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The Kunstbibliothek was founded in 1868. It followed the foundation one year earlier of the Deutsches Gewerbe-Museum zu Berlin (or German Design Museum), which was set up at the initiative of the Greater Berlin Artisans’ Association. The Design Museum was not only a museum, it also included a teaching institute and a library. The fact that the Kunstbibliothek is not only an important research library, but also has a significant collection of artistic and technical prints and drawings relating to the decorative arts and architecture is largely due to the special circumstances surrounding its origin.

As a result, the ideals that underpinned the German Design Museum’s foundation – the return to artisanal qualities – also defined the library’s acquisitions policy. Its essential purpose was to convey historical knowledge of style, technique, material, and traditional methods to artists and artisans. The distinctive character of the library was laid down in its constitution of 1867. It stated that the collecting activity would not only concentrate on technical and artistic books and magazines, but also on drawings and photographs depicting the fruits of outstanding craftsmanship. Thus, a comprehensive, exemplary model collection was established for design and architecture.

Peter Jessen, library director for four decades, from 1886 to 1924, was instrumental in shaping the library. Important acquisitions that were to have a lasting influence on the nature of the Kunstbibliothek, such as the accession of the Lipperheide Costume Library, the private estates of the architects Joseph Maria Olbrich and Hippolyte Destailleur and the photographer Ernst Juhl all occurred during his tenure, as did the library’s official separation from the Design Museum to become an independent organization on its own. By 1881 the German Design Museum had changed its name to the Kunstgewerbemuseum, and took up residency in a newly designed building on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse that also accommodated its library and teaching institute. This building, designed by Martin Gropius (the elder) and Heino Schmieden, and known today as the Gropius Bau, is a testament of the importance of the role that the institution now played in Berlin’s educational landscape within the few years since its founding. As the library’s fast-growing collection soon outstripped the available space, it relocated in 1905 to an additional wing that provided enough space for the collections of books and graphic materials, as well as spacious reading and study rooms. Adjoining the reading room was a small room, where temporary displays were shown. The library was placed on an equal footing as the museum in 1894, when it became a separate department at the Royal Museums in its own right. The relocation to the new premises was a sign of the library’s independence from the museum collections of the Kunstgewerbemuseum and paved the way for its new status and role as an independent research institute. In 1924, it was given the name it bears to this day: Kunstbibliothek (Art Library).

During World War II significant parts of the library’s holdings and collections were placed in safe-storage at external locations. Use of the library however continued until 1944. Just two years into peacetime, in 1947, parts of the collection were again made accessible to the public at its temporary site in Berlin-Dahlem. This was followed in 1954 by the library’s relocation to Jebensstrasse in Berlin-Charlottenburg.

The next stage in the library’s changing fortunes came in 1962 with the announcement of the plans for the erection of Kulturforum. In 1987 those plans started to take concrete shape with the start of construction on the new building for the Kunstbibliothek and Kupferstichkabinett, which had originally been designed by Rolf Gutbrod, with subsequent alterations by the architectural practice of Hilmer & Sattler. Opened in 1994, the new rooms at the Kulturforum provided a new home for the holdings of media on architecture, book art and media art, photography, fashion, and graphic design. In 2004, the Museum für Fotografie opened in Jebensstrasse, followed by the opening of the Archaeological Library in 2012 at the Archäologisches Zentrum close to the Museumsinsel Berlin. Both are divisions of the Kunstbibliothek.