With the sole exception of a permanent exhibition room solely devoted to the work of Joseph Beuys – widely considered to be among the most important German artists of the post-war period – the Hamburger Bahnhof features a fair balance of works by contemporary artists from all over the world. As a matter of fact, many of the more important names of German art from the last few years are noticeably absent from the exhibition spaces. In the words of Forster-Hahn, writing shortly before the Museums opening in 1996:
Amid increasingly fervent discourse on the possibility or impossibility of nationhood in the postmodern world, the vast space of the reconstructed railroad station installed with works by artists such as Joseph Beuys – but also with the flickering images of Nam June Paik – does not conjure up allusions to a static, permanent staple of art. Here, trains and railroad station come to signify mobility and connections, and seem to contradict the very idea of a national gallery. The National Gallerys new project therefore evokes the vision of a museum in a global rather than in a national context, producing a new narrative for the architecture of the railroad station as well as for the art it contains (Forster-Hahn 1996, 96).
This brings us to our next discussion: the unusual architecture of the Hamburger Bahnhof. As the museums name reminds us (“Bahnhof” means “train station” in German), the Hamburger Bahnhof was not constructed for use as a museum. Rather, it was initially constructed in the mid-19th century to serve as the terminal for the Hamburg-Berlin railway line. The refurbishment of the building to suit the museums purposes has purposefully retained several traces of its previous purpose, most notably in the form of the monolithic main hall that strikes visitors upon entering; this is where the trains would have arrived and departed. Thus, Forster-Hahns description of the project is certainly apt in its description of Hamburger Bahnhofs architectural challenge to the classical museum model.
Duncan (1995) has claimed that museums constructed in the 19th and 20th century were deliberately meant to resemble ceremonial monuments such as temples and palaces.
Such a model, we may assume, works to reinforce the effects of the type of artwork that is shown inside – “classical” artwork works best in “classical” environs. In this sense, the Hamburger Bahnhof hardly fits the classic museum model; in fact, it poses a serious challenge to it – as most of the art it shows poses a challenge to the art historical canon. Neither the exterior nor the interior of the Hamburger Bahnhof is in the least bit palatial, as its structure dates back to the origins of Modernism in art and architecture. While it is certainly true that some train stations in Europe feature classical facades, the interiors of most of the train stations have been upgraded to fit in with the dynamics of the 21st century, and have effectively lost most traces of their origins. The Hamburger Bahnhof maintains a trace of its past – but just a trace. With the exception of the entrance hall, the rest of the interior has been renovated to put the museum in line with the late 20th century model of the “white cube” exhibition space.
In its acknowledgment and refutation of the classic museum model, the Hamburger Bahnhof serves as a vital space for the exhibition of 20th and 21st century art in a period of globalization – and the increasing number of uncertainties that accompany it. It reinforces current theoretical notions of the transitory, fleeting nature of art and artists in the 21st century, while acknowledging the past as a spatio-temporal framework from which both present and future ultimately stem.
Duncan, Carol. 1995. The Art Museum as Ritual. In the Art of Art History: A Critical
Anthology, ed. Donald Preziosi, 473-485. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Forster-Han, Francoise. Shrine of Art or Signature of a New Nation? The National
Gallery(ies) in Berlin, 1848-1968. In the Formation of National Collections of Art and Archaeology, ed. Gwendolyn Wright, 79-100. Washington: National Gallery of Art.
McClellan, Andrew. 1996. Nationalism and the Origins of the Museum in France. In the Formation of National Collections of Art and Archaeology,.