Saturday, 31 March 2018

Mighty Museums

I've never been very good at doing my pre-travel homework. I'll probably buy the relevant Rough Guide and a map, but won't actually read anything about my destination until I get there. As a tourist, I am an improviser, rather than a planner. Having arrived, though, if there's one thing I always do, it's to check out whether there's a natural history museum in town. And – if we may be allowed to indulge in some national stereotyping here – if there's one thing we like to think about Germans it's that if there's a thing to do, they're going to have done it right. No half measures, no sloppy specifications, no stinting on effort or funding. Although it's true that as well as the BMW and the Leica it was also Germans who came up with the Trabi and the Praktica, not to mention cheating on VW diesel emissions; national stereotypes only go so far. But Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde turned out to be everything I'd hoped for. I spent a happy morning there, wandering about in a similar state to the parties of over-excited children, though with rather less squealing. It is simply terrific, or as the Germans appear to be saying a lot these days, super.

Seriously: it makes our own Natural History Museum in London look pretty second-rate. For a start, there are no apologies for the state of the taxidermy. No need: everything looks as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as if it were an entrant for Best of Breed (which, in certain ugly cases, must be a tough call). Then there's presentation. I doubt if the Museum für Naturkunde gets significantly fewer visitors than the NHM, but it doesn't have that tired, scuffed-up look so prevalent in the big British museums, with their peeling laminates, chipped edges, fingermarks, and temporary, sellotaped signs. Admittedly this museum is in an ongoing process of refurbishment, like pretty much everything else in Berlin, but every exhibit is well-chosen, properly lit, and uncrowded, except where plenitude is the point. And it also doesn't have that awful, patronising attitude to "interpretation": I'm still seething about seeing invertebrates labelled as "Creepy Crawlies" in the NHM.

You want stuff in jars? We got stuff in jars...

Also awesome, in a more literal sense, is the Pergamon Museum, located on Museuminsel ("Museum Island") in the middle of the River Spree. Typically, I had no idea that there was a "Museum Island", or what was on it, and at first took it for some sort of theme-park. You know the sort of thing: "Willkommen! Bienvenue! Ve-elcome... to Museum Island! In here, even ze orchestra is bee-oodifully taxonomized!" Anyway, I'd had mixed recommendations on the Pergamon from friends, ranging from "Wow!" to "Meh...", but as I'd wandered close by on one of my initial dazed-and-confused dérives I thought I'd have a look, and was mightily impressed.

To be honest, I think my friends think I'm smarter and better-informed than I really am: "Babylon", for me, I'm afraid, primarily conjures up images of reggae, not ancient Mesopotamia. It's that homework failure, again... So I simply wasn't expecting the sheer scale of the Pergamon Museum's contents. The Ishtar Gate alone, as reconstructed, is a blue-tiled edifice 46 feet high and 100 feet wide. It's BIG! "Awesome" doesn't do it justice. We Brits enjoy giving ourselves a hard time over our orientalist looting activities – the Elgin Marbles come to mind – but, blimey... Even to contemplate excavating and shipping back to Europe any one of the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, the Ishtar Gate, or the Mshatta Facade, never mind all four, and then to reconstruct them all under the same roof is a feat of cultural imperialism and archaeological ambition that could surely never now be contemplated by anyone, anywhere.

As a bonus, there is a separate Museum of Islamic Art upstairs, containing some of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen in a museum. I was particularly impressed by the large tiled "prayer niches", which have a hallucinatory level of detail and complexity, but there are any number of smaller objects whose craftsmanship and aesthetic qualities repay the closest attention. Again, my ignorance of Islam is boundless, but I know skill in the service of beauty when I see it, and it always stirs in me the desire to do a certain amount of post-travel homework. Although, as I also know, if wishes were hours of research, then beggars would be profound scholars.

[N.B. I'm away most of next week. I'll moderate any comments when I get back.]

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