100 Years of Nefertiti in Berlin

The world famous bust of Nefertiti is perhaps the single most recognized piece of art in Germany. Like the Mona Lisa in France or David in Italy, the 3,300-year-old limestone bust has become a major part of world pop culture and commemorative kitsch. It is also, perhaps, the ultimate symbol of the debate over colonial-era removal of art pieces from their countries of origin. In fact, Time magazine placed Nefertiti No. 2 on its list of “The Top 10 Plundered Artifacts.” Ouch. Of course, it’s also on everyone’s list of must-see art pieces.

To celebrate their “acquisition” of Nefertiti and to highlight the return of the bust to its original home away from home, Berlin’s Neues Museum currently has a special exhibit entitled “In the Light of Amarna. 100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery.” The exhibit, which continues until April 13, houses a small collection of outstanding pieces, many of which were recovered from the workshop of the ancient artisan Thutmose.

Of course, the central focus of the exhibit is the exquisite bust of Nefertiti, easily one of the greatest surviving works of the ancient world. As you examine the remarkably fragile-looking sculpture, it’s almost impossible to comprehend that it survived a very rough 3,300 years intact. It’s even more remarkable when you see the current state of the bust of ┬áNefertiti’s husband, Akhenaten. Let’s just say it looks a bit like Steven Tyler after a really hard night of partying. Several of the smaller stone busts, some with elongated bound heads, are truly exceptional and much more lifelike than the more stylized pieces you generally see in Egyptian collections. (That’s most likely why Egypt wants them back.)

There’s a second part of the exhibit housed in a corner of the basement which documents the German excavations in Amarna and displays records relating to the acquisition of the bust. At times, the dry exhibit feels a bit like an attempt to legitimize Germany’s possession of the Nefertiti bust. I do wish there had been more of the interesting photography from the turn of the century excavations in Egypt.

Beyond the special exhibit, the museum’s permanent Egyptian collection includes some spectacular sarcophagi, papyrus scrolls, painted burial masks, sculpture, and more. (I especially loved the decorative mummy shoes.) You can even wander through a collection of reassembled temple walls covered with hieroglyphics. For fans of Egyptian art, there are some nice pieces to discover; HOWEVER, make sure you don’t skip the basement. For some reason, some of the best pieces seem to be hidden down there.

A word of warning about the Neues Museum…

I feel a strange need to warn people about the current state of the Neues Museum. There has been a lot of hoopla about the return of the Egyptian collection from the Altes Museum to the Neues Museum, the original pre-war home of the collection.

While the new location of the Nefertiti bust is spectacular, I found the organization, labeling, and layout of the museum – well – baffling. To begin with, many of the objects in the Amarna exhibit were labelled with an excavation date rather than a date of creation. And since we entered the exhibit from the elevator, it took us quite a while to locate any actual reference to what time period we were looking at. Beyond the special exhibit, the current layout of the whole Neues Museum was quite perplexing. For example, we exited the Amarna exhibit into a room with Roman sculpture which rambled into Byzantine Arabic texts and completely lost me with a 19th century Ethiopian leather scroll. What?

From there, we moved on into a room which contained the confused combination of Germanic tribal art and dress, a reproduction of the Renaissance-era baptistry doors from Florence, migrations during the 4th-7th century, an exhibit on the Christianization of France, and then the Papacy and Rome. The room could best be described as everything but the kitchen sink. Mysteriously, the Egyptian collection seems to have been broken up into pieces housed in portions of every floor. And as I mentioned before, the impressive basement exhibits are easy to miss. In a nation that prides itself on organization, the museum feels like a hot mess.

I’m hoping that the confusion has something to do with the entire third floor being closed for construction. But something tells me there’s more to it than that. What’s more, due to the “special” Amarna exhibit, the current ticket price is an absurd 14 Euros. That’s more than the Uffizi or the Louvre – and that with the entire third floor of this relatively small museum closed!!! In all honesty, the current price is simply too high. Unfortunately, jacked up museum prices seem to be a new trend in Europe (or should I say the entire world).

But what is a budget traveler to do?

If you intend to see some of Berlin’s other famous museums as well, consider the 3-day museum pass for 19 Euros, which grants visitors entry to Berlin’s most famous museums for three consecutive days. In that context, a visit to the Neues Museum makes much more sense. It also allows budget-conscious visitors to hop and skip from museum to museum to see the best exhibits. While I don’t recommend that for every city in Europe (for example we advised against that in Florence), it may not be such a bad idea here in Berlin where separate entry fees are high and the 3-day pass is good value.

4 responses to “100 Years of Nefertiti in Berlin”

  1. I’m not an art afficionada, but I’ve seen a lot of old and ancient art piece and buildings the world over. What always strikes me is not necessarily the “art” of it, but the fact that the pieces were created by real-life people so many centuries ago and often depicting real-life people, as in the bust of Nefertiti. Next I’m thinking about their lives . . . what they ate for breakfast, what they said to their children, and so on. We’ll never know.

  2. avatar Tony says:

    One of my big questions was whether or not any of the artisans had ever even seen Nefertiti or whether this was simply an idealized vision of her. Was it perhaps even some sexy slave woman that they used as a model? Some of the smaller busts have very different features.

  3. avatar Leonie says:

    Yes, the layout of the Neues Museum is quite confusing…
    The “Neues Museum” actually houses two different museums, the Egyptian Museum and the Museum of Prehistory and Early History. If you enter through the main entrance, The Egyptian Museum is to your right, the Museum of Prehistory to your left.
    This division continues on all levels. So if you unwittingly cross from one Museum to the other, confusion ensues!
    The 3rd floor will reopen easter 2014.
    I wonder how in Great Britain they still manage to keep the main public museums free…

  4. avatar Tony says:

    Hey Leonie,

    Well that explains it. The strange thing is that that division between the Egyptian Museum and the Museum of Prehistory is VERY unclear once you are inside the Neues Museum. And, in the basement at least, the left/right distinction doesn’t really seem to be made. And the label “prehistory” is rather strange because most of the displays we saw were from time periods after those in the Egyptian collection. Hmmm.

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