advertisement

Germany’s largest art and culture museum spans the millennia to show off painting, sculpture, crafts, arms and armor—if something’s part of Germany’s national heritage, it’s here, making this former Carthusian monastery (plus modern annexes) the equivalent of the Smithsonian Institution or the British Museum. A tour begins before you even get inside the door, with the Way of Human Rights: 29 columns inscribed, in different languages, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. (An oak tree represents all others whose languages aren’t on the pillars.) The effect is especially haunting in a city that once laid such waste to human rights.

An excellent audio guide (in English) hits the museum’s highlights; focusing on just these could easily take half a day. There’s a crude stone hand axe from 100,000 years ago, one of the world’s first-known tools; a medieval bone-crushing torture device called the Spanish Boot; and a Bauhaus-era kitchen from Stuttgart, the latest in pre-World War II German home design. In a touching glimpse of antiquity, you’ll see Roman roof tiles imprinted with the paw marks of dogs who wandered onto a work site while the terracotta was still wet. There’s a Dr. Seuss-like tall gold conical hat imprinted with astrological symbols, worn by cult priests 3,000 years ago. (A bricklayer found its fragments in a field in the 1950s.) The Erdapfel (Earth Apple) is the first-known globe, created by geographer Martin Behaim in Nürnberg between 1491 and 1493, just before news of Columbus’ discovery of the New World spread across Europe (note how the Americas are missing). In the Old Master galleries is Albrecht Dürer’s tender portrait of his aging mother, possibly painted as a keepsake to take on his extensive travels in Italy and the Netherlands. (A companion piece of his father is in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.) Less touching is Lucas Cranach’s cynical Ill-Matched Couple, in which a scrawny elderly man grabs the breast of a lascivious-looking younger woman, as she dips her hand into his purse. The work of early 20th-century Expressionists, on the top floor of the north wing, includes Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as Drunkard, scorned as degenerate by the Nazis, which you can compare to nearby works by their officially “preferred” artists: look for an especially fatuous picnic scene of a risibly Aryan-looking blond man and his dirndl-clad wife.