Between past and future

Minsk and Berlin museums search for common ground

By Viktar Korbut

Minsk and Berlin museums search for common ground

Slightly more than a thousand kilometres divide Minsk and Berlin, with only Poland between. German archaeologist and expert in Scythian culture Hermann Parzinger, the President of the Berlin Fund of Prussian heritage, visited the capital of Belarus for the first time in mid-May, although he has often travelled to neighbouring countries, for extensive projects. He now knows a great deal more about Belarus, at the centre of Europe. Of course, as the head of a network of major museums and leading research centres, which store treasures from ancient Egypt and Greece, through to the modern day, he has much expertise to share.

Berlin’s experience in preserving cultural heritage is interesting to Belarus and Minsk, since many of our country’s architectural monuments were destroyed during the Second World War. Dr. Parzinger recollects that German cities also lost much at that time, including buildings on Berlin’s Museum Island. It has taken five decades for restoration to commence and Berlin Palace has only recently been designated for rebuilding, having been damaged during the war, then demolished. It is now reviving, like a phoenix.

A number of Minsk’s ‘lost’ buildings have been restored in recent years — such as the Europe Hotel (destroyed in 1941), the city hall (demolished in the 19th century) and Holy-Spirit Church (demolished in 1936). All are located on Svobody Square: the ancient centre of the city.

Hermann Parzinger met us at the Mikhail Savitsky Gallery (Hero of Belarus) — located on this square — to chat about the past and future of the capitals of our two European countries.


What brought you to Minsk?

I came at the invitation of the Goethe Institute. I know many Slavic countries — from Slovenia to Russia — but have never before visited Belarus. It is a fragment of the European continent to have unexpectedly opened up to me. The ancestors of Germans were not only ancient Germans and Celts, but Slavs. Meanwhile, the ancestors of Belarusians were not only Slavs but ancient Germans. We have much in common, and have much to learn about each other.

The destinies of Belarus and Germany have intersected more than once in the past; is this reflected in the collections held by Berlin museums?

Prussian cultural heritage collections are held in 16 museums, and in a library of 12 million volumes. The Secret State Archive of Prussia has 38 million kilometres of documents, and there are other establishments too. The Prussian State ceased to exist after the Second World War but, considering past ties between Belarus and Germany, the exhibits may include some interesting objects from our shared history.

The exhibition buildings on Museum Island in Berlin were emptied after the Second World War, and some fell into ruin. Now they are restored. What comes next?

When I first arrived in Berlin, I saw these ruins. I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t been restored in the intervening five decades. Then I understood that it was an uneasy task. Finally, restoration was carried out with state assistance; it was an important project for Germany, taking 15 years. We still need another 15-20 years to restore Berlin Palace. It is important as a symbol of our nation’s traditions: a centre of science and art. In fact, 3.5 million people visit Museum Island annually, showing that it benefits the city and wider society.

Berlin has Museum Island, while Minsk has its Museum Quarter, which is being created around the National Art Museum. There are discussions concerning as to what to do with this part of the city. How do you view such work — including at Berlin Palace?

These are important centres of culture for a capital. The area around Berlin Palace is the oldest in the city, where Berlin began. It was a big mistake that it was demolished. During the war, it suffered, but it wasn’t completely destroyed. From 1946-1949, it housed various establishments but then the GDR authorities made the barbaric decision to blow up this baroque style architecture.

Digs began there recently and we’ll soon be opening up its 15th century cellars to the public. During restoration, we’ll recreate the facades exactly but will make the interior modern. Its halls are to house artefacts currently in storage, from America, Asia and Russia.

Our style of exhibiting will differ greatly from a hundred years ago, when artefacts were presented as ‘trophies’ from colonies. We now aim to help visitors understand the individual significance of each object. The museum should be a great deal more than a storage facility; it needs to reflect contemporary needs. Having chatted with experts from Belarus, I’m convinced that you share our understanding of that, and follow world trends.

During the post-war period, many architectural monuments were bombed and destroyed: both in Berlin and in Minsk. How is it decided which should be restored?

There was much destruction in Germany. Only two ancient cities escaped: Wiesbaden and Heidelberg — as the Americans chose them for their main bases. Alas, Frankfurt, considered to be the greatest medieval European city before the war, was almost completely razed. After the war, many believed that the future would be better than the past, so were indifferent to the preservation and restoration of their architectural heritage. The vogue was for spacious new homes, so historical buildings were demolished. Alas, it occurred not just across ‘socialist camp’ countries but across all Western Europe. Only Munich and a few other cities have been restored in their former form, because the authorities decided so. Now, as I see it, most people welcome restoration of city sites, although it really depends on investors.

What impression did you have on seeing Minsk’s old city?

It’s modest in size, but its appearance is evidence of Belarus taking good care of its heritage. This unites us.

Belarus’ reference:

Hermann Parzinger was born in 1959 in Munich. From 2003-2008, he was the President of the German Archaeological Institute. Since 2008, he has been the President of the Berlin Fund of Prussian Cultural Heritage. He is the author and co-author of more than 20 monographs and over 230 scientific articles on archaeology, covering the period from the Stone Age to the Early Iron Age.

He has carried out digs in Europe and Asia and his discovery of the tomb of the Scythian Tsar in a barrow in Tuva in July 2001 brought him world renown. An incredible 6,000 golden objects were discovered there. Another of his sensational discoveries occurred in the summer of 2006, in the eternal snow of the Altai: a frozen mummified Scythian warrior, covered in tattoos, fully dressed.
In 2009, the President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, bestowed the order of Friendship for Outstanding Scientific Achievements and Active Participation in Developing German-Russian Scientific and Cultural Ties to Parzinger. In 2011, he received the German order Pour le Mérite, and, in 2012, he was given the main officer cross ‘For merits to Germany’.

In his spare time, he is keen on judo, having a black belt, and has taken part in European and World championships. He has repeatedly been named as Berlin champion (last in 2010).

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