The Rathgen-Forschungslabor, formerly the ‘Chemistry Laboratory of the Royal Museums,’ was founded on 1 April 1888. Friedrich Rathgen (1862–1942) was appointed as the first director of the institute and retained the position until his retirement nearly 40 years later. His primary task was to improve the methods employed for the conservation of museum objects, but he also worked in material analysis and researched the production techniques of art-historical objects.

Starting in 1928, Carl Brittner (1883–1958) assumed management of the laboratory. The chemistry laboratory, located within the Museum Island’s colonnades, was destroyed in the latter stages of World War II. After the war, initial plans for the laboratory’s reconstruction were never realized. The laboratory was at first provisionally accommodated in a storage space in Berlin’s Dahlem district. Following Carl Brittner’s retirement in 1948, the laboratory became unoperational and vanished from the museums’ plans for several decades.

The reopening of the lab as the Rathgen-Forschungslabor at the instigation of then director-general Stephan Waetzdoldt was made possible on 1 March 1975 by funding from the Volkswagen Foundation. Josef Riererer (b. 1939) of the Doerner Institute in Munich was appointed as the new director. The lab was dedicated primarily to archaeometric research and the dating of museum artefacts.

The Rathgen Research Laboratory acquired new premises in 1981 at Schlossstraße 1A in Charlottenburg, Berlin, where it is still based today. On 1 January 1992, the Rathgen-Forschungslabor of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – SPK (West Berlin) merged with the ‘Central Workshops’ of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (East Berlin) to form the new Rathgen-Forschungslabor.

Achim Unger, the leader of the East Berlin conservation studio, strengthened the institute’s profile in conservation science over the course of the following years.

After 30 years of leadership, in February, 2005, Stefan Simon (b. 1962) from the Getty Conservation Institute took over from Josef Riederers as director of the Rathgen-Forschungslabor. This change corresponded to a realignment of the laboratory’s emphases to develop a stronger service and research profile in the conservation sciences. In April, 2014, Stefan Simon was appointed to a position at Yale University for an initial period of five years in order to establish a new institute for conservation science, the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.

Since 2015, Ina Reiche has served as director of the Rathgen-Forschungslabor. After studying chemistry and art history at the Freie Universität, Berlin, she obtained her doctoral degree from the Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France (C2RMF) at the Louvre in Paris and subsequently already worked for two years as a research assistant at the Rathgen Research Laboratory before taking a research position at the CNRS research institute in Paris. After working as the research director of the CNRS’s Laboratory of Molecular and Structural Achaeology (LAMS), she has now taken on the leadership of the Rathgen Research Laboratory at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The work of the Rathgen Research Laboratory currently comprises five priority areas: preventive conservation, investigation into the phenomenon of aging and deterioration, support for the establishment of efficient and sustainable conservation and restoration strategies and studies in the field of technical analysis, archaeometry and bioarchaeology.