Dr. Volker Rodekamp: German landscape of museums – Tradition and innovation, education and encounter

In his speech for the reopening of the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf in 2011, author Martin Mosebach described museums as “treasuries of our cities”. In Germany, the number of such treasuries is exceptionally high on a European scale, with 6,500 museums on file with the Institute for Museum Research (IfM). They comprise 660 art museums alone as well as museums of folklore, local heritage, natural history and technology, but also large museum complexes and specialised museums. With their collections, exhibits and events, they all compete for visitors – and successfully so, for, according to a 2010 survey about visitor numbers, those establishments have not seen as many visitors as in 2010 for the past 20 years. Museums registered over 109 million visitors, in addition to 6.1 million visitors of galleries that do not own any collections. That is a record-breaking achieve­­ment, substantiating how museums develop their profiles to match the requirements of the modern knowledge and adventure society. At the same time, museums continue to establish themselves as places of learning and communication and expand their responsibility as informal places of education. Cooper­­ation with schools and other education facilities as well as a variety of segments of the population are an integral part of the work of museums. As places of education and recreation, they contribute to the development of society and are indispensable components of a lively and cos­­mo­­politan culture.


Die vielfältige Museumslandschaft Deutschlands hat traditionsreiche Wur­zeln. Es ist die Sammelleidenschaft der Fürs­ten und Könige, der wir die reichen Samm­lungen insbesondere der großen Muse­ums­komplexe in Berlin, Dresden, München oder Kassel verdan­ken. Die Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin oder auch die Staat­lichen Kunst­samm­lungen Dres­den bewah­ren heute das Er­­be der Herr­scherhäuser für die Nach­welt und ziehen mit ihren aufsehenerregenden Expo­naten ein inter­nationales Publikum an. Doch auch in den kleineren Fürsten­tümern entstanden umfangreiche Samm­lungen, die heute den kul­­­turellen Reich­tum in den Re­­gio­nen bilden, wie bei­spiels­weise die Samm­­­­­lung­en von Schloss Friedens­stein in Gotha oder Schloss Got­torf in Schles­­wig. Das erste öffentlich zugängliche Museum des Kon­­ti­nents eröffnete 1754 im nieder­sächsischen Braun­schweig und da­­­­­­­mit nahezu zeitgleich mit dem Londoner British Museum.
Herzog Carl I. von Braun­schweig-Lüneburg richtete das „Kunst- und Naturalien­kabi­nett“ ein und zeigte fortan Bronzestatuet­­ten, Kunstkammer­ob­jekte, Elfenbein­schnit­zereien, Antiken, Ostasiatika und vieles mehr, und zwar nicht nur für ein auserwähltes Pub­li­kum, sondern auch für den normalen Bürger.


Germany’s diverse landscape of museums is deeply rooted in tradition. It is to the collectors’ passions of our kings and princes that we owe the rich collections of the large museum complexes in Berlin, Dresden, Munich and Kassel, in particular. Today, the National Muse­ums in Berlin as well as the Dresden State Art Col­le­c­tions are preserving the heritage of the dynasties for posterity, attracting an inter­­national crowd with their sensational exhibits. How­ever, small­­­er principalities have also gen­­erated sizeable collections, which nowadays constitute the cultural wealth of their respective regions, such as the collections of Friedenstein Castle in the city of Gotha and Gottorf Castle in the city of Schleswig.
The first public-access museum on the continent opened in Braunschweig in 1754, at about the same time as the British Muse­­um in London. Duke Carl I of Braunschweig-­­­Lüneburg founded a cabinet of art and natural history (Kunst- und Naturalien­kabi­nett) and permanently exhibited bronze statuettes, art chamber objects, ivory carvings, antiques, East-Asian collectibles, and much more – not just to a chosen few, but also to the com­­mon citizen.


The growing self-awareness of the middle class in the 19th century was also reflected in the museum field. Significant art collections grew from citizen commitment. The Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, in particular, is worth mentioning here. In 1815, the Frankfurt merchant and banker Johann Friedrich Städel laid the groundwork for one of Germany’s oldest art museums by man­­dating that his art collection and fortune be transferred to a foundation in favour of the city and its citizens. Largely supported by citizens, the Städel Museum has since continued to expand its collection and recently even built a large extension. In Bremen, citizens founded an art asso­­ciation in 1823, which, to this day, has sponsored the extremely successful art museum Kunsthalle Bremen. Its collection spans 600 years of art history, including 200,000 hand drawings and lithographies. Counting upwards of 2,800, folklore and local heritage museums represent the largest group in Ger­­­­­many. For the most part, they are small museums with local and regio­nal historic collections, often under volunteer management.

They make a valuable contribution to­­wards rooting the population in its cultural heritage and raising awareness of our cultural origin and provide even the regions with an attractive cultural offering.
The significance of Germany as an industrial nation has led to a large spectrum of technological history museums and places of industrial culture. Abandoned industrial facilities such as in the Ruhr area, Saarland and Saxony fascinate today’s visitors as an impressive testimony to our industrial past. Some of them have acquired the status of UNESCO World Heritage site, such as the Völklingen Ironworks in Saar­­brücken and the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, where the Ruhr Museum reopened at the beginning of the European Capital of Culture year Ruhr.2010.

Germany’s rich cultural heritage is asking to be preserved and explored, imparted and propagated. To a large extent, government and society are aware of that responsibility, investing a great deal of devotion as well as money in assuming the service of preserving the cultural heritage for future generations. This is an im­­­portant financial challenge for many cities and municipalities, considering that more than one third of museums are locally operated. In that regard, commercial enter­­prises have often proved to be strong and dependable partners, who, out of an awareness of their civic responsibility, are making their contribution to a lively and attractive living environment and support museums in a variety of ways, for example, by sponsoring exhibitions and educational offerings, but also through public-private partnerships such as the Museum Kunstpalast foundation, which is jointly operated by the state capital Düsseldorf, E.ON AG, and the METRO Group. Certainly, the new building of the Folkwang Museum in Essen represents one of the most significant examples of private-sector commitment in recent times. The spectacular construction, designed by British star architect David Chipperfield, was entirely financed by the Krupp foundation.

In recent years, outstanding architecture of international standing has become a trademark of the German museum scene and a magnet for architecture and museum enthusiasts. Impressive examples in­­­clude the contemplative rendering of Kolumba, the art museum of the archdiocese of Cologne, by Peter Zumthor, the new building of the Bundeswehr Military History Museum by Daniel Libeskind in Dresden, or, on the Museum Island, the reconstruction by David Chipperfield of the New Museum, which was destroyed during the war and where Nefertiti has been attracting visitors by the thousands since its reopening in 2009.


The most visited museums in Germany include the German Oceanographic Museum in Stral­­­sund, whose Ozeaneum was newly con­­structed by Behnisch Architekten, the architectural practice that gained fame with the construction of the Munich Olympic Stadium. The four locations of the German Ocean­ographic Museum, which also comprise the Ozeaneum, are visited by approximately one million people each year. In 2010, the facility’s excep­­­tional quality was acknowledged when it received the European Museum of the Year Award. In recent years, this renowned European museum prize has been repeatedly awarded in Germany. In 2007, for example, the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven earned the award. tim, the State Museum of Textile and In­­dustry in Augsburg, earned a special award in 2011, and the 2012 list of nomi­­nations comprises the “Rauten­strauch-­Joest Museum – Cultures of the World” in Cologne, which has already been an­­nounced as the winner of the 2012 Mu­­­se­­um Prize of the Council of Europe. The ethnological museum, which reopened in 2010, is a good example of a contemporary understanding of museum work. With the new presentation of its permanent exhibition, the roughly 100-year-old institution has split from the traditional, geographic organisation of ethnological museums and is conveying its contents by themes rather than countries. Working with local communities is just as natural as keeping the museum open as a place of cross-cultural encounter as well as addressing current topics and developments.

Nowadays, museums in Germany are places of reassurance, contemplation and concentration, but also places of encounter, education, experience, community and adventure – and at that, with a variety that is unique in the world.


The award-winning Stralsund Ozeaneum of the Museum of Natural Sciences is the place to experience the giants of the seas firsthand.

Nowadays, museums in Germany are places of reassurance, contemplation and concentration, but also places of encounter, education, experience, community and adventure – and at that, with a variety that is unique in the world.


rodekamp1-KopieThe author is president of the German Museums Association. He studied folklore, ethnology and journalism in Braunschweig and Münster, and obtained a doctorate in 1980. In 1983, he became director of the Minden Museum of History, Regional Studies and Folklore. He has been director of the Leipzig Museum of Local History since 1996 and CEO of the Foundation for the Monument to the Battle of the Nations since 2011.