Ethnological museums are the subject of much and intense debate, not only about their colonial past, but also about their future relevance and role in society. With new exhibitions and events our museum is embarking on a multi-layered restructuring project.

Frau vor einem Innenhof
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Oliver Killig
Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, Direktorin der Völkerkundemuseen Leipzig, Dresden, Herrnhut

History of the collection

Due to its history, the Völkerkundemuseum Herrnhut stands in the tradition of missionary museums. Founded in 1878, the Herrnhut museum was preceded by the cabinet of naturalia of the Moravian Brotherhood in Barby, later Niesky, which dates back to 1758. In this way, it is considered one of the oldest missionary collections in the German-speaking world. With its aim of being an "ethnographic cultural and natural-historic scientific museum" - as expressed in its original name - it is highly exceptional as a missionary museum, most of which were founded with the overt purpose of "missionary propaganda".

The missionary activity of the Protestant Moravian Church began in 1732, and evidence shows that the first ethnographical objects were collected by their missionaries in 1740. The first collecting instructions were set down in 1774 in Bossart's Kurze Anweisung Naturalien zu samlen (A Brief Guide to Collecting Naturalia). In 1781, objects from James Cook's third voyage found their way into the cabinet of naturalia in Barby and thus into today's museum holdings.

It was only in 1878 that a museum association was founded in Herrnhut on the initiative of the apothecary Bernhard Kinne. Two years later, the missionaries were officially charged with the task of collecting for the museum. In 1901, the museum opened in its own building for the first time, after having presented the objects in different places up to that point.

[Translate to English:] History of the collection

In the Second World War, the collection did not suffer any damage. In 1947, objects from the museum in Niesky, which had been heavily damaged in the war, were taken on, and later holdings from further collections followed. As a result, large parts of the ethnographical collections from the various missionary areas of the Moravian Church are concentrated today in Herrnhut. In 1975, the museum became a branch of the Dresden Ethnography Museum. In 1993 and 1994, an extension was built with space for special exhibitions, and a complete overhaul of the building was undertaken. After completion in 2003, a new permanent exhibition was opened. 

From 2010 to 2012, a further addition was completed to create storage space for the study collection that had been in external storage up to that point and to provide a larger and more modern room for special exhibitions. In 2004, the ethnographical museums in Dresden, Leipzig and Herrnhut merged, forming the second largest group of ethnographical collections in Germany after the Berlin collections, and in 2010 they joined the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

Maske mit ovalem, langgezogenem Gesicht
© SKD, Foto: Johanna Funke
Giebelmaske, Neuguinea, Sepik-Gebiet, um 1895 Völkerkundemuseum Herrnhut

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