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 approximately 500,000 ethnographic, archaeological and historico-cultural objects from Africa, Asia, America and Oceania. They are complemented by some 500,000 media (ethonological photographs, films, audio recordings) and about 200,000 pages of written documents. Many of its collections are among the most extensive and valuable in existence.
Together with the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum) and other institutions, such as the Stadtmuseum Berlin and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) is presenting its collection in an innovative concept at the Humboldt Forum on Schlossplatz in Berlin-Mitte.
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.
As a product of European appropriation and colonisation of the world, ethnological museums in Europe traditionally reflected an attitude that set Europeans apart from the perceived 'exotic other'. The Ethnologisches Museum at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin critically investigates the legacy and ramifications of colonialism, as well as the role and standpoint of Europe. Partnerships with the 'source communities' in Africa, Asia, Oceania and America aim to open up the one-sided, Eurocentric approach and allow reflection on one’s own position without, however, refuting the European context.
The Ethnologisches Museum is committed to the traditional tasks of a museum – collection, preservation, research and communication – but also builds on these by focussing on new aspects. Questions related to cultural heritage and responsibilities, issues regarding privilege of interpretation and communication (multiple perspectives, changes of perspective and multiple voices) as well as participatory approaches to curating, research and education are further priorities of the museum. The Ethnologisches Museum continues to expand its collections with contemporary art and ethnographic objects as well as alternative sources such as digital media.
In line with the Ethnologisches Museum’s education policy, the museum sees itself as a centre for life-long learning and believes that its exceptional collections can facilitate both cognitive and sensory experiences. Our goal is to awaken interest in interaction with other cultures and intercultural dialogue to foster a global understanding that goes far beyond the Eurocentric viewpoint.