Museums Disasters Germany

Berlin museum finally lays bare its war-damaged collection

An exhibition at the Bode Museum surveys the ethical implications of restoring damaged art

Nose job: Francesco Maratta's 17th-century bust of his brother, the painter Carlo Maratta, shown before and after its restoration

Works damaged in two devastating fires in 1945 that destroyed around 400 paintings and sculptures stored in Berlin’s Friedrichshain bunker, including pieces by Caravaggio, Rubens and Donatello, are being presented in a new exhibition at the Bode Museum. “The Missing Museum: the Berlin Sculpture and Paintings Collections 70 Years after World War II”, which opens today, 19 March, explores ethical and practical decisions museums face in regards to war-damaged works, namely whether they should be restored or left in their ruined state as a permanent reminder of the horrors of the conflict.

“One of the exhibition’s objectives is to bring these works back from oblivion into people’s consciousness,” says Julien Chapuis, the museum’s deputy director and curator of the show, adding that many of the pieces have not been exhibited since 1939. The show contains around 50 works—a mix of original pieces, life-size reproductions of lost paintings and plaster casts of sculptures from the museum’s collection. In some cases, casts from the Gipsformerei—the Berlin Museums plaster cast studio—have been used to restore damaged works, including a bust of the Baroque painter Carlo Maratta, which had a broken nose, among other ailments. Other works that are beyond repair, including a portrait of Teodorina Cibo by Andrea Sansovino, will be shown in their broken state. And a photomontage of the seven Rubens paintings lost during the war will be hung in the gallery that once housed them.

“We will be showing a number of horrendous-looking pieces—works that are so badly damaged that they haven’t been displayed in generations,” Chapuis says. “We want to be brutally honest about the condition of these works so that we can start a dialogue as to how they can be presented in the future.”

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