MGB: A Memorable Grand Building

MGB: A Memorable Grand Building

Among all the wonderful Berlin museums and galleries, the Martin-Gropius-Bau (aka MGB) has a special place in my heart. Originally built in 1881 and designed by architect Martin Gropius, it is a visual treasure and lends its renaissance-style grandeur to every exhibition that passes through its doors. Golden images around the top of the building glitter in the sunshine and inside, the soaring atrium features mosaics with allegories from different ages and coats of arms of various German cities.

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Walking towards the Martin-Gropius-Bau from the Topographie des Terrors

The Martin-Gropius-Bau started life as an arts and crafts museum and after the First World War it became the Museum of Ethnology. It was badly damaged by bombing in 1945 and lay in ruins until 1965 when Walter Gropius (Martin’s great-nephew and co-founder of the Bauhaus) campaigned to have it placed under a historical preservation order. Reconstruction started in 1978 and the museum was reopened in 1981 with an exhibition on Schinkel, Berlin’s renowned classic-style architect. This was followed by an exhibition on Prussia and in 1987 the ‘Berlin, Berlin’ exhibition was staged to mark the 750th Anniversary of the city.

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The Martin-Gropius-Bau and the Berlin Wall in 1972

I often visited the Martin-Gropius-Bau during the 1980s and it was quite unnerving to find a building of such palatial grandeur standing just a couple of metres from the bizarre and cruel vision of the Berlin Wall. In those days the entrance to the museum was through a side door and there was an Alt Berlin café on the ground floor that opened out on to a rough area of grass. On warm days you could sit outside and contemplate the absurdity of the world. On the wasteland on the other side of the building, excavations had begun to reveal the underground cells of the Gestapo Headquarters, demolished after the war.

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In summer 1982 Photo by Chris Dewitt

After the fall of the Wall and German Reunification, the Martin-Gropius-Bau was closed for further renovations and has now been meticulously restored to its former glory. The impressive entrance is once again located on Niederkirchnerstraße opposite the Abgeordnetenhaus (Berlin House of Representatives and formerly the Prussian Parliament) and alongside the MGB, on the site of Gestapo Headquarters, is now the Topographie des Terrors which documents the Nazi terror regime in Europe.

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The grand entrance

For the past 25 years the Berliner Festspiele has managed operations at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. About 10 major exhibitions are staged each year in the fields of art, archaeology, photography and cultural history. Famous names including Frida Kahlo, Anish Kapoor, Ai Weiwei and David Bowie have drawn large crowds as well as large-scale exhibits such as treasures from Ancient Egypt and Buddha sculptures from Pakistan. Currently (until May 16th) there is a fantastic exhibition on ‘The Art of Prehistoric Times’, featuring the ‘Rock Paintings’ from the Frobenius collections. These amazing canvasses, painstakingly copied from prehistoric art in Africa, Oceania, Europe and Australia, were produced over a period of many years between 1912 and the 1960s. They have provided inspiration for modern art and are, in many cases, the only surviving evidence of such rock art as the original sites have been destroyed.

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Rock Art from ZImbabwe

Forthcoming attractions at the Martin-Gropius-Bau include ‘Lee Miller- Photographs’ (19 March – 12 June 2016) and ‘The Luther Effect. Protestantism – 500 years in the World’ (12 April- 5 November 2017). But there are plenty of other exhibitions to choose from as well; a full list can be found at the Berliner Festspiele website. The MGB is open every day except Tuesdays from 10am until 7pm and entrance prices vary according to the exhibition. It is an easy walk from either Potsdamer Platz or Checkpoint Charlie or bus M29 stops nearby. You will find an excellent and elegant café at the Martin-Gropius-Bau and a very good bookshop too. They are both on the ground floor off the atrium and can be accessed without entering the exhibitions.

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Browsing in the MGB bookshop

The Spy who came in from the rain

The Spy who came in from the rain

Berlin’s city centre is full of trees. In autumn they turn every possible shade of yellow, orange and red and drop their leaves to form copper-coloured carpets. An idyllic scene under blue skies, but not so great in the rain, when the pavements and cycle paths turn slippery and treacherous. This Monday was especially grey and wet. Our planned trip to the Tiergarten was abandoned and changed into a museum visit. I wanted to check out a couple of places that have opened since the publication of ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ and one is the brand new ‘Spy Museum Berlin’ on Leipziger Platz. It’s right next to Potsdamer Platz station and on numerous bus routes. It’s also open seven days a week (unlike many museums and galleries in Berlin, which are closed on Mondays) and has a café on site. The perfect solution for a rainy day.

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The slick ‘Spy Museum Berlin’ building on Leipziger Platz

The ‘Spy Museum Berlin’  first opened its doors on Saturday 19th September 2015, in an impressive building only a stone’s throw from Potsdamer Platz. During the city’s division this whole area was either part of the Berlin Wall death strip or just wasteland, so it’s a great location for a museum devoted to spooks and spying. There are 3,000 square metres of exhibition space covering the history of espionage from antiquity to contemporary whistleblower platforms like Wikileaks. On display are over 300 objects used by spies and secret agents, such as a camera-concealing watering can, an umbrella and a lipstick. One of the prize exhibits is an original ‘Enigma’ decoding device.

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The Bulgarian spy umbrella

As soon as you step inside the building, you are faced with dozens of CCTV cameras, some of them recording live footage which is broadcast to screens on the wall. You then enter the exhibition through a special ‘high security’ door.  An introduction area gives a timeline of the long history of espionage before you follow the digitally enhanced staircase to the main exhibition floor. Here the displays are arranged chronologically, with a special emphasis on the Cold War in Berlin. There are themed displays too. They include cryptology, poison, double agents and the use of animals in espionage, plus a James Bond section with fictional gadgets.

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The stairway to spying

If you want to get interactive you can try your hand at deciphering and password hacking, or even attempt the laser parcours. The museum also boasts around 200 touch screens and monitors with content and information you can access at your own pace. But perhaps the Spy Museum’s unique selling point is the previously unpublished film footage recorded especially for the museum, featuring interviews with former top spies and espionage experts.

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The laser parcours

Entry to the Spy Museum costs 18 euros per adult – quite a lot to pay unless you spend a couple of hours there and have a real interest in espionage. But this sleek museum with it own brand will no doubt find plenty of fans in a city that has starred in countless spy movies and used to be the “capital of espionage”.  Everything is in both German and English to give it international appeal, yet it lacks the authentic feel you get from visiting places where history actually happened. You only need to come out of the Spy Museum, walk a few metres towards Potsdamer Platz, through an archway in the grand Leipziger Platz edifices, to find an original GDR panorama watchtower from the Berlin Wall era. Standing in the rain on Erna-Berger-Straße, looking up into its turret, I felt a frisson of the Cold War Berlin feeling for the first time that day.

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The only remaining ‘Panorama Watchtower’ in Berlin

Young Berlin

Young Berlin

October half-term is fast approaching, a time when many school trips and families head for Berlin. The weather is usually perfect for sightseeing – still warm enough for boat trips, and the parks and woodland are ablaze with autumn colour. In ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ and on previous blogs I give plenty of suggestions for outdoor spaces where the young (and young at heart) can roam and run wild, providing it’s still warm enough.

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Take a trip to Peacock Island (See ‘Outer Edges’ in Berlin Unwrapped) 

But if you are in the city centre and have young teenagers or children in tow, it’s not enough just to admire buildings and scenery and feast on history and culture, there needs to be an injection of fun too. Hanging out in cool cafes, nightclubs and bars is not an option either, so here are a few ideas for family daytime and evening entertainment, aimed at the younger generation. Please double-check opening times and prices online.

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Family fun on the Tempelhofer Feld (see Blog)

The Berlin zoos have always been a big hit. The main one, the ‘Zoologischer Garten Berlin’ is centrally located next to the Tiergarten and served by the main station of the same name. It was opened in 1844 and is the most-visited zoo in Europe. During the war the zoo was destroyed and only 91 animals survived – some fairly dangerous ones were wandering around the city and others were killed for food.

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The stunning Elephant Gate entrance to the Berlin zoo

There is a second Berlin zoo, the ‘Tierpark’ in Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin. This was originally founded in 1955 as a counterpart to the main zoo which became inaccessible to residents of East Berlin after the Wall was built. At 400 acres it is the largest zoo in Europe and has a safari-type environment. Both the main zoos are open daily.

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Pelicans at the Tierpark

At the other end of the scale, closer to the city centre, is the children’s ‘hands-on’ farm zoo ‘Jugendfarm Moritzhof’ in the northern part of the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. It’s open from 12.00 until 1800 Mondays to Saturdays.

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A farm zoo – where the Berlin Wall once divided the city

If the weather isn’t zoo friendly, there are plenty of museums to occupy the younger generation. Several Berlin museums are specifically for children. ‘’MACHmit Museum’, in Prenzlauer Berg, comes highly recommended for younger children. The name means ‘join in’ so lots of hands-on activities here and a journey through the Grimm fairy tales. The ‘Labyrinth Museum’ in Wedding is another inter-active favourite for 3-11 year olds.

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The MACHmit and Labyrinth Museums

Some Berlin museums have appeal to both children and adults. The recently-revamped Science Center Spectrum at the ‘Deutsches Technikmuseum’ in Kreuzberg (Museum of Technology) features a whole host of hands-on experiments for all ages that shed light on physics, technology and perception. This museum offers great discounts for families and groups.

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Experimental fun at the Science Center

The ‘Story of Berlin’ on Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin, is also an interactive museum with a multi-media show about Berlin’s history. It is open every day of the week and includes a unique guided tour of a nuclear bunker which starts on the hour, every hour. All the texts in the exhibition are in English as well as German and there is a good quiz to keep competitive young minds busy.

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Inside the ‘Atombunker’

Young art fans should visit the Children’s Gallery at the Bode Museum on Museum Island. A 6th century ‘building site’ invites children to explore the work processes, materials and historic tools involved in mosaic production. On Sunday afternoons at 3pm there are educational sessions supervised by museum staff and a family programme. The Bode Museum has an excellent cafeteria too.

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Making mosaics at the Bode Museum

On the subject of food, the Currywurst Museum near Checkpoint Charlie is a celebration of the legendary Berlin snack. Almost everything in the museum is interactive. You can touch, taste and make a virtual Currywurst. There is a spice chamber with sniffing stations, a sausage sofa to relax on and audio stations in ketchup-bottle shapes with iconic songs about the Currywurst. This museum offers a 20% discount on Mondays when many other museums are closed.

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Lots to do at the Currywurst Museum

If you are prepared to venture just outside Berlin and the sun is shining, the Filmpark Babelsberg on the site of the Babelsberg film studios is a must, with plenty of movie-themed rides and attractions. The stunt shows are especially popular. It is open from April until November and to get there on public transport take the S-Bahn line 7 to Babelsberg and then bus 601 or 690 to ‘Filmpark’, or it’s a 15 minute walk from S-Bahn Griebnitzsee, also on line 7. Both these stations are outside Berlin so you need to have an ABC ticket.

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A packed audience for the thrills of the stunt show

Finally, there is an evening show in Berlin which is an international and perennial hit – the Blue Man Group at the Bluemax Theatre, Potsdamer Platz. Its mixture of rock concert atmosphere, comedy and technical effects defies description and never fails to enthral the younger generation. Book ahead to avoid disappointment…

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Blue men

Schlüter’s Beautiful Baroque Berlin

Schlüter’s Beautiful Baroque Berlin

bp0-startseite-bg-de[1]Andreas Schlüter (1684-1714) was the ‘ Schloss Baumeister’ (Palace Master-builder) who was largely responsible for transforming Berlin from a provincial medieval city into an impressive baroque royal capital. If you are in Berlin over the next few weeks you still have time to catch a wonderful exhibition in the Bode Museum marking the double anniversary of his birth and death. But even if you can’t make the exhibition, read on – as much of Schlüter’s legacy can still be seen and appreciated in 21st century Berlin. Schlüter (unlike Schadow) cannot be claimed by the Berliners as one of their own; he was born and died in Danzig and summoned from the Polish court to Berlin in 1694 by the Brandenburg Great Elector Friedrich III (who became King Frederick I of Prussia in 1701). As court architect and sculptor from 1696 until 1713, Schlüter is most famous for his design of the exterior of the Stadtschloss (City Palace) and for his statue of the Great Elector on horseback – the ‘Reiterdenkmal’. A copy of this imposing statue stands in the grand domed hall  of the Bode Museum, making it the perfect venue to host an exhibition to honour Schlüter’s work in Berlin.

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The original Reiterdenkmal is surrounded by four cowering slaves in chains and oversees the main courtyard of Charlottenburg Palace. During the war it was removed from Berlin for safe-keeping, but the barge carrying it back in 1949 sank in the Teglersee in West Berlin. When the statue was salvaged a year later it found itself in a divided city and was never returned to its rightful place on the Lange Brücke opposite the Stadtschloss. The magnificence of this setting is shown in the picture below and must surely have helped secure Berlin’s claim to the title of Capital of the German Empire when it was formed in 1871.

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Together with two other great Berlin architects, Langhans and Knobelsdorff, Schlüter was hugely influenced by the genius of the European Renaissance. The 16 rooms of this exhibition document Schlüter’s accomplishments in Berlin but also display works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Francesco Mochi, Francois Girardon and Antoine Coysevox so that visitors can clearly see how important it was for Schlüter to travel in Europe before he started work in Berlin. The paintings, bronzes and marble statues from Italy, France and The Netherlands show how European art and history influenced Schlüter’s creations such as the mounted statues of Marc Aurel and Louis XIV and how Bernini and Girardon were the godfathers of his most celebrated statue of the Great Elector. Schlüter also immortalised his patron, Frederick I, in bronze on horseback but this work was lost in the Second World War bombing along with many of Schlüter’s wonderful architectural masterpieces in the city centre

In 1945 his Stadtschloss also stood in ruins and the exhibition has original film footage (without soundtrack) of how its skeletal remains were finally demolished in 1950. You can watch its dome and the remaining statues adorning its roof fall silently fall into a mass of stone and ash as a single car drives eerily past the dusty mound of rubble. Fortunately, some of Schlüter’s decorations on the palace façades were preserved and you can view them in all their intricate detail in the exhibition. But if you don’t manage to visit Berlin before mid-July, all is by no means lost. The reconstruction of the Stadtschloss as the Humboldt Forum is now well underway and Schlüter’s carvings will be incorporated into the walls.

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Current progress on the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss/Humboldt Forum 

Five other Berlin city sites are included in the Schlüter exhibition: the Deutsches Historisches Museum (originally built as the Zeughaus – Royal Armoury), the Berliner Dom (Protestant Cathedral), the Marienkirche, the Nikolaikirche and of course Charlottenburg Palace. You can see Schlüter’s tomb of the Männlich family in the Nikolaikirche, his ornate sarcophagi for Frederik I and his wife in the crypt of Berliner Dom and his beautiful baroque pulpit in the Marienkirche. But the most awe-inspiring of all Schlüter sculptures can be found at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Schlüter was responsible for giants’ heads above the round-arched windows and for the warriors’ death masks which line the magnificent rose-pink inner courtyard (known as the Schlüterhof). This is how they are described by the Bode Museum:

Their faces are wracked with pain but with eyelids drooping as if a compassionate spirit has granted the final favour bestowed on the deceased, these expiring heads make plain the deadly serious purpose of the Zeughaus. And yet these heads, reminiscent of trophies, must now serve as adornments on the very building that stored the weapons that brought about the warriors’ deaths.”

What this website extract fails to point out, however, is the macabre fact that Schlüter had the actual heads of the warriors on which to model his sculptures. This is clearly demonstrated in the exhibition by a clay model showing how Schlüter’s own head was also used as a template. It is hard to imagine a more poignant way for a sculptor to depict the horrors of war.

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‘Our Schadow’ and ‘Heavens,  Berlin!’

‘Our Schadow’ and ‘Heavens, Berlin!’

There are currently two excellent exhibitions worth catching at the Ephraim-Palais until 17th August. For the princely sum of five euros you can feast your eyes on the classic sculptures of Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764-1850) and gaze at the surreal sky-filled canvasses of Matthias Koeppel (born 1937).  They are on display on separate floors of a stunning Rococco city palace, built for the Jewish court jeweller, Veitel Heine Ephraim, in 1762. The palace had to be knocked down in 1935 to make way for the construction of the Mühlendamm bridge but the façade was kept and stored in Wedding, West Berlin for several decades. Reconstruction eventually took place only a few metres from its orignal site in the Nikolaiviertel and it opened in 1987 as part of East Berlin’s celebrations for the 750th Anniversary of Berlin. Now the elegant Ephraim-Palais forms part of the Berlin Stadtmuseum (City Museum) and mounts temporary exhibitions.

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Ephraim-Palais exterior

Schadow is most famous for designing the Quadriga on top of the Brandenburg Gate and he is 250 years old this year. The Stadtmuseum is celebrating his birthday with their exhibition, ‘Unser Schadow’ (Our Schadow – pronounce ‘Shar-do’ ) and claiming this great Berlin sculptor as their own – with good reason. Since the first Berlin Stadtmuseum (Märkisches Museum) opened back in 1874, Schadow’s works have been a feature of their permanent collections, and include a large copper horse’s head, the only original part of the Quadriga to survive the bombs.

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The surviving horse’s head – on display at the exhibition

Schadow was the son of a Berlin tailor who rose in Berlin society to become a Director of the Berlin Academy of Arts. This exhibition brings togethers over 300 sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints and documents, mostly from private collections, to tell the story of Schadow’s life as artist and man. It is divided into themed sections, each with a large poster summary in English.   Among the exhibits are some exquisite smaller sculptures. The bust of Goethe, the pair of royal princesses, the woman from Weinsberg carrying her husband on her back and Bacchus comforting Ariadne all have special appeal.

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Bacchus and Ariadne

Larger Schadow works, such as the portrait statue of Crown Princess Luise and her sister Frederica and the moving tombstone for the nine-year old Count Alexander von der Mark, are in the Alte Nationalgalerie and there are many grand Schadow statues gracing the streets of Berlin. But this exhibition celebrates the real-life Berliner as well the artistic genius. Schadow may have been court sculptor, great artist and expert in physiognomy but he was also a man of the people and a popular fellow. He shared his talents by becoming a respected teacher, he was an amiable host, a member of many societies, a committed Freemason, a keen chess-player, a music-lover and an amateur dramatist. He was proud of his two sons who followed in his footsteps as artists and this exhibition portrays a man  with a good sense of humour. ‘Our Schadow’ is a title he would surely appreciate. I certainly enjoyed getting to know him better.

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 Buchhorn’s portrait of Schadow (1821)

And now for something completely different… ‘Himmel, Berlin!’ (which can be interpreted as a call for help, or an expression of surprise or admiration) features the amazing paintings of Matthias Koeppel, a (West) Berlin artist born in 1937. His subjects are set against the huge Berlin sky (‘Himmel’ can mean sky or heaven in English) and deal with contemporary history, politics or society. This is definitely art with a message and Koeppel uses surrealism and irony to get his point across. The Berlin sky is a central feature of each painting and it usually features light clouds. I couldn’t help being reminded of Wim Wender’s 1987 film ‘Himmel über Berlin’ (Wings of Desire) where invisible, immortal angels populate a divided Berlin and listen to the thoughts of the human inhabitants, comforting those who are in distress. And there is plenty to be distressed about in the scenes in Koeppel’s Berlin world. Many of them depict destruction and desolation and there are cruel parodies and harsh warnings. These grandiose canvasses demand attention and I found them fascinating. There are some interesting links with Schadow too, for example Koeppel’s repeated use of the Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate either wonderfully silhouetted against the Berlin sky or in some way under attack.

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Occupy (2012)

The most obvious connection with Schadow is Koeppel’s painting of two German rock sisters standing in exactly the same pose as Schadow’s royal princesses, with the mausoleum in the Charlottenburg Palace park in the background. The contrast with Schadow’s original vision gives this painting special impact.

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Detail from Requiem für Luise (1984)

References to art and politics abound in Koeppel’s work and a background knowledge of post-Wall Berlin history is vital for a detailed understanding of the subject matter of some of the paintings. But even a basic tour of the main tourist sights of Berlin would give some context and Koeppel’s sharp social comment always hits home. There is humour too, especially in the scenes which are parodies of well-known paintings.

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Sportschau (2012)

Yet although Koeppel repeatedly forces us to take look on the dark or surreal side of life, the Berlin sky is always there to draw us upwards and away. It seems to have magical qualities.

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 Hotel Adlon (2000)

After all, what is it made of other than the famous ‘Berliner Luft’ (Berlin air)? If you want some to take home, it’s sold in cans at most souvenir stalls.

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