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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Browsing in the MGB bookshop