Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg

In the beginning

It all began with a small ethnographical collection from the museum of natural history. The Museum für Völkerkunde was officially founded in 1879 with Georg Thilenius as the first director. In 1912, the museum acquired a building of its own. Since then, the number of artefacts and documents has risen to nearly 700,000. The building (the construction having never been fully completed) was renovated and modernized several times, and the concept of the museum and the exhibitions was adapted to the more complex demands of a modern and contemporary museum.

The present-day Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg originated from a small ethnographic collection owned by the public library in 1849. Later, by the public library in 1849. Later, the objects were kept by the Naturhistorischer Verein (Natural history association) and as early as 1867, a guide to the museum was published. Its title was “The ethnographical collection or the collection of ethnology subsequent to the Natural History Museum in Hamburg”. Adolph Oberdörfer and Ferndinand Worlée were asked to take administrative responsibility for the collection.

In 1868/69, the collection already consisted of 645 artefacts.

In 1871, the collection’s title was changed to “Kulturhistorisches Museum” (“Culture history museum”) and the collection, together with the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural history museum), was transferred to the building of the Johanneum High School in Hamburg. This new title was kept until 1878. During this period, intensive efforts were made to organize a building exclusively for the collection.

Finally, on April 29, 1879, the formal foundation of the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg took place. The merchant Carl W. Lüders, “head of management”, was initially in charge of the museum from 1879 until 1896. He was followed by an interim, the assistant director Karl Hagen. On October 1, 1904, Georg Thilenius assumed office as the first full-time salaried director of the museum.

From then on, Thilenius lobbied resolutely for the construction of a building exclusively for the museum on Rothenbaumchaussee. Albert Erbe designed and oversaw construction of the building in close cooperation with Thilenius between 1908 and 1912. Today the building represents an architectural example of the late Jugendstil and is therefore under preservation order.
This building had been planned merely as part of a larger complex. An extension of usable space up to double the original capacity had been intended from the start. Another small section was completed in 1929. In 1939 the construction plan for the second half of the building – meant to reach as far as Feldbrunnenstraße – was far enough along that the first load of building materials was transported to Mollerstraße. Due to the Second World War, however, the completion of the construction was interrupted.

George Thilenius, the director of the museum until 1935, helped to make the collections as well as the work of the museum distinguished and sustainable. He saw the museum’s educational responsibility as an integral part of the work of the museum. He also lobbied for the introduction of ethnology as a school subject (despite the great efforts of earlier ethnologists, they had failed to implement ethnology in schools). Furthermore, Thilenius was concerned with increasing the size of the collections. The collections had previously been accumulated in a non-systematic fashion: from then on, numerous ethnologists and travellers were commissioned to acquire complete collections.
In this regard, the expedition to the South Sea was Thilenius’ greatest project. The expedition-initiated and organized by Thilenius-took place from 1908 until 1910 and is still famous today in ethnological circles. Due to tropical unfitness, Thilenius was unfortunately unable to take part in the expedition himself. The expedition received special support from the Senate of Hamburg, and was financed by the Scientific Foundation of Hamburg, founded in 1907. In the course of the first year, 1908/09, the expedition team, consisting of scientists of various disciplines, travelled to the Bismarck Archipelago and the coast of Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, a region that is, ethnologically, a part of the Melanesian culture area. In the second year, 1909/10, after some changes in personnel, the team travelled to the Caroline and Marshall Islands. The aim of the expedition was to complete a very general ethnography. This included, among other things, collecting data on the geographical environment, the physical characteristics of the peoples, the economic systems, sociological structures, religious concepts, medical knowledge and languages, as well as art. The many examples of tangible culture were not only meant to provide evidence for cultural expression but also to increase the collection of artefacts. Still today, these artefacts, together with numerous documents and records, are the most valuable assets of the museum.

Thilenius’ successor, Franz Termer, an expert in American studies, continued the process of expanding the collection and pursuing ethnological research. Termer, the director of the museum from 1935 until 1962, undertook archaeological fieldwork in Central America. He was in charge of the museum during its most difficult period, the years of the Second World War. The museum experienced serious losses of externally stored inventory, although the building itself was only slightly damaged. After the Second World War, Termer was not only seen as political unobjectionable, but as a clear opponent of the Nazi regime. Having never been a party member of the NSDAP, he was made head of the denazification committee of the department for culture in 1945. The period of reconstruction after the war required a great effort in order to re-establish a fairly normal level of business at the museum. Despite the prevailing chaotic conditions, the activities surrounding the exhibitions were resumed quickly. Thus, Termer succeeded in being publicly present and secured on several occasions urgently needed financial resources. As a professor for ethnology at the university, he was a mentor for many renowned and currently active ethnologists and experts for Ancient American studies.

Franz Termer’s succesors, Erhard Schlesier (1962-67) and Hans Fischer (1967-71) were involved with the renovation of the building and more importantly the modernisation of the exhibition halls. Both ended their terms as director of the museum by becoming professors in different ethnological institutes, Schlesier at the University of Göttingen, Fischer in Hamburg.

From 1971 until 1991, Jürgen Zwernemann, an expert for African studies, was the director of the museum. His term of office was predominantly marked by the establishment of the museum’s educational and pedagogical services and its integration in the organisation of exhibitions. The educational and pedagogical activities and events were regarded by the museum as an extension of educational opportunities. In the 1980s, the discussion about the significance of educational and pedagogical activities offered by museums moved Germany’s museum scene. Ethnological museums were particularly expected to deal with issues concerning the so-called „Third World“. According to this, the museum’s scientific staff members dealt intensively with questions of developmental policy.

The Museum für Völkerkunde today

From 1992 until the beginning of the autonomisation (the change to a public foundation) in 1999, the framework requirements for the museum have changed dramatically. Governmental support – in 1992 at its highest level during the post-war period – was continually diminishing: This forced the museum long before the autonomisation to increase efforts to establish sources of income. After analyzing the situation, it became clear: our continuously and rapidly changing world requires new ideas and new ways of thinking. Ethnology – novelties about what is foreign or “other” – can no longer be limited to looking at objects in glass cases, cannot be entirely made up of nostalgia for allegedly idyllic epochs of primitive peoples. In the future, “To find one’s self-knowledge” should mean “to meet one another” – an encounter characterized by a mutual “recognition and comprehension” that consequently paves the way to deeper understanding. Global networking makes the world appear shrunken in time and space. What about the people, the various cultures? Have they been brought closer to each other in this process?

Our world seems to be getting smaller; consequently, there is an urgent need for mutual understanding between people and their cultures. Therefore, the Museum für Völkerkunde aims not only to accumulate and preserve cultural evidence, but to be something more. We aim to be more than just a museum with exhibits on display, to be evaluated and judged from an occidental – and therefore supposedly “better” – point of view. We no longer discuss “the other”- what is foreign – in a distant and paternalistic way. Instead, we integrate ideas; we deal intensively with different points of view and mirror our own culture and perception as seen through foreign eyes. The allegedly objective and scientific perspective of the western hemisphere is no longer the only relevant perspective. Additionally, members of the cultures represented in the museum have the opportunity to introduce and present their own points of view. After all, the population of the city of Hamburg consists of people from 150 nations. We invite members of peoples not represented in Hamburg to experience and participate in our preparations for the exhibitions. In this way, the visitors have a say in the how their culture is represented; that we portray an accurate image. In order to have a larger impact, new clear-cut goals have been defined by the museum:

We are:

Our museum considers itself a symbol of Hamburg’s cosmopolitan nature. Thus, we provide, as our motto declares, “A roof for all cultures”.

Our new concept entails that we are a lively museum no longer limited to display cases that only permit a detached view. Instead, we aim to convey a holistic approach to culture and thus enable a deeper level of understanding for foreign cultures. Therefore, the direct, face-to-face encounter with people from different cultures is of great significance. By providing the occasion for encountering the more subtle, even spiritual aspects of foreign cultures – conveyed through the exhibits in the museum – a higher level of understanding is can be gleaned.

We have very close contact with many foreign communities in Hamburg, and with these communities we attempt to maintain a high level of continuity. We work in close cooperation with certain groups to mutually organize annual festivals as well as smaller events. Among our cooperation partners are groups from Portugal, Turkey, Korea, China, Poland, and Japan as well as the small Abkhaz, Eritrean and Chuvash groups and the peoples of Togo.
Starting January 1, 1999, a completely new chapter in the history of the museum was written. Together with six other state museums, the Museum für Völkerkunde was autonomised- meaning the organisational structure was changed from a corporate form into a foundation under public law. The foundation is made up of the foundation board and the board of directors. The museum is run by the board of directors consisting of the Executive Director and the Financial Director both sharing equal responsibility. The foundation board is a supervisory committee that defines the professional principles of the foundation and supervises the functions of the board of directors. The foundation board consists of state delegates, economic and social representatives, one member of the association “Freunde des Museums für Völkerkunde Hamburg e. V.”( “Friends of the Museum for Ethnology”) and three employees of the museum, elected by museum staff. From early on, the staff of the museum had been deeply involved with the development of the museum’s profile and organisational structure and was therefore perfectly prepared for the autonomisation. Through the consequent improvements in flexibility and economic efficiency of the new structure, the new demands on the ethnological museum of the 21st century can be more easily fulfilled.


first mention of an ethnographical collection in the public library


foundation of the “Kulturhistorisches Museum” (“Museum for culture history”)


official founding of the Museum für Völkerkunde


Head of management: Carl Lüders

Carl W. Lüders


Interim director: Karl Hagen

Karl Hagen


First director: Georg Thilenius

Georg Thilenius


Construction of the museum building, Rothenbaumchaussee


Opening of the exhibition space; only the first part of the planned building is ready for use


Completion of the working rooms for staff members


Director: Franz Termer

Franz Termer


Name changed to:
Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde und Vorgeschichte (Hamburg`s museum for ethnology and prehistory)


Director: Erhard Schlesier

Erhard Schlesier


Director: Hans Fischer; the functions of the chair of ethnology at the university and the director of the museum are split into two different positions.

Hans Fischer


Director: Jürgen Zwernemann

Jürgen Zwernemann


The Department of Prehistory is transferred to the Helms-Museum
name changed to: Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde (Hamburg’s museum for ethnology)


Director: Wulf Köpke

Wulf Köpke


Name changed to: Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg
Restructured from private corporation to public foundation
Board of Trustees: Wulf Köpke and Rüdiger Röhricht


Board of Trustees: Thorsten Pück


Combination of all external storerooms into one central archive, complete inventory is taken, all information concerning artefacts is entered into a database

Photos: Archiv Museum für Völkerkunde