VIDEO REPORT Video: Caring for Germany's Richest Museum

Hermann Parzinger, a renowned archeologist, runs Germany's largest publicly-owned art collection – the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The group has so many treasures, it can't find room enough to display them.
new parzinger play button

If you visit Berlin’s Museum Island, you might be surprised to see scaffolding everywhere.

This is the doing of Hermann Parzinger, an internationally renowned archaeologist, who heads the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in charge of Berlin’s museums.

In 1957, the foundation was created to manage and oversee Prussia’s vast cultural heritage – the largest public art collection in Germany.

It includes all of Berlin’s state museums, which have more than 5.3 million pieces, including art and ethnological and archeological artifacts.

Some of the most famous pieces include The Gates of Ishtar and the bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.

Berlin wants to establish itself as a global art heavyweight on a par with London, Paris and New York. But it faces challenges.

After Germany’s reunification in 1990, the foundation began the massive task of reassembling its vast collection, which was scattered after World War II.

Due to extensive renovations set to finish in 2025, visitor numbers have declined. Last year, there were 3.8 million visitors – almost 1 million fewer than five years ago.

Unlike in New York or London, the institutions in Berlin are supported primarily by the government.

The Prussian collection is international, including works from the Middle East, Asia and ancient antiquity. Much of it was assembled more than a century ago, brought to Berlin from all corners of the world.

As a scientist specializing in non-alphabetic forms of communication, Mr. Parzinger has led numerous archeological expeditions around the world. He is a vocal critic of the illegal trafficking of ancient artwork.

He took part in returning a stolen 4,000-year-old neo-Sumerian clay tablet, believed to be from the Iraqi city of Girsu. The clay tablet was discovered for sale on ebay in Germany and seized by police.

Mr. Parzinger’s team recently translated a list of at-risk Iraqi antiquities prepared by the International Council on Museums into German to help customs and border officials recognize stolen art and thwart trafficking.


Franziska Scheven and Tal Rimon are editors with Handelsblatt Global Edition. Narration: Franziska Scheven. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]