As a scientific service institution it is closely bound, in both mandate and structure, to the many collections of art, archaeology, and ethnology at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, as well as to its various administrative bodies. The Zentralarchiv holds historical records, archival collections, and bequests of documentary legacies relating to the history of the organization known today as the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, known formerly as the Royal Museums in Berlin. It sees itself as a place of learning and at the same time as the 'historical memory' of the museums. It is also where the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin carries out its provenance research.
The Archäologisches Zentrum accommodates the reading room which serves users of both the Archaeological Library and the Zentralarchiv. In addition to the archive’s holdings of historical documents, the library offers users of the archive instant, open-shelf access to diverse published literature on the history of the individual museums, as well as a complete collection of all catalogue and research literature published by the former Royal Museums/Staatliche Museen since its inception in the year 1830.
The Zentralarchiv of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin has always been intimately connected to the various museums’ collections. Early efforts to set up an archive on the Museumsinsel, the birthplace of Berlin’s public museums, can be traced as far back to 1830 – the very year in which the then 'Royal' Museums were founded. But in keeping with the forging spirit of the time, efforts were then much more firmly focussed on future plans and little attention was given to preserving sources relating to the history of the museums themselves and their collections. It was not until the phase of postwar reconstruction that museum staff endeavoured to systematically preserve the wealth of documents and written material found in the cellars on the Museumsinsel.
This ultimately led to the creation of a central archive on the Museumsinsel Berlin in October 1960. Some time later, the eastern division of the Nationalgalerie also established an archive of its own as a research institute for 19th and 20th-century art. The founding in the mid-1980s of a municipal archive to identify and preserve records relating to architecture, building, and construction in Berlin provided the building management department at the Staatliche Museen with a basis to create its own archive of historical documents relating to the museums. All three archives were merged in 1987 to form the Zentralarchiv. Since the reunification of Germany, the Zentralarchiv has been responsible for preserving records relating to the many museums that make up the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, brought together under the umbrella organization of Prussian Cultural Heritage.
The archive’s primary mandate is to preserve, analyse, and make accessible to scholars the archival holdings, documentary legacies, and collections over which it presides, all the while by observing professional records-management principles and practices. In this way the Zentralarchiv acts as an internal cultural-historical and art-historical information centre at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, which importantly is not merely restricted to internal use. It conducts independent research on the history of the museums and coordinates the systematic provenance research of the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It thus creates an indispensable set of preconditions for further investigations into the history of the museums and the art they contain.