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, Stefan Simon, coming from the Getty Conservation Institute, succeeded Josef Riederer as Director of the Rathgen Research Laboratory. This change corresponded to a realignment and reorientation towards a stronger service and research profile in heritage and conservation science. In April, 2014, Stefan Simon was appointed inaugural director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University, New Haven, CT.
Ina Reiche has been appointed as his replacement for the period of the next five years, coming from the Laboratory for Structural and Molecular Archaeology (LAMS) at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. After studying chemistry and art history at Berlin’s Freie Universität, she gained her doctorate working at the Louvre, Paris. On April 1, 2019, Stefan Simon returned from the U.S. to his post as director of the Rathgen research laboratory.
The Rathgen Research Laboratory researches aging and weathering processes as well as sustainable conservation and restoration strategies for movable and immovable cultural heritage in the light of global change and is an active contributor to the sustainability debate on the Green Museum. It deals with the development of analytical, in particular non-destructive investigation technologies as well as questions concerning the documentation and accessibility of cultural heritage in the digital age. Preventive conservation, art technology and archaeometry are further areas of research.”