Berlin's Museum Island on Spree river and Alexanderplatz TV tower

Art History students explore Berlin’s cultural extravaganza

22 January 2024
Undergraduate students take on Berlin’s museums for credit
Our undergraduate students travelled to Berlin to visit museums, galleries, exhibitions, and art districts. In an immersive program, they uncovered one of Europe’s most vibrant cultural hubs.

Art History at the University of Sydney explores the history of making, viewing and experiencing complex and compelling works of art and architecture. By developing historical knowledge and analytical skills, our students learn to examine art across time and space in historical and cultural contexts. They uncover the canonical forms of painting, sculpture and architecture, as well as a rich spectrum of media and contemporary art practice in galleries, museums, and other institutions across Sydney. But for many, the pinnacle of student life is the ‘Art and the City’ fieldwork unit which takes our students from the classroom to the most exhilarating cultural hubs of the world such as Paris or Berlin. In this immersive experience, our students engage with a city’s history of architecture and public space and its galleries, monuments, collections, and artworks – all while earning credit for their degree. 

From Marlene Dietrich, Stephen Spender, David Bowie, and Christopher Isherwood to Ian McEwan, Lady Gaga and Nick Cave, Berlin has captivated the imagination of writers, singers, and artists alike. Berlin’s art collections and exhibitions, from the ancients to the contemporary, speak to the complexity and power of art and architecture to transgress and offer transcendence. Bowie once labelled Berlin “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” His song Heroes, which he recorded when living in West Berlin in the heady 1970s, referenced lovers stranded on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Since the Wall’s collapse in 1989, the bustling German capital has embraced this duality with cultural institutions from East and West forming a cultural feast of galleries, museums, opera houses, theatres, groovy bars and restaurants.

During last year’s European summer, the tour commenced with a visit to the new Humboldt Forum. Situated near the famous Museum Insel (Museum Island), it houses the former ethnographic and Asian collections relocated from the outer district of Dahlem. The excursion provided the perfect juncture to study issues of colonisation, de-colonisation, exhibition and display strategies, and current global concerns of restitution.

"The collections on Museum Island ranging from Islamic and Egyptian art, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman to religious sculpture and classical painting provided students with a plethora of discussion points including the ongoing negotiations around the restitution of the magnificent Nefertiti bust to Egypt," wrote Associate Professor Donna West Brett, Chair of Art History, who led the tour and coordinated the fieldwork unit.

An absolute highlight was the temporary exhibition at the Alte Nationalgalerie of works from the Secession movement in the late nineteenth-century, including works by Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck, Max Liebermann and their contemporaries.

My time in Berlin was completely transformative. Having a guide to navigate the various and often difficult themes of the works and history we encountered is a privilege that I will remain forever grateful for.
Lucy Begg, Art History major and Law student

The extraordinarily large Gemäldegalerie museum offered enticing visual treats from Breugel, Caravaggio and Vermeer to Dürer, Botticelli, Le Brun and Van Eyck - all of which drove a hearty appetite for lunch before visiting the newly renovated Neue Nationalgalerie next door. 

The gallery included a poignant display of materials highlighting the horror of the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) Exhibition held in Munich in 1937, that included famous artworks previously deemed unworthy by the National Socialists.  The future art historians particularly admired the key works of contemporary artist Gerhard Richter. The group later convened at the magnificent biergarten at the Café am Neuen See while watching Berlin fade into dusk.

This has been the best unit of study I've taken thus far, it has challenged me and was an incredibly rewarding experience.
Undergraduate Art History student

During a day trip the group visited the historic city of Potsdam to see the incredible collection of Impressionist art at the famous Museum Barbarini including that of Claude Monet, August Renoir, Berthe Morisot, and Paul Signac amongst others. The students also enjoyed walk around the city’s Dutch quarter following a scrumptious traditional German meal.

Throughout the trip students worked in groups to provide highly-informative talks about various institutions and their collections or exhibitions - an extraordinary privilege for students and teachers alike. 

After a restful Sunday the group visited Die Brücke museum of German Expressionist art and Kunsthaus Dahlem, built during the Nazi era as a studio for the sculptor Arno Breker. Other highlights included the Surrealist collections at Scharf Gerstenberg, photography at the Museum of Photography and C/O Berlin, and contemporary art at the Hamburger Bahnhof and KW Institute. The latter has contributed significantly to Berlin’s development as an international contemporary art hub. An exploration of the former Jewish quarter and dinner at the infamous Clärchens Ballhaus, a glitzy ballroom and biergarten dating from 1913, concluded the tour before our students went their separate ways with new friends and memories.

The best aspect was to engage with so many artworks each day, to discuss them with my peers and academics, to debate knowing there is no definitive answer, to listen to others, to have my opinions solidified or changed.
Undergraduate Art History student

The Art and the City: Berlin Fieldwork Unit is offered through the Discipline of Art History. and was generously assisted by student travel scholarships from the Terry Travel Fund and the Frank McDonald Memorial Fund. Both funds support student access and inclusive educational opportunities.

This news story is based on an article written by Associate Professor Donna West Brett for the GLAM blog.

Related articles