About the collection

The Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) evolved from the collections of the royal cabinets of art and since its foundation in 1873 has become one of the largest and most significant collections of its kind worldwide. The museum’s holdings comprise ca. 500,000 ethnographic, archaeological and historico-culturtal objects from Africa, Asia, America, Australia and the South Seas. They are complemented by an ethnomusicological archive of 140,000 sound recordings, 285,000 photographs, 20,000 films and 200,000 pages of written documents. Many of its collections are among the most comprehensive and valuable in existence today.

Currently on display are the following galleries/exhibitions: Africa, Mesoamerica, Ethnomusicology, "Myth of the Golden Triangle. Hill Tribes in South-East" and "Muslims' Worlds". The South-Sea and North-American galleries of the Ethnologisches Museum are closed since 11 January 2016.

The first objects from overseas came to the Prussian-Brandenburg cabinet of art at the Berlin palace through trade connections. The collection first began to be systematically organised in 1794 when the librarian and preacher Jean Henry was appointed custodian, later becoming the director of the "Royal Cabinet of Antiquities, Coins and Art". In 1829, the historian and former captain Leopold Freiherr von Ledebur took over the management of the royal art cabinets. He expanded the ethnological holdings considerably through the purchase of entire collections.

The removal of the paintings and sculptures from the palace and their public display in a purpose-built museum building in 1830 (today’s Altes Museum) marked the end of the old concept of cabinets of art and curiosities. As the collections and their significance to research and science grew, pressure mounted to separate the holdings and present them in independent museums. To this end, construction began behind the Altes Museum in 1843, and in 1855 the Neues Museum was opened. An exhibition space in the basement was allocated to the ethnographic collection and other presentations. In 1869, Adolf Bastian, a scholar and medic who had travelled widely through his work as a ship’s doctor, was made assistant director of the ethnographic department. He worked tirelessly to expand the collection further. Bastian is regarded as the founder of ethnology as an academic discipline, and from 1869 lectured at the university in Berlin, later becoming the professor of ethnology.

In 1873, an "independent ethnological and anthropological museum" was founded in Berlin which opened its doors in 1886 in a building on Königgrätzer Straße (today's Stresemannstraße) under the name Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde (Royal Museum of Ethnology). Its collection comprised about 40,000 objects in 1880. Adolf Bastian was the first director of the museum and saw it primarily as an institute for research and a repository for the safekeeping of the collections. However, lack of space was soon a major issue, and it became necessary to consider dividing the holdings into a collection for display purposes and a collection for research.

To resolve the problem, plans were devised to construct a large museum complex in Berlin-Dahlem dedicated to the four world regions of Asia, Africa, Oceania and America. The project was delayed by the First World War, however, and by 1921 only one section of a building had been completed. It then served as a storage depot for the entire collection and an exhibition was opened to the general public in the main building in the city centre in 1926. Both the exhibits and the contents of the depot were put into storage in different locations in and outside of Berlin at the outbreak of the Second World War.

When the war came to an end, the collections were confiscated by the Allies. Whereas the Soviet army transported its share of the war booty to Leningrad, the Western Allies soon returned their share to Berlin in the 1950s. The heavily damaged building on Stresemannstraße could no longer be used as a museum and was torn down in 1961.

The Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, founded in 1957, began to expand the site in Berlin-Dahlem from 1964 onwards to create a museum for the temporary exhibition of the collections of European painting and sculptures that had remained in West Berlin. The scale of the exhibition of the ethnological collections was reduced and limited to the collections from pre-Columbian America, the Pacific, Africa and parts of east and south Asia.

After German reunification, a total of 55,000 objects from the collection that had been taken by the Soviets and stored in Leipzig were finally returned to Berlin. In 2000, the Museum für Völkerkunde was renamed the Ethnologisches Museum.

The collections of the Ethnologisches Museum and their history

The South Seas collection with ca. 65,000 objects is known internationally for the comprehensiveness of its holdings, which even comprise exceptionally high quality exhibits from regions outside of the former German colonies. Numerous objects came to Berlin through planned expeditions commissioned and supported by the museum, including in more recent times, field trips undertaken by curator Gerd Koch. Thanks to these organised expeditions, the majority of the objects have been clearly documented, something that is lacking in many museums. The collection is distinguished by its historical depth, stretching back to the first serious acquisitions of objects in the Pacific through the voyages of James Cook in the second half of the 18th century. Highlights of the collection include exhibits of boats and architectural elements in their original size, ethnographic objects from the northeast of New Guinea, especially from the Sepik region and the north coast around the Bismarck Archipelago, in particular the province of New Ireland, as well as from Hawaii, the Marquesas Islands, Samoa and Palau.

The Africa collection encompasses some 75,000 objects and is among the most significant of its kind in the world. It contains artefacts from across the entire African continent south of the Sahara, with some regions more strongly represented than others. At the time of the Berlin Conference in 1884/85, it comprised just 7,000 objects, but was expanded by 50,000 works during the colonial era. The collection concentrates primarily on the period between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. Certain sections, such as the collections from Nigeria, however, stretch back to the 12th century. Only a small number of items in the collection stems from organised expeditions and is well documented. Numerous objects came to Berlin through a network of traders, collectors, colonial officers and civil servants established by the founder of the museum Adolf Bastian. Their historical significance has often had to be reconstructed insofar as has been possible. The key areas covered by the collection are Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo/Central Africa, Angola and East Africa.

The origins of the Islamic collection of today's Ethnologisches Museum can be dated back to the non-European holdings of the royal cabinets of art (Kunstkammer), which evidently contained individual items from Islamic countries from about 1830 onwards. Up to the First World War, this initial collection was expanded by generous donations to the Royal Museum of Ethnology. Important patrons of the 19th century included well-known persons such as the Orientalist Julius Heinrich Petermann and the diplomat Max von Oppenheim as well as Emil Riebeck and Willi Rickmer Rickmers. The collection was further enriched by the founder of the museum, Adolf Bastian, who amassed a comprehensive collection during his voyage to Iran from 1878 to 1880. Today, the collection comprises objects from a geographic region that stretches from Morocco to northwest China, spanning the countries of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the former Soviet republics from Azerbaijan to Kyrgyzstan. The inventory of 1970 listed about 5,000 items from western and Central Asia. The collection has been continually expanded ever since and today comprises about 25,000 works.

The collections from South and Southeast Asia contain some 35,000 objects at present. They originate from India, Sri Lanka, parts of the Himalayan Region, the countries of mainland Southeast Asia (Myanmar – Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia), and from the region of insular Southeast Asia (Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan). The majority of the collection’s holdings came to the museum between the late 19th century and the beginning of the First World War, although significant assemblages have been acquired in more recent times too. All objects from South and Southeast Asia once belonged to the Indian Art Department of the former Royal Museum of Ethnology. After the foundation of the Museum of Indian Art in 1963, they were split into an art collection and an ethnographic collection and have been exhibited in separate rooms since 1971.

These collections are largely shaped by the history of their acquisition. Based on ethnicity and region, they were mostly acquired through collecting and research expeditions that took place between 1870 and 1990. However, they also stand out for their diversity which can be explained by the different approaches and criteria that applied during the decades in which the collections were amassed. The focus of the collections was the material legacy of everyday life in different ethnic groups. Yet within this context, contemporary interests and references at the time of acquisition – from the late 18th century to the end of the 20th century – often took precedence during both the process of collecting and scientific investigation/documentation of objects. Because of this, the collection not only comprises archaeological artefacts (from the Neolithic era to the early Middle Ages) but also a large number of religious items, everyday utensils from almost all social classes (primarily from the 17th century to the present day) and an extensive range of Chinese theatre props. Despite numerous losses during the war, among them many highly valuable objects, the collection's holdings are still impressive with 45,000 items from East Asia and 6,000 from Siberia. A further highlight is the photographic collection and archival records on the respective themes: the collecting and research expeditions as well as other acquisitions are generally well documented. Scientists and researchers make use of the archive to investigate questions on the history of their countries or regions as well as indigenous groups and representatives from Siberia, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China. 

The collection on the ethnology of North America (Indians/Native Americans and Eskimos/Inuit) has about 25,000 numbered items listed in its inventory, comprising ca. 30,000 objects. The development of the collection was pretty heterogeneous – age, scope and quality of the collections from the different sub-regions (cultural areas) vary considerably. The holdings from the east of the USA and Canada mainly consist of relatively old pieces (late 18th, early 19th century), including numerous hunting bags, leather coats and fragile items of clothing.  In addition, there is a range of souvenirs from the vicinity of the Niagara Falls, which documents cultural changes in this region. The largest section of the North American holdings originates from the lands west of the Mississippi. From the period up to 1850, the collections of Prince zu Wied, Duke Paul Wilhelm of Württemberg and Friedrich Köhler are particularly noteworthy. The collection of painted bison robes dated to before 1850 is among the largest of its kind worldwide. Through the work of the ethnologist Franz Boa and Adolf Bastian’s good contact with American museums and collectors, numerous collections of objects from the prairies and plains and the southwest of America joined the museum around 1900, which were especially compiled for Berlin by ethnological experts in the USA such as Clark Wissler and Frank Cushing. Further acquisitions were made through art dealers and exchanges with other museums. The only museum expedition to North America organised by Berlin was undertaken by the ethnographer Adrian Jacobsen from 1881 to 1883 along the northwest coast and Alaska. With a total of 7,000 objects, his collection is the largest and most comprehensive from these regions in Europe. The Californian section is notable due to the relatively old age of its holdings (Deppe Collection from ca. 1830) and the wide range of different types of baskets. The southwest is represented by an extensive collection of prehistoric artefacts (especially ceramics). The ethnological collections focus on the Pueblo Native American cultures and their religious practices with a great number of Kachina figures from the Hopi.

The collection titled "South American Lowlands" comprises some 35,000 objects which document the cultural and geographic regions of the Amazon, (Gran) Chaco, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. They also provide an insight into the Afro-American cultures of southern Brazil and Surinam. In terms of its scope, comprehensiveness and quality, the collection ranks among the best worldwide. In addition to unique works made of feathers and masks from the Amazon, the main highlights of the collection today are the silver jewellery of the Mapuche in Chile, the gold jewellery and the collection of molas from the Kuna people in Panama and the collections from the western Amazonian regions, which include examples of the fine pottery made by the Shipibo-Conibo people, and the shrunken heads of the Shuar (Jívaro).

The American Archaeology collection consists of 120,000 objects, primarily archaeological artefacts, as well as small assemblages of ethnological items from the colonial era and historical photographs that stem from the cultural area of Mesoamerica and the Andean region of South America. Mesoamerica covers the modern day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. The collection comprises about 50,000 objects.

A further section is dedicated to the kingdom of the Inca Empire which stretched across Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The museum’s holdings from these regions encompass about 70,000 objects. The majority came from private collections, which means that the context of the finds was not documented and that they represent a selection made by the collectors before the pieces were acquired by the museum. The largest collection was amassed by just one collector, Christian Theodor Wilhelm Gretzer, between 1872 and 1904. Two purchases in 1899 and 1907 account for 44,600 of the 70,000 artefacts that make up the Berlin collection, predominantly findings from excavations along the coast of Peru.

The largest collections from Mesoamerica are the Uhde Collection, which was started in the 1830s (previously known as the Museum of Aztec-Mexican Antiquities with about 4,000 objects) and the collection of Eduard and Caecilie Seler from the end of the 19th century, early 20th century (ca. 13,000 objects). Further works belonging to this section were collected by Alexander von Humboldt during his travels in America from 1799 to 1804, which he brought back to Berlin on his return. 

One of the three core areas of the ethnomusicological holdings is the Berlin Phonogramm Archiv (Phonograph Archive) with its collection of early phonograph cylinder recordings from between 1893 and 1954, encompassing more than 16,000 original wax cylinders from all over the world. This collection helped establish the academic discipline of comparative musicology/ethnomusicology that is internationally recognised today. The "early cylinder recordings of the world’s musical traditions in the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv" were inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 1999. After the Second World War, a new era in recording technology began with the purchase of a tape recorder which marked the beginnings of the Sound Archive. It contains both commercial and non-commercial recordings made during field research and of concerts of traditional music in Berlin. These two archives hold over 150,000 recordings, spanning more than a century, and are among the largest and most significant archives of this kind in the world. The third core area of the ethnomusicology department is the collection of musical instruments that was established after 1950 and today comprises about 3,000 objects.

Titles of publication released by the Ethnolgisches Museum are listed in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin bibliography.

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