The Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Prehistory and Early History) is situated in the Neues Museum on the Museumsinsel Berlin. Its collection contains more than 340,000 objects. A concentrated selection from this staggering number is on display in the permanent exhibition, representing the cultural development of Europe and its bordering regions from the Palaeolithic Age to the High Middle Ages. Several exhibits are supplemented by artworks from other collections on the Museumsinsel: the Antikensammlung, the Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, the Vorderasiatisches Museum, as well as the Münzkabinett.
The collection highlights include precious parts of what is known as the ‘Treasure of Priam’ from Heinrich Schliemann’s collection of Trojan antiquities, as well as the unique Cyprus collection from Max Ohnefalsch-Richter which includes rare Bronze Age to Roman Age findings from the ‘Isle of Aphrodite’. Highlights from the Palaeolithic section include the famous skull of a Neanderthal from Le Moustier which is approximately 45,000 years old. A selection of stone tools from the Dordogne includes objects from most of the find spots that are eponymous for the European Palaeolithic cultures. Representing the Neolithic Period, the collection boasts several small, fascinating female statuettes and painted pottery from the Balkans. A group of exquisite precious-metal objects from the Bronze Age remain an enduring and engrossing attraction. The most dazzling of them is the ‘Berlin Gold Hat’, with its spellbinding, mysterious symbols. The room devoted to the pre-Roman Iron Age contains the impressive finds from Slovenian excavations led by the Duchess of Mecklenburg, including a fully preserved breastplate and other outstanding bronze objects. The rich collection of artifacts from the Roman provinces is on display in the historicizing ambience of the Römischer Saal (‘Roman Hall’). A tour through the collection ends with an elaborately decorated sword found in Taman (South Russia), dating from the Migration Period, as well as Merovingian jewellery from the Boulanger collection with objects from northern France and magnificent Baltic finds. Current excavations in central Berlin, often running parallel to construction works, additionally provide a steady stream of new accessions to the collection.
The origins of the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte go back to the Kunstkammer (‘royal curiosities cabinet’)) of the House of Hohenzollern. This collection included antiquities from the Prussian provinces which were put on display in 1838 as 'Museum for National Antiquities' (Museum Vaterländischer Altertümer) in the Monbijou Palace which lay opposite the present-day Bode-Museum on the north bank of the river Spree. Thanks to expeditions, excavations and donations, the collection was enormously enriched in the decades that followed. In this process, the museum’s greatest patron was the physician and anatomist Rudolf Virchow. His contribution, and that of the succeeding generations, was to broaden the scope of the collection to encompass the whole European continent and its neighboring regions. It was thanks to him that, in 1881, the museum received the Trojan collection from Heinrich Schliemann as a gift.
The steady growth of the collection necessitated several relocations. Under the name 'Collection of Nordic Antiquities', and later the 'Prehistoric Department', it was put on display in the Neues Museum, which was opened in 1855. In 1886, the collection was moved to the building where the Museum für Völkerkunde was then housed, at the modern-dayStresemannstrasse. Finally, in 1921, it was transferred to the Martin-Gropius-Bau on the opposite side of the road, and in 1931 it was given an independent status as the 'Staatliches Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte'.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the museum had one of the finest prehistoric collections in the world, comprising over 150,000 objects from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages. World War II brought painful losses and the end of this unparalleled status. Important parts of the collection, including all the precious-metal objects, were taken to the Soviet Union in 1945 as looted art. To this day, many of them are still in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Pushkin Museum and the Historical Museum in Moscow.
In addition, the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte was split in two by the partition of Berlin. In 1960, a permanent exhibition of the objects in West Berlin was opened in the Langhansbau of Schloss Charlottenburg and enhanced with numerous special exhibitions over the years. The return of some items from the Soviet Union to East Germany in 1958 led, in 1963, to the opening of the Museum für Ur- und Frühgeschichte, housed in the Bode-Museum.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall the two parts of the collection could be reunited. In 2009, they found a splendid permanent home in the newly restored Neues Museum on the Museumsinsel Berlin. Since 2012, the administration and archives of the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte have been grouped together with other institutions of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in the newly built Archäologisches Zentrum immediately next to the Museumsinsel Berlin.