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The GDR's Palace Of The Republic, pictured in 1990. It was demolished in 2008, leaving a gap which may be filled by a new museun (photo: Dietmar Rabich, via Wikimedia Commons)

Berlin, the most provincial of major European capitals, has found its saviour. When the news broke last month that Neil MacGregor was to leave the British Museum  to come to Berlin to chair Europe’s biggest museum project, the £500 million Humboldt Forum, the German press went uncharacteristically wild. After months of excited anticipation and rumour, MacGregor appeared to be the German fantasy of an Englishman of the old kind (the fact that he is Scottish didn’t seem to get in the way of this): extremely cultured, thoroughly well-mannered, and, most importantly, superbly suited to explain Germany to its own people.

In a world where art, politics, and cultural heritage meet, Germans had been desperately looking to find someone to guide them through the challenges as well as the misery and despair of positioning German art in a global perspective, while also answering the eternal question of what “German” really ought to represent.

The site where the new international centre of culture is supposed to rise from the sandy grounds of Berlin is named after the Humboldt brothers, Wilhelm and Alexander: 19th-century polymaths prominent among the intellectual founders of the modern museum. MacGregor can be trusted to honour this tradition and to refresh it for our age, at least judging by his track record of organising hugely successful exhibitions that are elegantly highbrow, maintaining an intellectual standpoint while opening it to a wider audience.

As any cultural transplant will know, an outsider’s perspective is often more interesting and relevant than that of the insider. Having just lost an Olympic bid to Hamburg, and still unable to open its long-planned international airport, Berlin will be thrilled to welcome this deus ex machina from London, while Germany will be lucky to have him to shake up its zeitgeist a bit.

This spring, all one can see is a building site in the area by the River Spree where the Humboldt Forum will be built. The new building will stand on the site of the old Hohenzollern Stadtschloss, demolished to make room for the Palace of the Republic, the GDR’s parliament. The latter, too, was demolished in 2008, despite a campaign to keep this brutalist building with tan-coloured windows open as a monument or even an art space. Indeed, the hedonistic post-Berlin Wall period saw quite a few exhibitions and parties there.

So Berliners feel rather emotional about this site of mixed heritage that combines Prussian elements with those of the Enlightenment and the sense of a happy ending to at least one chapter of 20th-century German history. The area is now part of a carefully reconstructed historical centre, with the grand Unter den Linden boulevard on one side, and the museum island just around the corner. It is almost the geographic middle of the city and the reminder of a more self-assured pre-Nazi Berlin. The city today is never just beautiful, as Paris or certain parts of London can be.

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