Facade of the Altes Museum
Altes Museum Facade | © Hiepler, Brunier

The Altes Museum, designed by architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, is a seminal work of Neoclassical architecture. Constructed between 1823 and 1830, the museum’s exterior is characterized by its classical symmetry and proportion, while its interior is inspired by ancient Greek temple architecture. Schinkel’s design was in line with the educational vision of Alexander von Humboldt, who saw the museum as a public institution for learning and enlightenment. As a result, the Altes Museum remains a landmark of cultural heritage and a testament to the enduring influence of classical ideals.

Altes Museum Technical Information

Our mind is not free if it is not the master of its imagination; the freedom of the mind is manifest in every victory over self, every resistance to external enticements, every elimination of an obstacle to this goal. Every moment of freedom is blessed

– Karl Friedrich Schinkel 1

Altes Museum Photographs

Facade detaisl of the Altes Museum  by Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Altes Museum Facade Details | © Hiepler, Brunier
Altes Museum / Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Altes Museum Details | © Hiepler, Brunier
Altes Museum / Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Altes Museum Columns | © Hiepler, Brunier
Altes Museum / Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Altes Museum Interior | © Hiepler, Brunier
Altes Museum Interior | © Hiepler, Brunier
Perspective drawing of the Altes Museum by Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Perspective View | © Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Interior of the Museum drawing
Rotonda | © Karl Friedrich Schinkel

The Altes Museum: Old Museum

The Altes Museum (German for Old Museum) is a museum building on Museum Island in Berlin, Germany. Since restoration work in 2010/11, it houses the Antikensammlung (antiquities collection) of the Berlin State Museums. The museum building was built between 1823 and 1830 by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the neoclassical style to house the Prussian royal family’s art collection. The historic, protected building counts among the most distinguished in neoclassicism and is a high point of Schinkel’s career. Until 1845, it was called the Königliches Museum (Royal Museum). Along with the other museums and historic buildings on Museum Island, the Altes Museum was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

In the early nineteenth century, Germany’s bourgeoisie had become increasingly self-aware and self-confident. This growing class began to embrace new ideas regarding the relationship between itself and art. The concepts that art should be open to the public and that citizens should have access to a comprehensive cultural education began to permeate society. King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia was a strong proponent of this Humboldtian ideal for schooling and charged Karl Friedrich Schinkel with planning a public museum for the royal art collection.

Schinkel’s plans for the Königliches Museum, as it was then known, were also influenced by drafts of the crown prince, later King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. He desired a building that was heavily influenced by antiquity. The crown prince even sent Schinkel a pencil sketch of a large hall adorned with a classical portico.

…the site required a very monumental building. Therefore I preferred one giant order rather than two individual expressions for the two main stories….The building surrounded on all sides by the Ionic entablature or the Ionic columnar hall, with Ionic pilasters at the four corners, forms a simple yet grand main structure into which the two floors are inserted in a subordinate manner.

– Karl Friedrich Schinkel 1

Schinkel’s plans incorporated the Königliches Museum into an ensemble of buildings surrounding the Berliner Lustgarten (pleasure garden). The Stadtschloss in the south was a symbol of worldly power, the Zeughaus in the west represented military might, and the Berliner Dom in the east was the embodiment of divine authority. The museum to the north of the garden, which was to provide for the people’s education, stood as a symbol for science and art—and not least for their torchbearer: the self-aware bourgeoisie.

Schinkel had developed plans for the Königliches Museum as early as 1822/23, but construction did not begin until 1825. Construction was completed in 1828, and the museum was inaugurated on 3 August 1830.  Schinkel was also responsible for the renovation of the Berliner Dom in the neo-classical style (which was initially a baroque cathedral), and he exercised considerable influence on Peter Joseph Lenné’s restoration of the Lustgarten, which coincided with the construction of the museum, resulting in a harmonized and integrated ensemble.

In 1841, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV announced in a royal decree that the entire northern part of the Spree Island (known as Museum Island) “be transformed into a sanctuary for art and science.” In 1845, the Königliches Museum was renamed the Altes Museum, the name it holds to this day.

Altes Museum Plans

Floor Plans of the Altes Museum / Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Floor Plans | © Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Section of the Altes Museum / Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Section | © Karl Friedrich Schinkel

About Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781 – 1841) was a multifaceted German artist who made significant contributions to architecture, city planning, painting, furniture design, and stage set design. He was a leading figure in the Neoclassical and Neo-Gothic movements and is considered one of the most important architects of Germany. Many of his iconic buildings can be found in and around Berlin, including the Altes Museum, which is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Neoclassical architecture.

During his most productive period, Schinkel adopted a distinct architectural style that was inspired by ancient Greek architecture, as opposed to Imperial Roman architecture. He believed that a building should contain elements of the poetic and the past in order to avoid being sterile and to have a soul. This philosophy is reflected in his work, which often incorporated classical motifs and incorporated a dialogue with the classical tradition. Schinkel’s designs and ideas continue to influence architects and designers to this day.

  1. Karl Friedrich Schinkel: A Universal Man by Michael Snodin