How Berlin plans to give museums a makeover amid visitor dip

Berlin museums might house the iconic Nefertiti bust, the Ishtar gate of ancient Babylon or Rembrandt masterpieces, but they still trail global counterparts in popularity -- and the coronavirus is making things worse.

How Berlin plans to give museums a makeover amid visitor dip
The entrance to the Bode Museum. Photo: DPA

Millions of euros have been poured into the institutions, yet the 19 museums managed by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) attracted  just 4.2 million visitors last year, while the Louvre alone drew 9.6 million.

Alarmed by lacklustre public interest, Germany is planning a major shake-up after a report commissioned by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government slammed the foundation as dysfunctional, outdated and out of touch.

For Joerg Haentzschel, a culture journalist at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, the capital's museums are plagued by “a persistent culture of  exclusivity, lack of transparency and institutional arrogance.

“Those responsible for museums are still serving their own peers first and foremost, rather than bringing everyone in — children, people with dementia, people from other origins and educational backgrounds,” he said.

Quiet halls

Around the corner from Potsdamer Platz in the city's bustling business district, the Gemaeldegalerie sits quietly in the shadows of shiny high-rises, its exhibition halls typically dotted with just a handful of visitors.

The museum boasts world-famous masterpieces by Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer — and yet it attracted only 310,000 visitors last year. And that was before the pandemic hit.

The Gemaeldegalerie is one of 19 museums managed by the SPK, one of the most important cultural institutions in the world with 15 collections and 4.7 million items.

The bust of Nefertiti. Photo: DPA

The SPK's most treasured possession, which has pride of place in the Neues Museum, is a limestone bust of Nefertiti, considered by some to be the most famous depiction of a female face in the world after the Mona Lisa.

But comparisons with the Louvre end there. At the Neues Museum, there are no crowds jostling for a glimpse of the ancient Egyptian queen.

'Institutional arrogance'

And this despite Berlin's reputation as a vibrant cultural hub, attracting artists in droves from all over the world — and a tourism industry that has exploded over the past decade, though now hobbled by COVID-19.

In the damning report, experts called for the SPK to be abolished and replaced by four separate bodies.

With around 2,000 employees and a budget of 335 million euros this year, the SPK is the largest cultural sector employer in Germany.

The experts pointed in particular to failures in the digital arena, accentuated at a time when many of the world's museums are relying on the internet due to international travel restrictions.

“Many international museums have a large number of followers on social media,” Marina Muenkler, who chaired the working group behind the report, told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

“Museums need to be in contact with the public before they come to the museum … Apps can be created for exhibitions. But this is often no longer possible in Berlin, because many museums do not have wi-fi.”

The report criticised a reliance on ” partly … outdated ideas about museum work” and a failure to reflect the “diversity of the world”.

The James Simon Gallery. Photo: DPA

As a result, Berlin's museums “have partly lost or risk losing touch with international developments,” it said.

The criticism comes despite millions of euros spent on ambitious cultural projects in the German capital in recent years.

Take the James Simon Gallery, the new entrance building to Berlin's UNESCO World Heritage-listed Museum Island designed by star British architect David Chipperfield — at a cost of 134 million euros.

Or the Neue Nationalgalerie with its Expressionist gems, due to reopen next year after more than five years of renovation work, also led by Chipperfield.

For Culture Minister Monika Gruetters, the report marked a “first, very important step towards making the foundation future-proof”, or adapted to future challenges, as she promised to reform the SPK within three to five years.

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Spain’s scrap cathedral: A monk’s 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion

About 20 km east of Madrid, in the small town of Mejorada del Campo, stands a building that testifies to a former monk's lifetime of devotion to the Catholic faith. Paul Burge explores the Don Justo Cathedral, a religious edifice like no other.

Spain's scrap cathedral: A monk's 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion
Don Justo's Cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid. Photos: Paul Burge

The structure has been built by 95-year-old former monk, Don Justo Gallego Martinez, using nothing but recycled, scavenged and donated materials giving the building chaotic, eclectic and perplexing, if not impressive style.

Don Justo pictured here at the age of 73 in August 1999. Archive photo: AFP

Visitors are free to explore, stepping over bags of cement, buckets and tools which are strewn across the two-floor monument. Downstairs there is a shrine to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Chillingly Don Justo has already also dug his own grave in the basement, where he will finally be laid to rest at the heart of his labour of faith and devotion.

Don Justo, as he is known, is 95 years old. The cathedral still needs at least ten years' work, years that its creator simply doesn’t have. Yet, such is his devotion that he still works on its construction every day, except on Sundays of course. You may catch a glimpse of him in his dusty blue overalls, white shirt and trademark red beret. But as the notices pinned to the wall advise, he is not open to speaking to members of the public.

What inspired Don Justo to build it?

After eight years in a Trappist order at Soria‘s Santa Maria de la Huerta monastery, Don Justo Gallego Martinez was ordered to leave, for fear of infecting the other monks with tuberculosis that he had been diagnosed with.

When his mother died in 1963 and bequeathed to him a large plot of land, including an olive grove in the center of the town, Gallego had an idea. If he would never again be allowed to enter a Catholic church as an ordained member of the faith, then he would express his devotion in a magnificent way. He would build his own church. In fact he would build his own Cathedral from scratch and make a shrine to “Our Lady of the Pillar”, or Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

The future of the cathedral

Set amongst monotonous 1960s apartment blocks, the frame of the huge structure, with its 50-meter-tall dome modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome, towers over the town of Mejorada del Campo. Like the cathedrals of old, it will not reach completion during Don Justo’s lifetime.

What will happen to the building after Gallego’s death remains an open question and its future is uncertain. No one has yet stepped up to take over the project, nor is his cathedral recognized by the Catholic Church. What is more, Don Justo never applied for planning permission to build the cathedral and the structure does not conform to any building regulations.

There are rumous that it could be pulled down after Don Justo passes away but there is a concerted campaign to preserve it.

How to get there

Catedral de Justo is located in Mejorada del Campo, a small town just 20km from Madrid. To get there, there are two public buses from the centre: Avenida de América (line 282) and Conde de Casal (line 341). 

The bus stop in Mejorada del Campo is called Calle de Arquitecto Antoni Gaudí and is located right in front of the cathedral. However, going by car is a better option, so you can continue your day-trip to Alcalá de Heneres, Cervantes’ hometown, which is about half an hour away.

Listen to the When in Spain podcast episode for an audio tour around the cathedral with Paul Burge. HERE

Paul Burge is a former BBC journalist who moved from Oxford, UK to Madrid in 2013 where he now hosts the highly entertaining When in Spain a weekly podcast show about life in Madrid and beyond.  Follow Paul's observations and advice about living in Spain on FacebookInstagram, Twitter and his new YouTube channel.