Neues Museum has collections of prehistoric objects, classical ant­iquities and Egyptian art. There are two permanent exhibitions. Al­te Nationalgalerie houses impressive collections of Romantic, Im­pres­sionist & early Modernist art: 1,800 paintings and 1,500 sc­ulp­tures. The 19th-C20th art is displayed over 3 floors chronologically. Bode Museum houses Sculpture (especially German and Italian works), Museum of Byzantine Art and Münz­kab­in­ett Coin and Medal Collect­ion. Pergamon houses ancient art, divided into 1] Collection of Antiquities, 2] Museum of the Ancient Near East and 3] Museum of Islamic Art.       

Yet security issues at the museums have been an ongoing con­cern. In 2017, a massive Canadian gold leaf coin val­ued at $4.4 million was stolen from the Bode Museum. The ladder was found in­side the museum under a window, high above rail­way tracks runn­ing below. Everything else in the museum seemed un­touch­ed so, with 500,000+ pieces in the Bode's Coins and Medals collection, the authorities assumed the Big Maple Leaf was a very specific target. Did the Bode analyse the adequacy of the museum's security system? The sus­pects, including a security guard, were later convicted.

In 2020 vandalism continued on the island museums, with­out an ex­plan­ation or a suspect. German authorities con­firm­ed local media reports that 70+ artefacts on 3 of the is­l­and museums (Pergamon, Altes Nationalgalerie and Neues) were spr­ayed with an oily substance. Among the objects vand­alised were C19th paint­ings, ancient Egyptian sarcophagi and stone sculptures, leaving vis­ible stains everywhere. The crime was one of the most ex­tens­ive attacks on works of art and antiquities in post-war Germany.

The State Criminal Police Office rem­ained silent so investigators could priv­ately inform the lenders of the vand­alised works and to de­termine the extent of the  property damage. The number and size of museums involved further complicated the investigation.

German media reported that the vandalism was on 3rd Oct, a national holiday marking East and West Ger­many’s 1990 reunification. The crime on that particular date fuelled spec­ulat­ion over the act’s political motivation. October was also when the cultural centre lifted its long Covid lockdown. Germany’s Min­ister of State for Culture said that the crime was directed against art­istic forms of expression, ag­ainst the nation’s cultural heritage and against civil forms of debate, but how helpful was her response? And were security improvements planned?

Altes Nationalgalerie

Neues Museum

Pergamon Museum

That same month as the oil attack, the vandals str­uck again. A 70 ton bowl had been carved out of single slab of gran­ite and placed in the Al­tes Museum’s pleasure garden in 1828 for King Friedrich Wilhelm III. It was smeared in a variety of paint colours, with obscene ph­rases, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation announced.

After October’s incidents, the Berlin State Museums knew they had to re-evaluate their security measures. It had to be clarified how this much damage could have gone unnoticed, and how such attacks were to be prevented in the future.

Also in Oct 2022, fake blood was hurled at a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec work in the Altes Nationalgalerie, in an incident like some recent climate protests. The glass covered work, titled Clown, was not significantly damaged. However the head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation noted the fabric-covered wall of the room was ruined around the art. He added that the museum staff would continue to do whatever they could to protect the art in the collections while keeping them accessible. Even as officials took the suspect in­to pol­ice custody, they were still not certain of his motivation. Th­ank­ful­ly charges for trespassing and property damage were filed in Berlin.

Now in 2023 parts of the early C20th buildings are in poor struc­tural cond­it­ion, unfit for visitors and exhibitions. Restor­at­ion will focus on structural damage caused by moisture and out­dated technical systems. In the Master Plan, the ensemble of five historical buildings is viewed as a unit, in terms of content. At the same time, it pays respect to the architectural autonomy of each of the buildings. Their character will be preserved by renovation measures that follow the official regulations for historical building conservation. Their historical entrances will be restored.

Construction complications have delayed the ongoing renovations for years : $526 million now com­pared with the initial estimate of $288 mill in 2016. The worst aspect is that the entire museum complex will be completely closed for c4 years due to extensive renovation work. Pergamon, for example, will completely close for the long-term renovation project starting this year. Renovations are already underway in the northern and cent­ral part of the museum, however its southern wing will not reopen for many years.

70 ton gran­ite bowl
made in 1828 for King Friedrich Wilhelm III
in Al­tes Museum’s pleasure garden

ancient Egyptian sarcophagi
cut up and oiled in 2020


My name is Erika. said...

What is going on in the world right now? It's not a beautiful place in many ways; at least it seems like there is so much unrest and lack of care for the past. I don't get stealing from a museum either because unless you hide the item away in your private collection, you can't sell it legitimately. This was a very interesting read. I've never made it to Germany in my travels, so I wonder if I will ever get to see these museums. Hope March is ending well for you. hugs-Erika

Joe said...

Berlin's Museum Island has wonderful collections and buildings that are very important to locals and tourists. So why oh why are they all closing for 4 years? Surely they can renovate each building one at a time, so that all the museums remain open except for the one that is being worked on.

roentare said...

Vandalism is quite a disgusting act on these treasures from various eras. Just like history, the same behaviour repeats itself just as humanity.

hels said...

I assume the vandalism was carried out for political or moral causes (eg to prevent climate change). But how can carving up ancient Egyptian treasures lead to climate change in the 2020s? There are much more relevant ways of changing a moral cause.

hels said...

the museums arVERY close together, so no visitors could go onto the island while building goes on. But 4 years for Part I??

hels said...

I don't believe in gaol except for rapists and murderers. But I would gaol vandals who try to ruin ancient, rare or valuable national treasures.

Masterplan Museumsinsel said...

For a very detailed analysis of the future plans, maps and images see
The Museum Island Master Plan: A Projection into the Future

Hels said...

Thank you. I liked the details about the ensemble of five historical buildings, both in terms of content and of the architectural autonomy of each of the buildings. And I noted that he areas surrounding the historical museum buildings will be redesigned as well, allowing visitors to access parts that were long closed to the public.

Was there any mention of improved security and prevention of vandalism?

William Kendall said...

Vandalism on anything in a museum is revolting.

Fun60 said...

I find it hard to believe that planners could not devise a way of keeping part of this area open whilst the work is going on. I find it hard to believe that so much vandalism was allowed to happen.

Andrew said...

Lax security and lax ongoing building maintenance. Maintenance needs to be a constant ongoing process, closing some areas at times but always ensuring there is plenty to see for visitors. As for vandals attacking artwork, sadly that won't stop now, so works need better protection. I am not sure about other countries but security guards dominate our galleries and they are no doubt trained to note suspicious behaviour, and then cctv too.

Hels said...


vandalism is disgusting in any situation, true. If people wanted to draw attention to their cause, they should find another way to bring the public's attention to their cause eg a peaceful protest march in the city, letters to parliamentarians, paid tv ads etc etc. Trying to destroy historical treasures is unconscionable.

Hels said...


The museums on the island are very well established and have amazing collections. I loved my day there! And I have seen vandalism in other museums and galleries elsewhere. But that only makes it MORE important to improve security to world quality standard.

Hels said...


security can be greatly improved by physical changes (to windows, doors, ceilings etc) and by technological and personnel changes. Both could be easily achieved. But there seems to be a fear of not making public access to the buildings and the collections unlimited. Whereas I wouldn't mind if uniformed guards stood in each gallery, for example, it seems to be a concern in Berlin.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I never understood the purpose of stealing or vandalizing art for political reasons. It does draw attention, but only in a negative way. Why should I believe in or support the cause of a criminal vandal who seeks to diminish the world's cultural heritage? I was unclear about that oil-spray attack. Was that a lending exhibition? Either way, these acts will certainly reduce the willingness of worldwide museums to lend masterpieces, which was one of the most pleasing and attention-getting forms of international cooperation. They probably decided on complete closure because of the security problems. Often when a large museum closes it finds a secondary venue, or arranges a tour of its treasures, but I imagine they are in a take-no-chances mode right now.

DUTA said...

The museums on the Spree Island sound like a fascinating complex to to be visited, explored, enjoyed!
'Security alertness' is the key phrase to be used in the context of theft and vandalism of museum treasures.

Rachel Phillips said...

Uniformed attendants did not stop a child from being snatched from his parents by a stranger and thrown over the balcony from Tate Modern in London. His life was ruined and that of his family. I took a long time before I could go back there. The vandals and the deranged have more rights than you and me.

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

I simply do not understand this kind of vandalism. It is mindless. To imagine it garners any sympathy for a cause, however worthwhile, is bizarre and arrogant. We should not have to fence off art and artifacts that need to be appreciated by as many people as care to see them, to protect them from individuals with adolescent brains.

Don001 said...

The heading caught my eye. Such destruction and theft is so, so abhorent and a really sad indictment of our times. It reminds me of talking to a security technician I met staying in my accomodation who was installing security cameras in a large new local casino. He said they were also installing cameras not just to "watch" the tables etc but also to monitor (i.e watch) the "watchers". But that doesn't stop anyone intent on vandalism once they're inside an institution.

Hels said...


The Museum Island Planning Group was created in 1998, many years before the vandalism that we were discussing. They understood that work was required on these gorgeous 19th and 20th century buildings, but I wonder why they didn't discuss thefts and vandalism.

In 1966 thieves stole works by Peter Paul Rubens, Gerard Dou and Rembrandt from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Michelangelo's Pietà in Vatican City was vandalised in 1972. The Night Watch by Rembrandt was vandalised in 1975 in Rijksmuseum. Thieves at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts tied up three guards, then stole 18 Rubens, Rembrandt etc paintings in 1972. Museu de Arte de São Paulo had a Picasso stolen in 2007. An important Vincent van Gogh painting was stolen from a Dutch gallery in 2020, owned by Groninger Museum. In never ends :(

Hels said...


Yes! Spree Island is an amazing combination of the various art forms, drawn from different nations and different eras. It is a place that history and art lovers really do enjoy.
I can perhaps understand why the Spree Island Museum were not prepared for the first nasty incident, but for all the other incidents, Security Alertness should have been right in front of the eyes. Do the museums and galleries not talk to each other after crises?

Hels said...


ahhh but we DO have fence off art and artefacts that draw in visitors from all over the world. Just focusing on paintings for a moment, can you imagine if some thug stole or vandalised works by Caspar David, Friedrich Auguste Rodin, Manet, Monet or Renoir.

Hels said...


right...the Tate crisis was horrendous.

The institutions must take responsibility for making their own environments totally safe and pleasant for visitors. Accidents can always happen, I suppose, but the fact that the crim was very young and was a mental health patient who escaped from his two minders should never turn this into an accident.

Hels said...


you are right that security cameras, by themselves, don't stop anyone intent on vandalism once they're inside an institution. Cameras are merely part of the security package that the Spree Island Museums need to spend their money, personnel and technical expertise on. If I had to cover every painting, piece of jewellery and sculpture in smash-proof glass, I would do it in a heart beat.

Parnassus said...

Hello again, Yes, it is deploring to think of all the art theft and vandalism. I would also bet that a lot of it is hushed up to avoid negative publicity and consequences to those who were responsible to the art's safety. On the other hand, perhaps the "Spree" Island Museums was not the most auspicious name--they certainly got one.
p.s. I looked it up, and 'spree' means the same in both German and English, although the island is located in the Spree River.

Hels said...


I agree with your first point totally. All important institutions would want to minimise the damage, in order to avoid: negative publicity, quashing visitor numbers and to prevent trouble for those who were responsible for the art's safety.

But Museum Island/Museumsinsel sits on the river, so I wanted readers to know how the landscape looks surrounded by water. It was never meant to be an inauspicious name.

jabblog said...

Official policy often seems to be 'do as little as possible as cheaply as possible'. There is only one outcome - culture will continue to be abused.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - the Bode Museum looks fascinating. The vandalism of today - I do wonder what 'the vandals' (be they 15, 45, or 60) would say if one wandered into their bedroom or home and sprayed paint around. So sad ... Hilary

Hels said...


a huge truckload of money will be going into these museums, but unfortunately the total went up in each year the renovations were delayed. In the meantime, culture really did continue to be abused :( So why is it taking so long?

Hels said...


I have been to every important museum and gallery in Berlin and Vienna, and loved those weeks. I didn't want to go home :)

So it was a heartbreaker to hear of the vandalism and the thefts. I could understand thieves hoping to make money by stealing, hiding and then selling treasures, but why vandalise treasures?

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde de domingo e bom início de semana.
Muito triste esse vandalismo. Grato pela atenção e carinho.
Luiz Gomes

hels said...

It is such a fine group of museums, you must allocate at least a day in Berlin to Spree Island.

Dabas said...

Very sad. And Berlin is in my June itinerary…

Hels said...


it will still be well worth you visiting the island in June, even if there is some work going on. The enormous Protestant Berliner cathedral was built in the 1890s, bombed in WW2, rebuilt after and looks spectacular. Wishing you a peaceful Pessach.