Old building, bright future: the Deutsches Museum's success story

How the world's largest technology museum was built on an island used for storing coal—and how future exhibitions will be displayed to visitors.

By Deutsches Museum

Deutsches Museum

Das Deutsche Museum aus der Luft (1932)Deutsches Museum

The Deutsches Museum: Looking Back and to the Future

The Deutsches Museum is one of Munich's most important and famous landmarks, and one of the world's largest museums of science and technology. Every year, around a million visitors flock to the Museum Island located between 2 branches of the Isar river. Locals and tourists alike, both adults and children, are fascinated by the many thousands of exhibits in the exhibition rooms covering an immense range of topics, from astronomy to chronometry and from agricultural technology to the Center for New Technologies. After almost 100 years, however, it's now time for a thorough refurbishment of the building. So join us on a journey through the history of the Deutsches Museum—and get a glimpse of what the exhibition rooms will look like in the future.

Bild der alten KohleninselDeutsches Museum

The Coal Island
Once a sandbank in the Isar river, the island that houses the Deutsches Museum is a historic place. It was here that Henry the Lion built his famous bridge in 1158, thus founding the city of Munich. A place for storing wood and coal, it was known to the inhabitants of Munich only as "Coal Island." In around 1870 the island was also Europe's largest "raft harbor," with around 12,000 rafts mooring here every year. In 1903 Munich City Council ultimately decided to make the site available for a modern building—the Deutsches Museum. In doing so, the city cleared the way for the plans of engineer and visionary Oskar von Miller.

Oskar von MillerDeutsches Museum

Oskar von Miller (1855 - 1934)
Oskar von Miller was the son of Ferdinand von Miller, bronze caster and creator of the Bavaria Statue on the edge of the open space in Munich known as the Theresienwiese. He studied civil engineering and soon became an important figure in this field. Inspired by visits to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris and the South Kensington Museum, which is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, he developed the idea for a museum of technology and science in his home city—an institution for all social classes based on a completely new concept that had scarcely been heard of before that point. Miller wanted a museum where you could touch things, one aimed at having fun. One that could both educate and entertain.

Die Grundsteinlegung des Deutschen MuseumsDeutsches Museum

Laying the first stone
On November 13, 1906, the most prominent VIPs of the time arrived on Museum Island in a real who's who of the German monarchy. This painting by the historical painter Georg Waltenberger shows (front from right to left): Emperor Wilhelm II, Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, Empress Augusta Victoria, Prince Regent Luitpold of Bavaria, Princess Therese of Bavaria. Somewhat in the background to the left of Wilhelm, with a beard and newspaper, you can see Oskar von Miller. On the right behind the Emperor, also with a beard but minus the newspaper, is Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen.

Das Deutsche Museum in einer Skizze von SeidlDeutsches Museum

Two long decades
But what was the new museum actually supposed to look like? An architectural competition was held to select the building's design. Gabriel von Seidl from Munich sent in the winning design, but he died in 1913 and did not live to see the opening. The First World War and the inflation that followed caused delays, and during this time the project as a whole was at risk. However, thanks to his good contacts in the construction industry, von Miller managed to continue the construction of Seidl's design with some minor amendments. Instead of the 2 towers originally planned by Seidl as shown here, only one was built: the rear one on the west side, which was also a slightly different shape. The museum finally opened its doors in 1925.

Wagen- und Maschinenbauer beim FestzugDeutsches Museum

The large procession
The day finally came on May 7, 1925. After 17 years of construction, during which 1500 concrete pillars were installed up to 23 feet deep in the ground due to the island location, the museum was officially opened. The celebrations lasted 3 days, culminating in a colorful procession through the city with representatives from 59 professional groups and companies from trade, technology, and industry. Here you can see a group of car and machine builders.

Szene aus dem historischen FestzugDeutsches Museum

Miller's birthday party
The date that Oskar von Miller selected for the grand opening was not random. In a move that highlights his self-assurance, he chose May 7 of that year to coincide with his 70th birthday. To ensure that the streets were lined by large crowds during the procession, authorities and schools were given a day off for the festive occasion.

Video vom Festzug bei der Eröffnung des Deutschen MuseumsDeutsches Museum

Andrang am Deutschen MuseumDeutsches Museum

A crowd-puller
The Deutsches Museum was a huge sensation—even in the first few years after opening, long queues formed in front of the entrance every day. The museum was open 7 days a week, for a total of 70 hours. In addition to the exhibitions, the plans included a library and a special archive about science and technology. The museum building was not yet fully furnished when Miller started his new project.

Das Deutsche Museum mit Blick von obenDeutsches Museum

Library and congress hall
In the years leading up to 1935, the library building (the low building in the middle of the picture) and then the congress hall (front left) were built.

Blick in die historische Astronomie-AusstellungDeutsches Museum

The numerous displays were spectacular for the time, whether in the astronomy exhibition…

Ein Aufseher demonstriert den DrehimpulssatzDeutsches Museum

…or in the physics department, where a supervisor demonstrated the principle of angular momentum on a living object to the amazed visitors.

Blick in die historische Eisenbahn-AbteilungDeutsches Museum

As is still the case today, the range of themes was enormous, from railways and locomotives…

…(like the first electric locomotive from 1879, shown here)…

Blick in die historische Foto-AusstellungDeutsches Museum

…and topics such as photography and optics…

Blick in die historische Buchdruck-Ausstellung (1935)Deutsches Museum

…as well as letterpress machines, which were already historical items at the time…

Blick in die historische Chemie-AbteilungDeutsches Museum

…to the rooms of the chemistry department, which today is more reminiscent of a witch's kitchen from a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, full of nooks and crannies.

Kriegsschäden im Deutschen MuseumDeutsches Museum

The Third Reich and World War II
For decades, the Deutsches Museum maintained its image of having been rather a "victim of National Socialism" in the Third Reich. The extent to which the museum actually allowed itself to be institutionalized by the rulers in the Third Reich was the subject of the important 700-page anthology "Das Deutsches Museum in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus" [The Deutsches Museum in the Time of National Socialism] in 2010. By the end of the war the museum was severely damaged, with aerial bombs from the Allied air raids having destroyed or damaged 80% of the buildings and 20% of the exhibits.

Ein Demonstrationsmodell zur BevölkerungsdichteDeutsches Museum

Reconstruction began after 1945. After being closed for 3 years, the museum opened again on May 7, 1948—exactly 23 years to the day after the inauguration ceremony. New exhibits attracted visitors to the museum in the 1950s, including this display model showing the development of the population in Germany over the centuries.

Westkuppel der SternwarteDeutsches Museum

Visitors are also fascinated by a glimpse of the stars. Here is the still-intact Zeiss refractor in the western observatory dome.

Der Verbindungsgang des Deutschen MuseumsDeutsches Museum

Initiatives for the future
As part of the largest renovation in its history, the Deutsches Museum is now reinventing itself—to become even more fascinating, even more modern, and even more comprehensible. Since October 2015, a selection of the exhibitions on Museum Island have been undergoing updates and redesign work. The exhibition building is also being upgraded to turn it into a state-of-the-art facility. This is taking place in 2 stages, so the museum can remain open. Exciting exhibitions continue to await visitors across a space of 270,000 square feet. The first selection of new exhibitions will reopen in 2020. In 2025, for the museum's 100th birthday, the building will be fully restored to its former glory.

Grundriss der neuen Luftfahrt-AbteilungDeutsches Museum

The exhibition rooms will display their exhibits in the latest, most up-to-date ways. Whether it's aviation…

Grundriss der neuen Elektronik-AbteilungDeutsches Museum


Grundriss der neuen Gesundheits-Abteilung (2017)Original Source: Grafik: Prometheus Medien für Gesellschaft, Kultur und Lebenslust

...or the health exhibit, where visitors can move through the human body.

Credits: Story

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