Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Baroque. One passed through the heavy portals of those sacred halls with awe and immediately muted one's voice, as in a church. There was a kind of forced silence, a manipulated devotion and reverence, indeed solemnity, before the works on display. Art was to be celebrated like a religious rite, not merely viewed, admired or enjoyed.

That spirit was especially prevalent in Germany, where the ritual of Kunst und Kultur -- art and culture -- has been the preserve of an elite and museums have been traditionally treated as pantheons open only to connoisseurs. Too many visitors, after all, might be harmful to the treasures.

As one German museologist, Wolfgang Klausewitz, president of the German Museum League, put it: "The acidic breath and transpiration of many people gathered in a relatively small room can impair priceless works of art." Small wonder then that cynics have also called such hallowed mausoleums of the muses "public sleeping rooms" and "cemeteries of art."

Under the circumstances it may be all the more surprising that West Germany is currently enjoying a museum renaissance matched by no other country. The country's 2,300 museums, of which 300 are art galleries, recorded 53 million visitors last year -- more than attended soccer games, the most popular spectator sport in the country. A third of these are spontaneous visitors, who enter on the spur of the moment while passing by. Moreover, the museum-going public is getting progressively younger. West Berlin's National Gallery, for example, reports that nearly 60 percent of its visitors are now under age 29.

What is even more notable is the museum construction boom. During the past five years plans have been approved, ground broken, construction started or portals already opened for 27 new major art museums or additions to existing ones. The cost of these projects is conservatively estimated at $460 million.

Some of these new institutions, such as Stuttgart's Neue Staatsgalerie, Mo nchengladbach's Sta dtisches Museum or Frankfurt's Museum fur Kuntshandwerk (applied art), are the works of internationally renowned architects, among them Britain's James Stirling, Austria's Hans Hollein and Richard Meier of New York.

Indeed, thanks to many of the buildings, Germany is being sought by architecturally interested tourists who have already seen the cathedrals, castles, palaces, picturesque half-timbered towns and walled towns of note. Cities that once barely merited a mention in a guidebook, if that much -- Bochum, Bottrop, Emden, Ludwigshafen, Mo nchengladbach -- are now attracting visitors primarily because of their new museums. More often than not the packages of stone, brick, steel and glass are more important than their contents.

Mo nchengladbach, for example, an industrial Rhineland city of 260,000, used to be known largely for its pennant-winning soccer team and as the "German capital of male chorus singing." And the 20th century art in its 3-year-old municipal gallery on the Abteiberg is of rather marginal importance. But the $10 million gem of avant-garde architecture that Hollein created to house the collection has put the city on the map for travelers.

The most sensational success to date has been Stirling's provocatively Post-Modernist construction in Stuttgart. Since the controversial $30 million building opened its doors 16 months ago, it has attracted more than 1.6 million people -- almost three times the city's population -- and vaulted Stuttgart from 64th to first place among West German art museums in number of visitors.

To be sure, the Stuttgart collection -- which covers five centuries, from art of the Middle Ages to the modern classics -- is prodigious and significant in its own right. It includes key works by both Holbeins and Cranachs, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Renoir, Monet, Ce'zanne, Modigliani, Picasso and Max Beckmann. But those paintings cannot possibly explain the sudden upsurge in museum visitors that even the gallery's director, Peter Beye, admits has taken him completely by surprise. Beye concedes that the daily flow is due largely to the "new package," to Stirling's monumental building -- described by one critic as "a cross between an Etruscan burial mound and Pop Art sculpture, between an Italian Renaissance palazzo and the Centre Pompidou in Paris."

The fact that flashy new museums will attract tourists and enhance the images of their towns is admitted by most of the local politicians who allocate funds for such projects. And the principle, they point out candidly, is hardly new. After all, wasn't prestige what also motivated the amassing of art collections and the building of museums by the rulers of Germany's mini-kingdoms, principalities and dollhouse duchies in eras past, and by the barons of industry in the late-19th and early-20th centuries? A stunning temple of art is as good for a city's tourist trade as an eye-popping basilica or lavishly gilded castle.

And for Frankfurt, changing the city's reputation and polishing up its badly tarnished image has been a major challenge.

Consider a few facts. The town is nearly 1,200 years old. From 1152 on it was de facto the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, being the place where the emperors were elected and, starting in the 16th century, also crowned. Goethe was born and raised there and wrote some of his earliest works in the house that bears his name. The world's largest literary and publishing extravaganza, the International Book Fair, is staged in Frankfurt each fall. Yet one thing it certainly is not is a cultural center.

In the 1950s and early '60s, Frankfurt cranked up the highest crime rate in West Germany, gaining such a reputation for vice, corruption and gangsterism that it became known as "Germany's Chicago," a label Chicagoans justifiably considered an insult. (To this day Frankfurt still has a crime rate almost three times as high as the Windy City's.)

Organized crime then took a back seat to real-estate speculation and the city's rise as West Germany's, indeed continental Europe's, principal banking and financial hub. As skyscrapers mushroomed from what once had been idyllic quarters of narrow cobblestone streets and picture-book half-timbered houses, the labels changed. Now people call it "Bankfurt," "Krankfurt," "Angstfurt" and "Manhattan-on-the-Main."

But Frankfurters are determined the world should see them in a kinder light. With a politically ambitious mayor and an idealistic municipal arts director in the lead, they are in the process of turning their city into Germany's museum capital.

By the end of the 1980s Frankfurt will have eight new or completely renovated museums, at a cost of approximately $100 million, five of them in a row of gracious 19th-century villas and mansions on the left bank of the Main River in what city fathers envision as a "cultural and museological park." Two of these, the German Film Museum and the German Architecture Museum, opened a week apart in June 1984. A third, the Museum of Applied Art -- designed by America's prophet of Late-Modernism, Richard Meier -- was inaugurated amid glowing praise in April. The last two on the list are the German Postal Museum and the Museum of Ethnology.

The five, all within a two-block river front, flank Frankfurt's Sta del Museum of Fine Art, donated by Johann Sta del, a wealthy 19th-century merchant, and renowned for its fine collection of works by Botticelli, Titian, Tintoretto, Du rer, Gru newald, the Cranachs, the Holbeins, Jan van Eyck, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Ce'zanne, Courbet, Corot, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Rousseau. In addition the city intends to build a Museum of Pre- and Early History, a Museum of Modern Art and a Jewish Museum which, fittingly, will be housed in the old Rothschild Palais.

"We are not just building museums," says Hilmar Hoffmann, the municipal director of the arts and culture, "but a whole program."

This applies especially to the row of museums on the left bank.

The riverfront, lined with trees, parkways and a number of patrician town houses and mansions, all surrounded by lush parks, gardens and old trees, is one of the few sections of Frankfurt that has not fallen prey to commercialization and real estate speculation. A decade ago, the city administration began methodically buying up property to protect and preserve the character of the area. Each of the museums uses one of these old houses, with additional facilities in modern wings behind or around them.

The most spectacular construction thus far is Meier's, completed at a cost of nearly $15 million. Using the Metzler Villa, a three-story townhouse built in 1803, as his core, he created a stunning L-shaped structure that is a singular homage to Classical Modernism in architecture and to the style developed in the 1920s and '30s. A veritable tribute to the Bauhaus school, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and to the Constructivists, it virtually embraces the old town house to which it is linked, at the second-story level, by a glass enclosed walkway. The nearly 80,000 square feet of exhibit space provide a dazzling environment for the museum's collection of 30,000 art objects, among them some of the finest pieces of furniture, glass, porcelain, ceramics and jewelry from Europe, the Islamic world and Asia.

White is Meier's favorite color, glass his favorite material, and he used both liberally, making some walls almost entirely of glass -- so that the park with its old yew trees is part of the interior -- and covering other facades with the white porcelain-enamel metal plates that he applied on the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and in the Atheneum in New Harmony, Ind.

During the three years of construction Meier spent many months in Frankfurt, personally supervising the minutest details of the building work. Collaboration between him and the museum's curator, Anneliese Ohm, was so close that she brought him photographs and scale drawings of every object to be permanently shown, for which he then designed the appropriate vitrines and cabinets. Nothing was left to chance and the results are stupendous.

"It is the most beautiful, elegant and noble museum construction in Germany," commented the monthly Art magazine. "It is Richard Meier's masterpiece."

"Frankfurt got precisely what it wanted," added the influential weekly Die Zeit, "the world's best museum architecture."

But there will be more, according to Hilmar Hoffmann. He regards Meier's museum as merely a "milestone." Work on the Jewish Museum on the opposite side of the Main has already begun. Construction for the German Postal Museum's annex wing will start next year. The Museum of Pre- and Early History is scheduled for completion in 1987, the year in which work on Frankfurt's Museum of Modern Art will begin.

Money for these projects, as well as for new acquisitions by the existing institutions, seems to be no problem. Hoffmann works with no less than 11 percent of the Frankfurt muncipal budget.

The aim, moreover, is to construct living museums in which, as he puts it, "we want to take down the 'please don't touch' signs as often and widely as possible and replace them with invitations to go ahead and do so."

This policy is very definitely in force in the German Film Museum, which opened in June of last year, five lovely town houses downstream from the Museum of Applied Art. Most of the exhibits can be moved and operated by visitors. When they get tired of playing or want a break, they can have a drink or snack in a re-creation of Paris's Grand Cafe', where the Lumie re brothers unveiled their first motion pictures in 1895.

"Our goal," says Hoffmann, "is to put Frankfurt into the circle of Europe's most important museum cities."

That, it seems, is also the aim of officials in West Berlin, who have set aside a whole segment of the Tiergarten (Zoo Park) area, within sight of the Brandenburg Gate and the Wall that seals off East Berlin, for a complex of museums. These will ultimately house the treasures of the Foundation for Prussian Cultural Property, a quasi-governmental organization that has title to what remains of the art treasures of Prussia's kings and Germany's kaisers.

The immense project foresees five museums, to be built by 1993 at a cost of around $125 million. Most of the collections are now housed temporarily in various buildings around the city, but the present facilities are so inadequate that the majority of objects are kept in the vaults.

The first of these new institutions, the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Applied Art), a $24-million project seven years abuilding, opened in May. As an institution it is more than 100 years old, having been founded by the king of Prussia in 1867. And as a collection of art and craft objects from around the world, covering nearly two millenia of human achievement, it is one of the richest and finest.

But the new building, adjacent to Berlin's Philharmonic Hall, just off Kemperplatz, has been lambasted as an architectural disaster of brick and reinforced concrete in the humdrum, oppressive style of countless 1960s department stores and satellite-town apartment houses. Virtually every critic has panned it, and most of them compared it unfavorably with Meier's structure in Frankfurt, which had opened just a few days before.

Der Spiegel even carped: "Only in Germany is it possible to build new museums of great scope today, but German architects are incapable of building them."

Equally scathing reviews seem destined for what is currently the largest single museum now under construction -- Cologne's Wallraf-Richartz and Ludwig Museum. A $90-million project, it is scheduled for completion in September 1986.

The huge complex, tucked between the Rhine River, the main railway station, Cologne's famous cathedral and the Roman-Germanic Museum with its treasures from the days when Cologne was the capital of a Roman province, will accommodate the city's two most important art collections, both now housed inadequately in a building where they have been since 1957.

The Wallraf-Richartz collection covers painting from the 13th through the 19th centuries and includes some of the greatest works by German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish masters. The Ludwig Collection consists of more than 1,000 works of 20th-century art, most of them on permanent loan from or donated by Peter Ludwig, an Aachen chocolate manufacturer, who ranks as the world's richest and greatest private collector, especially of contemporary art. Ludwig's private hoard of American art, donated or on loan to 21 museums in Europe -- an incredible treasure trove of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Oldenburg, Estes, Segal and Hanson, to name just a few -- is so large and comprehensive that no U.S. gallery can stage a retrospective exhibition of any of these artists without borrowing from him. The best and biggest nuggets from this lode are in Cologne, along with his Picassos, Max Ernsts, Max Beckmanns, Kirchners and German New Wild Ones.

Given the project's present stage, it is too early to pass judgment on its interiors and how its treasures will be displayed. But the colossal exterior, ominously reminiscent of avant-garde factory architecture, has many citizens of Cologne on the brink of despair. Says Daniel Goeudevert, chief executive of Cologne's Ford Motor Co.: "The new museum on the Rhine, architecturally well matched with the train station, reminds one of a herd of railway cars engaged in group sex."

Meanwhile, Peter Ludwig's native Aachen is also planning a new museum complex to house its various collections, including Ludwig's generous donations and loans. Work on the project, estimated to cost $20 million, will start next year and the opening is tentatively scheduled for 1989.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia is nearing completion in Dusseldorf of a $28-million museum to display its excellent collection of 20th-century art, including an enormous store of Paul Klees. The work of two Danish architects, Hans Dissing and Otto Weitling, this, too, is a controversially avant-garde structure whose principal feature is a huge, curved dark granite wall facing Dusseldorf's Grabbe Platz. Under construction since 1981, it is scheduled for completion next March.

Other new art museums are planned or under construction in Emden, Nuremberg, and in Duisburg, where the Lehmbruck Gallery is adding a wing to house the collection of German Expressionists amassed and donated by Lothar Gu nther Buchheim, author of the bestselling antiwar novel "Das Boot."

Museums for the masses? Museums as modern architectural wonders and not merely awe-inspiring temples to the muses, or "houses of God," as Goethe described the king of Saxony's Schlossgalerie in 1811?

"Why not?" says Johannes Cladders, director of the Mo nchengladbach museum. "Museums today should not be temples, cathedrals or palaces, but places of discovery and thrill. The museum itself has become the comprehensive artwork of the 20th century." And West Germany is certainly the place to see them.