In the past five years Dresden’s museums and reconstructed old town have established it as one of Europe’s better tourist destinations – and a much-needed success story in the depressed eastern Germany. The city draws nearly 10 million visitors a year with its cultural attractions and painstakingly reconstructed historic centre. Its popularity with culture-seekers is complemented by a booming biotech industry.
But there are signs Dresden is becoming uncomfortable with the burdens of history, and 2010 may be the year its identity crisis comes to a head. Is it destined to be one of Europe’s loveliest museums, or a dynamic city that treats its heritage as just another asset to be considered and sometimes ignored?
Dresden, the capital of Saxony, has been a centre of art and culture for almost 500 years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Dresden was compared to the finest cities in Europe; its nickname before the Second World War was Florence on the Elbe. Italian and German painters immortalised the view from its riverbanks, with the iconic sandstone dome of the Frauenkirche floating above the city. Then, on the night of 13 February, 1945, 2,600 tonnes of Allied bombs turned Dresden into a symbol of destruction and suffering.
It’s taken the last 65 years for the city to claw its way back to the forefront of European culture. The shattered Frauenkirche was reopened in 2005 with help from the UK and the US. Today, the city’s prime draw is the Dresden State Art Collection (SKD), a complex of 12 museums mostly housed in a magnificently restored palace complex along the Elbe. Because of its post-war connections with the east, Dresden is particularly popular with tourists from Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic.
In 2010, the SKD will celebrate its 450th anniversary with the opening of two new museums. The Turkish Chamber, a 750 sq m display of Oriental art, weaponry and textiles collected by the Saxon kings from the 16th to the 19th centuries, will open its doors in March. And in June, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso will preside over the re-opening of the Albertinum, a museum dedicated to art from the last 200 years. Originally built in 1559, the Albertinum was badly damaged by bombs in 1945 and again by flooding in 2002. The €47m renovation took more than five years to complete. “It’s an incredibly large, meaningful project, without a doubt,” says museum spokesman Stephan Adam.
Yet it all may be overshadowed by a construction project nearby. The city fought for years to have an 18km stretch of the Elbe river valley, including the Dresden riverfront, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO gave the city the coveted listing in 2004, calling the Elbe valley “an outstanding cultural landscape, an ensemble that integrates the celebrated baroque setting and suburban garden city into an artistic whole within the river valley”.
The ink was barely dry on the World Heritage listing when the city government announced plans for a modern, double-decker, six-lane, €125m steel bridge smack in the middle of the historic riverfront. UNESCO responded immediately, placing Dresden on the list of “threatened” cultural sites and demanding that the bridge project be replaced with a tunnel. After four years of back-and-forth, UNESCO de-listed Dresden last July – only the second time the agency has ever taken such a step. “It was a significant loss of prestige and a blow to the city’s image,” says Dieter Offenhäusser, spokesman for the German UNESCO commission.
There’s no way to quantify the damage the bad publicity caused, but the de-listing made headlines around the world – and hurt Dresden’s reputation as a cultural tourism destination. “Theoretically, we could have lost some visitors because of this fight,” says Adam. “But on the other hand, the city’s the same as it’s always been, an art city, one of the best in the world.”
Ultimately, the decision was about more than a bridge. After spending the last 65 years rebuilding their war-torn city, Dresdeners decided they didn’t want to live under glass. The bridge is a strong statement to that effect. Dresden’s politicians, preservationists and curators will have to work hard – and work together – in 2010 to overcome the damage the UNESCO affair did to the city’s reputation, and decide on a new identity for one of Germany’s jewels.