The Berlin Coin Cabinet Reopens

by Bernhard Weisser

Bernhard Weisser is a curator at the Berlin Coin Cabinet.

On October 22, 2004, the Münzkabinett in the Bode-Museum in Berlin, Germany re-opened its doors after a five-year renovation project. Located on the historic “Museuminsel” (island of museums) in Berlin, the coin cabinet is part of a larger museum complex, which became a UNESCO world heritage site five years ago. The coin cabinet was opened by the German Finance Minister Hans Eichel in the presence of many friends and numismatists. The renovation of the facilities, which cost over 5 million Euros ($6.5), restored the museum including much of its furniture to its original 1904 state. To celebrate the re-opening, the staff and its director, Dr. Bernd Kluge, opened the historic vault room of the cabinet to the public. Visitors waited for over three hours to see the famous storage facilities, which are generally only open to staff members. Another highlight of the opening was the generous donation of an endowment fund of 100,000 Euro for new coin acquisition, made by Helga and Erivan Haub.

Erivan and Helga Haub, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann and Bernd Kluge.

From royal collection to research institute

Like most other German and European coin cabinets, the Berlin coin cabinet has its roots in the collection of a prince. In the sixteeenth century, the monarch Joachim II (1535-1571) maintained a coin collection as part of his “Kunstkammer” (chamber of art). The inventories from 1619 to 1649 document his interest in ancient coins. In the course of the seventeenth century, several other German collections became part of the Berlin cabinet, which was administered by librarians until the second half of the nineteenth century. It was Julius Friedländer (1813-1884), one of the most eminent German numismatists, who changed the nature of the cabinet to a museum during his 45-year tenure. Thanks to his collecting activities and the ample funds that were available in the early years of the German empire after 1871, the collection rapidly grew to one of the most important collections in the world. In 1884 when Friedlaender died, the cabinet had 198,000 coins and medals. On the academic side, some of the brightest German scholars were joining the cabinet. Contemporaries or students of Theodor Mommsen, himself an imminent numismatist and the only ancient historian ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, were now in charge at the coin cabinet. Scholars such as Alfred von Sallet and Heinrich Dressel were an important influence on numismatics in Germany. In 1874, the Zeitschrift für Numismatik was founded, and in 1889 the Corpus Nummorum, a research project collecting numismatic data on ancient mints, was founded. At the same time, the coin cabinet became home to collectors and amateurs such as Hermann Dannenberg and Friedrich Imhoof-Blumer. Many students of that period became eminent curators in other collections in Munich, Gotha or Athens.

View of the Kunstkammer (chamber of art) in Berlin, 1704

The move to the Museumschloß in 1904

Since 1830 the coin cabinet had been housed in the Royal Museum (today the Alte Museum), built by the German master architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The coin cabinet was given a new home in the neo-baroque building of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, which was being constructed by the architect Eberhard von Ihne. Housed in a long corridor the new museum’s central piece was and is the 60 m (196 feet) long vault room. In addition there are offices for staff and conservators, a library and administrative quarters. The long coin cabinets were then a state-of-the-art storage system, which was a departure from the traditional method of storing coins in small wooden cabinets. The new system, which resembles more the machine room of an ocean liner than museum storage, was made of stainless-steel cabinets, which house large trays. Interestingly this system was later adopted by the American Numismatic Society when it renovated its building and built the upper vault in the 1930s.

Reverse of a medal by Wilhelm Haverkamp commemorating the opening of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in 1904

Until the end of the First World War in 1919 the collection kept growing. By then the Berlin coin cabinet contained 335,000 objects: 140,000 ancient coins, 131,000 medieval and modern coins, 30,500 Oriental coins, 21,000 medals, 4,500 tokens, 6,000 pieces of paper currency and 2,000 dies and seals. The economic decline during the Weimar Republic had its effect on the coin cabinet, although by 1930 the collection still grew to about 414,800 objects. With the takeover of the Nazis in 1933, numismatic activities in the coin cabinet and the collector community came to a halt. Many of the eminent numismatists such as Philipp Lederer and Felix Schlesinger were driven out of Berlin, the German journal, the Zeitschrift für Numismatik, ceased to publish, and after the death of Kurt Regling, curator of the Berlin cabinet, there were no further academic activities.

In 1942, the entire coin collection was moved to the air raid shelters in the basements of the Pergamon Museum. The Bode-Museum suffered major damage, and in 1945 the Soviet army removed the coin collections and the entire library as part of the reparation payments to Moscow. Although the coins were returned in 1958 after Khrushchev became prime minister of the Soviet Union, the numismatic library remains in Moscow to the present day. Under the East German communist government, the curators of the collection were primarily occupied of putting the coins back into some orderly fashion. The political situation, which generally led to scholarly isolation, had less of an effect on the Berlin coin cabinet, where visitors from abroad continued to come for research. Due to the lack of hard currency it was impossible to purchase books but thanks to a steady stream of gifts the library again is growing. Since the German reunification in 1990, the curatorial staff has not only undertaken a successful renovation of the museum, but has also published extensively. Future plans include the cataloguing of the museum’s extensive collections.

The centerpiece of the revitalized museum is the restored coin cabinet.

Further reading:

A full history of the coin cabinet is available in German on the website of the coin cabinet or in print: Bernd Kluge, Das Münzkabinett. Museum und Wissenschaftsinstitut, Berlin 2004 (Das Kabinett 9)