History of the Museum

  • Elisabeth Schmidt, In the Museum of Art and Antiquity, 1906

  • Exhibition label of the Museum of Art and Antiquity, 1933

  • Sign of the Art Museum in Steinstraße, about 1890

  • Museum of Art and Antiquity, about 1910

  • Museum of Art and Antiquity, before 1942

Foundation 1859

The Rostock Museum, founded in 1859, is one of the oldest museums in Northern Germany. Its collections of cultural history and the history of art ranging from paintings to drawings to hand-crafted objects, coins, furniture, militaria, objects of everyday life and archaeology make it one of the most important collections in the area.
In 1841 citizens of Rostock, mainly merchants, doctors and lawyers, established the Rostock Art Society. Exhibitions of fine arts were intended to cater to public interest in art. In 1852 a group of far-sighted members of the Art Society set up a Society for the Collection and Exhibition of Works of Art for the city. In addition to the intention of the Art Society to encourage the understanding of art among the public, this new society planned to create and exhibit a permanent art collection.
The first result of the society’s activities was the purchase in 1859, financed by the Rostock Savings Bank, of a building in Steinstraße for a permanent art exhibition. The works of art purchased for the collection were declared permanent property of the city in perpetuity and were to be open to the general public free of charge.
At the same time interest in tangible tradition was growing in Rostock as in other German cities. In addition to research and documentation, the preservation, collection and conservation of sources and monuments from past centuries were the main focus of attention.

founder of the “Society for Rostock’s Antiquities“, 1883

In 1883 the “Society for Rostock’s Antiquities“ was founded. This was a historical society for the collection and preservation of historical objects. From the beginning the aim was to found a public museum. In November 1883 the city of Rostock assigned a former alehouse, “Lindenhof“ in Lindenstraße, to the Society for its collection. Here the first exhibition was opened in 1885.
The museum received numerous gifts from citizens of Rostock and extensive allocations of the property from the dissolved artisan guilds and the city mint that had been closed in 1864. With all these and also purchases, a significant collection of exhibits relating to city and cultural history soon accumulated. The main focus was on objects with a connection to the history of the city: coins and seals, models of buildings, tools and guild tableware, historical religious objects and exhibits relating to the culture and way of life of Rostock’s citizens.
In this first phase in the last third of the 19th century, the city’s museums developed rapidly. As a result of the growing size of the City Art Collection and the Collection of Antiquities, by 1887 the Art Museum in Steinstraße and the Museum of Antiquities in Lindenstraße were already too small.
By 1892 there were ideas and negotiations about building a “Museum of Art and Antiquity“ to unite both collections under one roof.
However, this project proved too expensive to carry out. And so the Assembly Rooms of Rostock’s society in Friedrich-Franz-Straße outside the Steintor city gate were bought by the city and converted by Gustav Dehn, the City Director of Works, into a museum.

Museum of Art and Antiquity 1903

Museum of Art and Antiquity, picture postcard about 1910

The new “Museum of Art and Antiquity“ was opened on 4th October 1903.  As was typical at the beginning of the 20th century, it combined collections of art and cultural history under one roof.
The management of the museum, the care of the collections and their enlargement remained in the hands of the art societies. The city paid for the upkeep of the building. In 1923 inflation threatened the existence of the museum. The city council set up an adminstrative body to ensure its survival. From 1924 on there were attempts to restore St Katherine’s Monastery for the collection of antiquities, which had become too large for the museum building. This plan was finally abandoned as too expensive in 1932.
Nonetheless in 1928 another important element, the prehistoric and proto-historic collection, was bought and incorporated into the Museum of Antiquities as the Department of Early History. From the beginning the exhibits on display and in stock were not only from the Rostock city area but also from the whole of Mecklenburg.
In 1932 the art historian Arnold Gräbke from Lübeck was appointed to the museum and he finally carried out a comprehensive reorganization. Gräbke worked intensively on enlarging the collections. His main focus was always on the principle of conveying a complete picture of the culture and history of the bourgeoisie through art and handcrafted objects.
The collections of pewter, interiors, city clothing and traditional peasant costume were enlarged and specific works of art were bought. So the collections grew and enhanced the image of the museum. It was characteristic that historical works of art and historical objects continued to be displayed under one roof.

City Museum 1936

Museum of Ethnology, exhibition room Indonesia, about 1939

During the Nazi period political demands on the museum increased. In 1933 the Rostock Art Society and the Society for Rostock’s Antiquities were dissolved and their collections were placed under the control of the Nazi Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Fine Arts). Nazi commissions removed works of “degenerate art“. In 1936 The Art Museum and the Museum of Antiquities were amalgamated under the name “City Museum“. The Museum for Ethnology, founded in 1902 by the Rostock section of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft (German Colonial Society) and the city archive were incorporated into the City Museum.
In 1942, wartime evacuation of the collections to strongrooms and bunkers was begun. Other collections were taken to the village churches in Belitz and Kavelsdorf, manor houses in Tessenow, Niekrenz und Plueschow and the stately homes Erdmannsdorf and Carolrath to protect them from destruction by bombing.
The museum suffered great losses in these places while the museum buildings were only slightly damaged. The collections of the Museum of Ethnology were almost all destroyed. The Mecklenburg traditional costumes were completely lost. Valuable paintings, furniture, exhibits of city history and religious works of art were also lost.

Did you know... ... the first seagoing iron screw steamer in Germany was built in Rostock?

Museum of the City of Rostock after 1945

Poster design Fritz Koch-Gotha, prob. 1955

After the museum building had been repaired, the collections were brought back. Even before the permanent exhibition could be set up again, there was an exhibition in October 1945 with works by Ernst Barlach. The “Museum of the City of Rostock“, as it was now called, re-opened on 1st May 1946 as one of the first in the Soviet Occupation Zone.
The Fifties and Sixties saw great developments in the museum. Under the management of the art historian Johann Joachim Bernitt scientific evaluation of the collections continued and they were organized in accordance with the criteria of a museum that is structured with different scientific collections.
At the same time socialist state doctrine was increasingly influencing cultural life. As a result of its origins and collections, the character of the Rostock Museum was mainly middle class. Now the museum in its central location in August-Bebel-Straße was subject to changing expectations.
Since 1960 there had been discussions about establishing a shipping museum to display the history of seafaring and the history of the shipyards and port, which were closely connected to the development of the working class.
And so in 1968 the Museum of the City of Rostock had to vacate its fine building for the creation of this shipping museum.
In 1969 the Kroepelin Gate (Kröpeliner Tor) was converted to house a new exhibition of city history. However, important parts of the extensive collections of the Museum of Cultural History could no longer be displayed or only in small short-term exhibitions.
The very substantial stock of objects suffered badly under the difficult temporary storage conditions.

The Rostock Cultural History Museum since 1968

The reconstruction and conversion of the Convent of the Holy Cross began in 1976 and marked a new beginning for the Museum of Cultural History that had been without a building of its own. The original plans were only partly carried out by 1980. After reunification, renovation of the west wing began in 1997 and a new concept could be implemented that was appropriate to the significance of the museum and its collections for Mecklenburg-Western-Pomerania and Northern Germany.
Since 2011 the Rostock Cultural History Museum, now complete again as a modern exhibition location, has found a home in the reconstructed rooms of the Convent of the Holy Cross.