The year 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Instigated by Germany, the war devastated vast stretches of Europe. Moreover, German units systematically looted the occupied territories and perpetrated the biggest art theft in the history of Europe. But for the Berlin museums, too, the commemoration of the end of the war in May 1945 is inextricably linked with the loss of sizable parts of their collections. In the final days of the war two fires at the Friedrichshain flak tower destroyed a great number of works of art, among them numerous celebrated masterpieces that had been stored there for safekeeping.
Over the course of the rest of the year the Western Allies and the Soviet Union seized control of large parts of the Berlin collections. The bulk of these holdings was not returned to the then-divided city until the 1950s. Thefts committed by private individuals in the post-war turmoil account for further losses, though these are hard to quantify with any degree of accuracy. The losses of the war and immediate post-war period affect the collections of the Kaiser Friedrich-Museum, today’s Bode-Museum, to this day. The Gemäldegalerie lost some 400 paintings and the Skulpturensammlung approximately one third of its holdings. Of the sculptures that were eventually returned, many were badly damaged.
The exhibition The Lost Museum sheds light on the circumstances of the flak tower fires of 1945 and the subsequent fate of the works of art. Plaster casts and scale photographic reproductions aim to raise public awareness of the masterpieces of painting and sculpture lost by the Berlin collections. Moreover, the exhibition will address ethical and practical issues affecting the restoration of war-damaged works of art, a subject that continues to divide experts and that is also subject to the vagaries of the zeitgeist.
The exhibition is conceived as a multi-voiced reflection: curators, restorers, archivists, historians, artists, and members of staff from the SMB’s replica workshop accompany the visitor via an audio-visual guide that can be accessed in the gallery as well as online. What becomes apparent is that each generation deals with this legacy in a different way. The different approaches reflect not only individual or collective decisions to take a particular view of the past but also the political climate of the period.