The Master Plan for the valorisation of the Museumsinsel (2000-2025) includes an underground “archeological promenade” which will link four of the five museums on the island which are UNESCO world heritage sites and simplify moving from one museum to another for visitors with mobility difficulties.
Principal access interventions :
- ramp and lifts
- objects to touch
- walkways between museums
Berlin, in the heart of Berlin on the Spree river island.
Built on the Museumsinsel (museum island) between 1843-1855, largely destroyed during WW2 and ingeniously renovated by David Chipperfield, the Neues Museum is an outstanding example of C19 museum architecture which fully integrates exhibition design, spatial design and interior decoration for the purposes of learning and aesthetic delight.
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Heritage value and attractivity
- a gem among the five World Heritage listed museums on the Museumsinsel
- a unique witness of 19th Century museology and cultural history
- admirable restoration process, plan and works which ingeniously blend restoration, renovation, new construction and technical innovation
- high quality of displays (including of Nefertiti’s bust)
- exceptional atmospheric quality of materials, surfaces and light
- 6 significant Awards, of which the Mies van-der-Rohe Prize for successful combination of contemporary architecture, restoration and art
- about 800,000 visitors per year
Access challenges before the access works
- the main entry to the museum had two small flights of stairs
- access to cultural content for people with a sensory impairment was very limited
- for people with mobility difficulties visiting several of the five World Heritage listed museums of the Museumsinsel involves complicated pathways
Access for people with mobility difficulties featured in the project brief for the Neues Museum and represents a legal duty in the state of Berlin. The access requirements of existing building regulations, the German Industrial Standards (DIN) and the guidelines “Barrierfree Planning and Building in Berlin” were met. The outstanding cultural and aesthetical significance of the building called for discreet interventions during restoration works, including for the design of access.
The museum experiments with the possibility of allowing visitors to touch some objects (mostly replicas). Access provision for visually impaired visitors is available.
The Master Plan (2000-2025) for the valorisation of the hub of world heritage listed museums includes a commitment to barrier-free circulation.
1. Ramp and lifts
The conservation guidelines of the Neues Museum called for “the art of the smallest possible intervention” to preserve a unique building and to offer contemporary viewers glimpses into this “sanctuary for art and science” as it looked and felt like for C19 visitors as they de-ambulated its galleries and spaces.
A ramp of great sobriety, in harmony with the building – copyright: Marcus Weisen
The long austere front façade fringed by stern Doric colonnades emphasises horizontality. It belies the dreamlike wealth of the interior of which the sober and clear spatial and thematic layout fulfils a pedagogical purpose.
Underneath the colonnades, a long plain granit ramp with a soft slope leads to the main entrance, fitting almost seamlessly into the historical design. The wide slightly raised edges gives it physicality and presence. The edges underline the horizontality of the front facade and intensify the parallel beamlike structures in the brick ceiling that span the entire width of the colonnade. The slope discreetly enlivens and dynamises the long linear structure of the colonnade.
The shadow cast by the external edge of the ramp is the only feature that contrasts with the colonnaded pathway. The ramp is of granit too and of the same colour tone as the pathway – its edge could turn into a tripping hazard for visually impaired visitors. The conservation guidelines handed down to the architects by the state of Berlin recommend that every new construction in the museum distinguishes itself from the old. This principle was not applied to the ramp. By using the same materials as for the pathway, the uncluttered austerity of the space remains preserved (by not meeting a guideline, the design meets the spirit of it).
Handrails were not fitted to the ramp to preserve the spatial quality of the historic environment and its clarity of form – this is quite often the case in heritage spaces with significant architecture. The low gradient of the slope makes it more manageable for many people with mobility difficulties – but handrails would ease movement for some others.
The Neues Museum navigates an original path between the requirements for heritage preservation, which are exceptionally high in this case, and the right of access for all. The plain ramp underscores the elegant plainness of the Prussian front facade and, to an extent, plays with its qualities. It has been the object of the same care and subtle understanding with which the architects and their contractors have responded to countless details in the restoration programme.
It is one of the emerging examples of aesthetic treatment of accessible ramps and invites architects to explore their poetic potential. It also invites reflection that is generally valid for heritage preservation: how can current boundaries of elegance, comfort of use for all and safety be further stretched?
Let’s explore some unexpected poetic detail inside the museum. To the right of the entry hall, a small upwards rising slope framed by open inviting doors takes you the gallery called “Mythologischer Saal”. This is some 4 cm higher than the hall. The surface of the slope consists of original 19 Century forward pointing zigzag patterned floor tiles.
Chipperfield echoes this slope with a slope leading downwards from the wardrobe space (after the entry hall) to the back of the building. The slope is well indicated with a broad dark black marble border stripe while the slope is in small square eggshell-white tiles. Left and right to the door ledge, visitors can observe five different floor patterns with tiles of different shapes and sizes. Their colourful, yet sober elegance is a feast of integrated design.
Micro-ramps – copyright: Marcus Weisen
Small details such as these seldom receive attention during an access assessment. They invite a new poetics of slopes and ramps of which there are many examples in architecture. In 21st Century inclusive public spaces access, and comfort of use become an inseparable part of these new aesthetics.
The inside of the Neues Museum was almost entirely destroyed at the end of WW2. The structural walls and main spaces were restored and lifts and domestic spaces located in newly built spaces. They are well located and open immediately to the main visitor circuit.
A lift for visitors and a large service lift which can also be used by visitors, discretely placed in corridors, make vertical circulation accessible to all visitors, as an alternative to the staircases.
Integrated lift – copyright: Marcus Weisen
Located in the famous second floor axis which links two rotundas, one hosting the Nefertiti’s bust, the other the Roman sculpture of Helios of Alexandria, this lift is discreetly in recess, yet well signposted. It takes the place of a former staircase. The service lift is slower than the people’s lift. Their slow pace can be disconcerting (as one doesn’t expect the slowness) . Dimly lit inside, it may diminish the sense of comfort and safety for some visitors.
2. Obects for touching
During the special exhibition “In the Light of Amarna. 100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery”, the Museum made ten objects available for touching by all visitors ,of which an original sculpture in granit. These were recognisable by a label with the word “Touchable”. Information in braille was provided on the plinths.
Label “Touchable” and plaster replica of Nofretete – copyright: Marcus Weisen
This plaster replica of Nofretete (1foot 2 inches high) was place on a low plinth fitted with brief information in braille and accessible to wheelchair users and children. The oringinal was places in a nearby exhibition. The display, the lighting and the small size of the sculpture connive to create an atmosphere of intimate discovery. The museum is considering renewing such experiences. (Photo: Marcus Weisen)
Guided tours are available for visually impaired visitors during which original objects and architectural detail can be explored by touch.
Nefertiti’s bust – copyright : National museum of Berlin and display cases – copyrighht : Marcus Weisen
The Neues Museum is renowned for its elegant display cases designed by Michele de Lucchi. They ground the objects, have a presence of their own while not competing with the architectural space. In several galleries, the table cases are of the same height as the eyes of wheelchair users. Ideal viewing positions are thus not guaranteed throughout the museum.
3. Circulation between the museums of the Museumsinsel
Circulation between the five world heritage listed museums of the museum Museumsinsel is problematic for people with mobility difficulties. Monumental staircases make the main entrance of the Altes Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie inaccessible for people with mobility difficulties (alternative routes are provided, for example at the level entry for groups and schools). The use of three platforms lifts is needed to reach the galleries of the Bode-Museum via the main entrance.
The Master Plan for the valorisation of the Museumsinsel (2000-2025) includes an underground “archeological promenade” with exhibitions which will link four World Heritage listed museums and simplify moving from one museum to another for all visitors. The four museums were built at different times between 1830 and 1930, partly on difficult ground. They have a distinct stylistic identity. Their sizes differ. This means, that the floor levels of the the basement floors are not at the same height. These moderate differences of height will be bridged by small flights of stairs and lifts. Lifts will also ensure vertical circulation from the “archeological promenade” to all floors of the four museums.
A small number of discreet and aesthetic design features guarantee visitors with mobility difficulties access to the entire museum. The interventions exemplify the high levels of attention paid to detail that makes the restoration of the Neues Museum an exceptional success.
The sense of safety in the service lift and the viewing comfort for wheelchair users are not optimal, but some adjustments may be possible during future maintenance and refurbishment programmes.
The subtle architectural qualities of the restoration are reflected in the treatment of the ramp to the main entrance and the soft slopes at some door ledges inside. In design terms, they are pointers towards an aesthetic of ramps within an inclusive society, which combines bodily comfort for all with elegance.
Players and processes
- Client: Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (SMB)
- Architect: David Chipperfield Architects London, Berlin in collaboration with Julian Harrap
- Experts: Office for the coordination of access works (Koordinierungsstelle Barrierefreies Bauen) of the department of urban developpement of the state of Berlin.
The project was presented and discussed at the Working Parties on construction and traffic and on culture of the state of Berlin, who gave feedback. Membership of the Workig Parties includes representatives of Berlin’s disability organisations, Advisory Groups on disability and on older people, as well as local disability officers. The Working Parties are coordinated by the Office for the coordination of access works (Koordinierungsstelle Barrierefreies Bauen) of the department of urban development of the state of Berlin.