Prussian Cultural Heritage

The origins of the vast majority of the museum, library, and archival holdings that have been brought together within the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) long predate its founding. Their diversity and their continuing importance were largely attained in the nineteenth century.

The Roots of the Five Institutions

The oldest of the Foundation’s institutions is the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Secret State Archives). A precursor of this archive was first mentioned as far back as the thirteenth century. The first true archive of the Electors of Brandenburg, however, dates only to the late sixteenth century. The origins of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library) and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) also extend back to the Brandenburg era. The Great Elector Frederick William founded the Staatsbibliothek in 1661 as the Churfürstliche Bibliothek zu Cölln an der Spree (Electoral Library in Cölln on the Spree). Frederick the Great made important decisions that formed the royal art collections in the eighteenth century. The collections have been accessible to the public since the opening of the Altes Museum in 1830.

The Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut (Ibero-American Institute) goes back to ideas from the Prussian Ministry of Education in the 1920s. The crucial impetus for its founding came in 1927 with the donation of an important Argentine library to the Prussian state. The Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung (State Institute for Music Research) was founded in 1935. Its collection of historical instruments, which is now exhibited in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum, had been started in the late nineteenth century.

The Expansion of the Collections in the Nineteenth Century

The collecting activity strove for encyclopedic breadth from the outset. It was continually supported by the Prussian royal house and influenced by flourishing education and research in Prussia. Especially in the nineteenth century, the collections were systematically expanded. This process of expansion had a great effect on their structures. Even today they reflect the policy Prussia pursued when collecting. This primarily corresponded to scholarly interests.

The collections acquired their encyclopedic and organic character in part due to the influence of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). He was a coauthor of the museums’ first statutes. By contrast, the influence of the natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) represents the gaze outwards. He is considered the spiritual father of collecting activity directed at the non-European realm. Interest in non-European cultures, ideas and traditions increased from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and decisively shaped the collecting activity. The extensive excavations by the museums helped the archaeological collections to grow continuously. Scientific expeditions in all parts of the globe brought non-European art and culture to Berlin.

The Prussian state had a number of architecturally outstanding buildings constructed for its collections. From 1830 to 1930 the Museumsinsel acquired its still fascinating form with its five buildings. In the immediate vicinity of the Museumsinsel, which had been designed as a “sanctuary for art and science,” the new building for the Staatsbibliothek opened on the boulevard Unter den Linden in 1914. At the time, it was the largest library building in the world.

Prussian Heritage Today

The holdings of the public museums, libraries, and archives of Prussia were transferred to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz in 1957. The establishment of the Foundation ensured that this unique cultural legacy would be preserved in its context and would be able to expand. Thus it will also be available to future generations.