The collections of Museum Wiesbaden were initially begun at the initiative of an active group of the city’s citizens in the early 19th century. The origin of the collections can be traced back to the 18th century and the efforts of the private collector Johann Isaac Freiherr von Gerning. Upon the recommendation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gerning donated his collections of art, antiquity and natural history to the Duchy of Nassau and they were made available to the public in the palace of the crown prince. Three museums were established with the support of the following institutions — the Verein für Nassauische Altertumskunde und Geschichtsforschung [Nassau Association for Antiquity and Historical Research], the Nassauische Verein für Naturkunde [Nassau Society for Natural History] and the Nassauische Kunstverein [Nassau Art Association].
In 1900, ownership of the three museums was transferred to the city of Wiesbaden. Between 1913 and 1915, the architect Theodor Fischer was selected to draw up plans for a new building to house the collections. The result was a modern construction designed specifically to suit the needs of each of the individual collections, as well as space for temporary exhibitions.
Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the museum’s directors, with the support of the various associations, actively expanded the collections and organized a number of attractive exhibitions. Wiesbaden’s citizens, too, enabled some important acquisitions to the various collections, in particular, the collector Heinrich Kirchhoff, who put a number of works from his private collection on permanent loan to the museum. In this period of the museum’s history, the taxidermist Josef Burger prepared a variety of highly valuable specimens for the permanent exhibitions of the Natural History Museum.
After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the works of artists in and around the Expressionist movement, such as those of Jawlensky and Klee, as well as the various Constructivist artists, were relegated to the museum’s storerooms. In 1937, they were transferred to the central storerooms in Potsdam and the pieces on permanent loan from Heinrich Kirchhoff’s collection returned to their owner. In the war years, between 1935 and 1945, the museum was directed by Hermann Voss. Under his directorship, the museum acquired over 200 works, among them some highly valuable Baroque paintings. As of 1943, Voss was also appointed special envoy to the Führer Museum in Linz, a position through which numerous questionable acquisitions entered Wiesbaden’s collections. Our provenance research department has since traced the origins of a number of works acquired in this period to their rightful Jewish owners.
After the war, the American occupying forces designated Museum Wiesbaden as the Central Collecting Point for works of art confiscated by the Nazis. Once these works — among them the bust of Nefertiti and Rembrandt’s Man with the Golden Helmet — were restored to their original owners, the museum turned in the 1950s and 1960s to the arduous task, especially given its humble financial means, of reestablishing its collections. Among the first matters of business for then director Clemens Weiler was rebuilding the Jawlensky collection, now one of the museum’s most prominent and valuable.
For its part, the Natural History Museum developed a new exhibition concept based on a clear distinction between exhibit and depot, focusing particular attention on special exhibitions.
In 1973, the city transferred ownership of the collections to the state of Hesse, which has administered them since as “Museum Wiesbaden.”
In the spring of 2010, responsibility for the Nassau antiquities collection was transferred to the city.
Today, after several years of meticulous renovation, the exhibition space for the art and natural history collections has been expanded to some 7000 square meters. The renovations sought to restore the original proportions of Fischer’s design. The Kassel architects Schultze + Schulze managed to integrate “new with old,” so that the museum’s interior now offers brilliant white walls on which to display its collections. The state-of-the-art climate control and security systems, however, remain largely “invisible,” while retractable ceiling light falls shadowlessly from above and LED technology preserves the museum’s works and specimens on display. The historical showcases of the Natural History collection, designed by August Kühnscherf, were fully restored and newly integrated into the exhibition space. The foyer and lecture hall, cafeteria and educational rooms, as well as the service facilities were also renovated. Visitors now enjoy various galleries of different proportions and spacious purviews in the museum’s generous new exhibition space — the ideal setting for experiencing the museum’s works of art and nature.
In 2007, Museum Wiesbaden was named “Museum of the Year” in the area of Modern Art by the German section of the AICA in recognition of its superior exhibition and collecting activities.