Collecting History

How history shaped the collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum

Collecting History: Zeughaus

The exhibition items in the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) are testimonies of German and European history. The exhibits are integrated into 3 museum collections in chronological order: the Zeughaus (arsenal) in Berlin, the Museum für Deutsche Geschichte (Museum of German History), and the Deutsches Historisches Museum. The oldest of these collections—the Zeughaus collection—dates back over 300 years. It has an eventful history, including collecting, preservation, research, and teaching across changing premises.

Six pounder for the Elector Prince Karl Emil von Brandenburg (1655-1674) (1660) by Gerhard KosterGerman Historical Museum

Its first exhibits were weapons belonging to the Prussian army—guns, rifles, and sabers—which were stored in the Zeughaus for use from the early 18th century.

Eleven fortress keys (17th to 19th century)German Historical Museum

The arsenal building, constructed between 1695 and 1730, was also used to keep war trophies.

Bicorne worn by Napoleon I. (1769–1821), with cockade (1813-1815) by Hatter PoupartGerman Historical Museum

One very special piece is this bicorne belonging to Emperor Napoleon I. It was a piece of loot which made its way into the Zeughaus after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Interim uniform coat of the First Battallion Guard with embroidered Order of the Black Eagle. Uniforms, medals and accessories worn by King Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786) (around 1785) by Leibschneider HelleGerman Historical Museum

In the late 19th century, when military history museums had also been established in other German and European countries, Emperor William I suggested that the armory be turned into a "Hall of Fame of the Brandenburg-Prussian Army" as a museum. The exhibition which opened in 1883 glorified the history of the Hohenzollern rulers.

Great helm (c. 1251-1300)German Historical Museum

Through acquisitions, transfers, and donations, but also exchanges, it soon held one of the largest militaria collections in Europe. Its objects ranged from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century. This great helm from the late 12th century was an archaeological discovery in Lower Pomerania. It came to the Zeughaus via the cabinet of curiosities in the Berlin Palace and was originally a gift to King William I of Prussia (1797–1888).

Stripe pattern book of the Prussian army (1754-1755)German Historical Museum

The royal museum of the armed forces was owned by the Prussian Ministry of War. During the First World War, special exhibitions were held on pieces of loot from battles. The museum's systematic collection focused on uniforms, items of equipment, and ally and enemy weapons.

Black-white-red flag from the Palace of Versailles (1871)German Historical Museum

After defeat in the war, the end of the monarchy, and the foundation of the Republic in 1919, the museum was assigned to the Ministry of Science, Culture, and Education. Over the next few years the government had little need to present military history and there were barely any financial resources available for new acquisitions. The return of pieces of loot from the First World War to France, established by the Treaty of Versailles, cut into the museum's most recent collections.

A grenadier figure for storing tobacco (around 1750)German Historical Museum

This was not the first time it had happened: in 1760, during the occupation of Berlin in the Seven Years' War, Russian and Austrian troops almost entirely cleared out the armory. And in 1806, after the Battle of Jena and Auerstedt, it was plundered by Napoleon's soldiers moving triumphantly into the Prussian capital. In 1848, however, Berlin revolutionaries used Zeughaus weaponry in their fight against the reactionary Hohenzollern monarchy.

Order of the Black Eagle – Order of the Black Eagle – (1814)German Historical Museum

From 1934 the National Socialist regime started to take control of the museum. A revised exhibition opened 2 years later which was intended to convey a view of history in line with National Socialist ideology. During the Second World War, propaganda exhibitions took over this function. In September 1944 the Zeughaus was badly damaged by aerial bombs. Many of the museum's objects that were boxed and evacuated were captured by advancing Polish and Soviet soldiers during transport. Others were later looted at civilian evacuation sites.

In May 1945 the Zeughaus was in ruins and its collection scattered. The allied victors deemed Prussian and German militarism to be one of the roots of National Socialism. The Allied Command of the City of Berlin therefore decided to disband the museum as a place and refuge for this history.

Honor badge "Builder of the city center" Honor badge "Builder of the city center" (1969) by Axel BertramGerman Historical Museum

Collecting History: Museum für Deutsche Geschichte

Even before the foundation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the functionaries of the Social Unionist party of Germany (SED) relied on history as a means of legitimizing their power. This not only meant that universities, colleges, and academies had to implement the decisions of the SED but a museum planned in 1950 also had to contribute toward the "progressive education" of citizens through a socialist view of history. So in January 1952, the Museum für Deutsche Geschichte (MfDG) was founded in the partially destroyed Zeughaus in Berlin. Based on Marxist-Leninist historical science, the institution would exhibit the entire history of Germany, from the beginnings to the present day. From 1962 onward the ever-changing permanent collection was presented in the restored Zeughaus.

The Internationale (1929/1930) by Otto GriebelGerman Historical Museum

The MfDG had always been run as more than a museum and exhibition. From 1952 to 1990 it oversaw the national remembrance and memorial sites of the GDR, the memorial sites of the history of the workers' movement, and the commemorative sites of the GDR. In these central fields of SED historical policy, the museum pushed forward postulated anti-fascism and the Marxist-Leninist view of history in general.

The MfDG did not have a collection when it was founded; it was developed and expanded under political circumstances in the following decades, until 1990. The icons of GDR historiography included Marx, Lenin, Thälmann, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Stalin (until destalinization). Busts, portraits, documents, and personal legacies, where available, of these figures were included in the collection.

"Progressive traditions" of German history included revolutions and the workers' movement. The MfDG pursued its mission by commissioning paintings and sculptures with appropriate historical designs. It also acquired numerous paintings by artists belonging to the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists (Asso), such as painter Otto Griebel featured here in this picture. As a result, the museum boasts an impressive inventory on the topic today.

Parchment sheet from a 'Heliand' manuscript Parchment sheet from a 'Heliand' manuscript (830/40)German Historical Museum

The representatives of the "worker and farmer state of the GDR" Pieck, Grotewohl, and Ulbricht founded the tradition of political gifts. The Heliand fragment seen here is one such gift, presented to Wilhelm Pieck in 1951 during a visit to Czechoslovakia. The fragment, created around 850, is one of the earliest written texts in German.
As a "special inventory" collection, the tradition of political gifts not only represented the powerful individuals of the Republic; it also represented the socialist fraternal countries and the international network of friendship and solidarity.

Ship's bell from the liner "S.M.S. Kronprinz " of the Imperial Navy (before 08.08.1914)German Historical Museum

Between 1958 and 1959 historical museum items were returned to Berlin (GDR) from the Soviet Union and the MfDG added these to its collection. They included items from the Zeughaus and Imperial Navy collection, such as the ship bell from the SMS Kronprinz warship which belonged to the Imperial Fleet during the First World War.

Dress of Queen Luise (1776–1810) (1800-1806)German Historical Museum

This dress belonging to Prussian Queen Luise (1776–1810) was repatriated from the collections of the Hohenzollern museum, opened in 1887. Other repatriations included items from the Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden as well as various fashion and costume collections.

Until the 1970s, cities and municipalities in the GDR "transferred" parts of inventories or individual pieces, including objects belonging to aristocratic lords and bourgeois landowners. Until the 1980s, the Volkspolizei people's police force or customs department "loaned" items. Its status as a national museum of the GDR seemed to justify the fact that regional and local museums were instructed to donate or loan prestigious objects, desired in terms of their content.

Through research on their origin, the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) has reinstated identified objects and collections or is in negotiations for doing so.

Poster "Die Partei - das werden wir" (1976) by Central Committee of the SED, Department of Agitation and Klaus Lemke (designer), Thomas Billhardt (photographer)German Historical Museum

The MfDG was unprepared for the fall of the Berlin Wall; over the next few years it tried to catch up with the rapidly changing political climate.

Chicken-shaped egg cup (around 1989) by Marke: Sonja Plastic and Brand: Sonja PlasticGerman Historical Museum

The "Die DDR ins Museum" (the GDR into the museum) collection appeal that ran shortly after the monetary union aimed to preserve the threatened GDR state, at least in museum form. The collection embraced current political situations. Banners from the demonstration in Alexanderplatz on November 4, 1989 were shown from April to May 1990, quite symbolically in the now-closed "Sozialistisches Vaterland DDR" (GDR, the Socialist Fatherland) exhibition. In addition, homemade escape vehicles for passing the German-German border were displayed from September to November 1990.

On August 29, 1990 the GDR Council of Ministers decided to disband the MfDG by September 15, 1990. The MfDG's property and collection were transferred to the DHM for display. At the time, the MfDG collection comprised approximately 450,000 items and compilation objects.

Collecting History: Deutsches Historisches Museum

The concept of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) was developed in 1986 by a committee of experts including historians, art historians, cultural scientists, and museum experts. It involved highlighting transnational references to German history in a European comparison. As a national museum, it was not intended to glorify the nation but to enlighten people about it. A new building was planned in West Berlin immediately next to the Berlin Wall. The institution was already under heavy discussion before 1987 in terms of its role as a political foundation. Public critics feared that a decreed national museum could downplay National Socialism and the Holocaust in favor of previous centuries. Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1930–2017) personally promoted the project, which was perceived to be ignoring democratic processes.


Text and note sheet for "Song of the Germans" (1841 (written); 1797 (composed)) by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben and Joseph Haydn (music)German Historical Museum

On October 28, 1987, the act founding the Deutsches Historisches Museum was carried out in the Berlin Reichstag building. From the beginning, founding director Christoph Stölzl (born in 1945) emphasized the importance of original objects for the future work of the institution. Helmut Kohl's gift of presenting the institution with "Das Lied der Deutschen" (The Song of the Germans) by Hoffmann von Fallersleben at the inauguration ceremony shows just how important the policy of meaningful testimonies was.

Demonstration on the Berlin Alexanderplatz, 4 November 1989 (04 November 1989) by Rolf ZöllnerGerman Historical Museum

The year of the fall of the Berlin Wall presented new challenges for the institution and called its role into question. The small founding team made up of fewer than a dozen employees moved from West Berlin to the Mitte district. The new building was replaced by the Zeughaus, with an exhibition hall designed by I. M. Pei which opened in 2003. In addition to specific collecting activity for a future permanent exhibition, the MfDG's material heritage was substantially and structurally redefined.

Tapestry "March of Triumph" (1504) by Johann Grenier (presumably)German Historical Museum

This sudden growth in objects also created conceptually new priorities in current exhibition and publication projects. The amount of research was immense, and included countless questions concerning origin, whereabouts, submission, location, and exchange. Supply losses and wartime defeats throughout the existence of the Zeughaus were great obstacles to developing the collection.

Self-portrait in hiding place (1944) by Felix NussbaumGerman Historical Museum

Its range of collecting activities, including not only political histories but also various aspects of life, its abundance of exhibitions creating discussion and controversy, its many publications, and its integration into German and international networks have turned the DHM into a national museum—a museum that doesn't give firm answers to historical questions but rather encourages critical interpretation.

Flagpoles of parties and mass organizations (1960-1989)German Historical Museum

The political legacy of the National Socialist state and the GDR was assigned to the DHM for development. This included sets of several thousand objects from the German War Art Collection as well as the Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR (Archive Foundation of Parties and Mass Organizations of the GDR; SAPMO).

Banner from the demonstration on the Berlin Alexanderplatz on 4 November 1989 (1989) by unknownGerman Historical Museum

The collection of political banners from the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, consisting of several hundred objects, should also be highlighted here.

Tin can „CACAO SUCHARD“ (After 1900) by SuchardGerman Historical Museum

The private collection of Rainer Burkhart, including around 6,000 tin cans from the 19th and 20th centuries, is another set of objects strengthening the collection's focus on everyday life.

Worker with mobile device at the petrochemical combine Schwedt (around 1976) by Kurt SchwarzerGerman Historical Museum

Sets from photographers Walter Ballhause, Kurt Schwarzer, and Henry Ries were significant new additions to the institution's image archive.

Kaiserpanorama: Visitors and pavilions at the World Exhibition Paris, 1889 (1889) by Stereoskopischer Bildverleih Kaiser-Panorama-BerlinGerman Historical Museum

The purchase of the largest existing collection of "kaiserpanorama" stereoscopic dioramas expanded the image archive and added new highlights to the collection.

Joyful old man in poverty (second half of the 18th century) by Kaspar Bernhard Hardy (1726–1819)German Historical Museum

Some acquisitions were made with the support of third parties, such as the Stiftung Deutsche Klassenlotterie (German Class Lottery Association) and the Museumsverein der Stiftung Deutsches Historisches Museum (Museum Society of the Deutsches Historisches Museum Association). The latter supported the acquisition of 2 waxworks by Kaspar Bernhard Hardy (1726–1819), whose work had already been praised by Goethe.

Arm prosthesis, so-called "Grüninger Hand" (around 1510) by Probably South German workshopGerman Historical Museum

The question of what the DHM collects today for future generations and under what support cannot be overlooked. We need to constantly keep re-examining this, because—as Marc Fehlmann, the collection director from 2016 to 2017, once put it—we cannot predict what future generations will take away from a collection.

Credits: Story

Die Ausstellung beruht auf dem 2017 erschienenen Band "Geschichte sammeln" anlässlich des 30jährigen Bestehens des Deutschen Historischen Museums, herausgegeben von Rosmarie Beier-de Haan und Regine Falkenberg im Auftrag des Deutschen Historischen Museums.

Autorinnen und Autoren:
- Abschnitt "Zeughaus": Thomas Weißbrich.
- Abschnitte "Museum für Deutsche Geschichte" und "Deutsches Historisches Museum": Rosmarie Beier-de Haan und Regine Falkenberg.

Redaktionell bearbeitet von Björn Schmidt.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
From Bach to Bauhaus
Art, sights and history brought to you by over 160 institutions in Germany
View theme
Google apps