One of this summer’s top Berlin cultural events was the much-anticipated opening of British architect David Chipperfield’s stunning new James-Simon-Galerie on Museum Island. Over the past decade, the serene beauty of this unique and impressive ensemble of museums, built between 1830 and 1930 and originally conceived as ‘Athens on the Spree’, has been scarred by cranes and construction work. Now the key part of the project has been completed and on Friday 12th July Angela Merkel, whose Berlin home is just across the street from the Pergamon Museum, officially opened the James-Simon-Galerie. It is named after one of the city’s most important patrons, 19th Century Jewish philanthropist James Simon (1851-1932).
Angela Merkel at the opening of the James-Simon-Galerie
The 21st century addition to Museum Island has attracted great interest in the media, but opinion seems to be divided about its aesthetic qualities. Personally, I think that the clean lines and generous proportions of its modern design reflect and complement the classical grandeur of Museum Island. However, at a cost of about €150 million and with its endless rows of wall lockers provided for the use of museum visitors, it has been dubbed ‘Berlin’s most expensive cloakroom facility’. cloakroom facility’.
Stunning exterior design
View from the Spree side
For the next few weeks visitors can wander around the James-Simon-Galerie at no cost and get a feel for its concept. The new construction incorporates a soaring central entrance hall with ticket counters, information desks and a museum shop,as well as a space for reading. In addition to the gallery itself, there is a 300-seat auditorium for lectures and concerts. The stylish ‘Cu29’ restaurant, also open outside museum hours,has tall windows which afford good views of Museum Island and the surrounding area. ‘Cu29’ is certain to be a popular venue; it offers interesting breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, not to mention coffee, cakes and cocktails.
Four of the five museums on the island in the Spree are now connected by the James-Simon-Galerie so that visitors can move between the different buildings using the new subterranean Archaeological Promenade. Colonnades similar to those of the Neues Museum give a modern classical feel and the wide flight of steps at the entrance creates a suitable sense of awe and expectation. The first temporary exhibition in the gallery opens at the end of August. Currently on display is a model of Museum Island and a few exhibits and information panels explaining how the Berlin State Museums evolved from the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ in aristocratic.
Model of Museum Island and its environs
A ‘mock’ cabinet of curiosities
In the main room are four huge screens showing short films about the life and achievements of James Simon. The soundtracks are in German, but there are large subtitles in English explaining how this wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer became such an important art collector and benefactor. Together with Museum Director Wilhelm Bode and under the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, James Simon founded the Deutsche Orient Gesellschaft which financed the excavations in Egypt and led to the acquisition of the famous coloured bust of Nefertiti on display in the Neues Museum. He presented hundreds of artworks and artefacts to Berlin’s State Museums and assembled a substantial private collection in his mansion at 15a Tiergartenstrasse, most of which was later bequeathed to the State.
Screens showing James Simon’s biography
James Simon had a strong social conscience and funded children’s homes and summer camps, hospitals and public baths. He was a man who wanted to be judged by his deeds not his words. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee in Prenzlauer Berg and at his funeral Kaiser Wilhelm II sent a wreath from his exile in The Netherlands. Interestingly, James Simon’s descendants include his granddaughter Leni Yahil, an illustrious Israeli historian who specialised in the Holocaust and the Danish Jewry.
Henri James Simon in 1920