Necessary Blinders: Appropriations of Schinkel’s Altes Museum

Autonomy Reconsidered Conference

Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin has served as a productive background for many different political ideologies. For example, Albert Speer staged the building for the opening of the 1936 Summer Olympics. After WO II, the building was re-appropriated by the German Democratic Republic and used as a display for communist propaganda during demonstrations. Part of the celebrations after the fall of the Berlin Wall, including a Kelly Family concert, took place in the Lustgarten in front of the museum. In 1999, an artwork by Maurizio Nannucci was installed in the arcade, alluding to the history of appropriation with the phrase ‘all art has been contemporary’.

The adaptability of the museum’s arcade is remarkable, considering the fact that the interior was considered outmoded in less than a decade after the opening. Mies van der Rohe wrote that the museum was part of a ‘vanishing time’. Did the loss of its original content trigger the appropriation of the building for new uses? Or do the appropriations rather signal the radical indeterminateness of a great work of art? To paraphrase Walter Benjamin: is the museum a film for which the appropriate chemical liquid to develop it was invented only later?

By looking at certain moments in the history of the museum after the opening in 1830, I propose to address these questions. In conjunction with the theme of the conference, I will develop an understanding of architecture’s ethics as a potential which can be developed over time. The ‘hidden’ ethics of buildings become visible by way of appropriation; much however remains unseen. The impossibility to reveal all possible expressions constitutes a building’s autonomy. In the case of the Altes Museum, all stagings are true – but each of them functions by excluding another. The building forces an interpretation which it simultaneously undermines – it is as neutral as a hall of mirrors.

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