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Restitution Is Moving Quickly. The Pergamon Museum Is Taking It Slow

November 12, 2023 2:43 PM | Anonymous

Reposted from NYtimes

The Berlin institution with a spectacular, but disputed, centerpiece
closes next week for a refurbishment that won’t be complete until 2037.Even wrapped in plastic, the Pergamon Altar is a striking sight. A
monumental structure with ornate friezes depicting a battle between giants
and gods, it was sculpted in what is now Turkey in the 2nd century B.C. and
is one of the most imposing known examples of antique art. Housed in
Berlin’s Pergamon Museum for over a century, the altar has long been one of
the main attractions in the German capital.
That is, when visitors can see it. The altar has been inaccessible since
2014, amid construction work on the museum’s north wing. On Oct. 23, the
rest of the museum — one of the most visited in Germany — will close for
four years. Although the altar room and north wing are set to reopen in
2027, other parts of the building will not be accessible for a further
The project comes at a delicate time. In recent years, European
institutions exhibiting archaeological objects from other parts of the
world, such as the Pergamon Museum, and the British Museum, in Londonhave faced increased scrutiny over the provenance of their exhibits. With
more than $1.5 billion of public money being invested into the Pergamon
Museum refurbishment, its leaders now face new calls to justify their work.
“The institution of the museum, as a product of the Enlightenment, is being
questioned,” Andreas Scholl, the director of the Pergamon’s antiquities
collection said during a recent tour of the site. “Nobody knows how the
debate will progress.”
The Pergamon Museum’s administrators, however, are betting that much will
remain the same in the next 14 years. In addition to structural work, the
renovations will add new spaces for exhibits and visitors, and update
infrastructure, lighting and climate control. But, as Scholl put it, “The
fundamental concept isn’t changing.”
“The institution of the museum, as a product of the Enlightenment, is being
questioned,” said Andreas Scholl, the head of the Pergamon Museum’s
antiquities collection.Credit...Lena Mucha for The New York Times
Opened in 1930 on Museum Island, in central Berlin, the building was
custom-designed to showcase the altar and several other spectacular items
of antique architecture, including parts of the so-called Ishtar Gate from
the ancient city of BabylonBut the building was built on oak pylons driven into unstable, sandy
ground, and Jens Küchler, the project manager in charge of the renovations,
said renewing its foundations was crucial for long-term stability. The
work, he said, is partly focused on a metal underground structure
stretching across the island that “holds up the building.” The Pergamon Altar has always been the museum’s most prized attraction.
Discovered in the 1870s by Carl Humann, a German engineer, its transfer to
Berlin was made possible by a series of agreements between Ottoman Empire
administrators and German officials that allowed Germany to retain a
portion of the artifacts that Humann and his collaborators discovered.

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