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Übersee-Museum first opened its doors as the “Städtische Museum für Natur -, Völker- und Handelskunde” on the 15th of January 1896. The founding director, Hugo Schauinsland, presented exhibitions that had the goal of being equally fascinating for scientists and interested laypersons, and depicted humans and animals in their natural environment for the very first time. His central theme was: “The World under one Umbrella”. The museum rapidly gained renown as a place of interest that was well-known far beyond Bremen’s borders and this still holds true to this very day.

Yet, before the museum visitors were able to gain first impressions of nature, culture or trade in and with foreign countries, a great number of Bremen citizens and businessmen were responsible for ensuring that the museum could be built in the first place, and also that it has approximately 1.2 million objects today. This is a close connection that has endured ever since and supports the museum in living up to its reputation as an educational and recreational facility with a supra-regional character – be it by collecting, preserving and researching cultural possessions and bearing witness to the fauna and flora, or by conveying information from the world of natural history, ethnology and commerce in appealing permanent and special exhibitions.

Collection Stories: Many turn into one

Continual expansion, the transition to public administration and relocation – these catchphrases characterised the events surrounding the collections of the present-day Übersee-Museum prior to its founding. Regardless of whether it was the natural history collection of the “Gesellschaft Museum” or the collections of the “Anthropologische Commission”, the “Naturwissenschaftlicher Verein” or the “Historische Gesellschaft des Künstlervereins” – all institutions were in public ownership at the latest as of 1878 and were amalgamated as the “Städtische Sammlungen für Naturgeschichte und Ethnographie”.

Gymnasium illustre

The museum’s origins can be traced back to the 17th century. Back then, the “Gymnasium illustre”, which was located in Bremen’s Catharine convent, housed objects such as snakeskins, stuffed spoonbills or Turkish baggy trousers. In the 18th century this cabinet of curiosities disappeared. Only one object is still known: the skeleton of a minke whale, which was hung down in Lesum in 1669. Today this skeleton hangs in the foyer of the Übersee-Museum.

Gesellschaft Museum

Nature lovers: In 1776, the “Physikalisch-ökonomische Lesegesellschaft” arose from a geographic-historic reading club. Its members supplemented its stock of books with a number of different natural history collections, which included amphibians, birds and physical instruments. In 1783 the reading club was renamed into the “Gesellschaft Museum” – the present-day “Club zu Bremen”.

Naturwissenschaftlicher Verein

Separation and cooperation: Once it had become clear that the “Gesellschaft Museum” was in a stage of transition, some of its members, who felt very strongly about the revival of the scientific work, founded the “Naturwissenschaftlicher Verein” in November 1864. Its members contributed own books and collections, which also found a place in the later museum.

Anthropologische Commission

Common purpose: The first ethnological museums were founded in Europe in the 2nd half of the 19th century, and this also applied for Germany. In Bremen, the “Anthropologische Commission” was formed in 1872, from the ranks of the “Historische Gesellschaft des Künstlervereins” as well as the “Naturwissenschaftlicher Verein”. Their tasks included the spatial unification of both associations’ collections, as well as the founding of an ethnological museum.

Municipal Collections for Natural History and Ethnography

Public property: Already with the founding of the “Anthropologische Commission” it was stipulated that its newly procured collection objects would be “inalienable property of the City of Bremen”. The collection of the “Gesellschaft Museum” passed over to municipal ownership in 1875. In 1878 the collections of the “Historische Gesellschaft des Künstlervereins” as well as the “Anthropologische Commission” were also placed in the custody of the City of Bremen. In future, the common name was: “Städtische Sammlungen für Naturgeschichte und Ethnographie”.

Founding years: The Schauinsland Era

The world under one umbrella: In 1887 the zoologist Hugo Schauinsland became director of the “Städtische Sammlungen für Naturgeschichte und Ethnografie”. With his vision of “The World under one Umbrella” and with the use of new exhibition concepts, he succeeded in giving the museum a clear profile. The present day Übersee-Museum was inaugurated on the 15th of January 1896 – and, with the use of dioramas and exhibitions, visitors could gain insights into the nature and cultures of distant countries and continents for the first time ever.

Northwest German Business and Industry Exhibition of 1890

Example: This show in Bremen’s Bürgerpark is of central importance for the museum’s history. Instead of only providing a presentation of Bremen’s commercial products, the organisers presented them in regional-cultural and ethnological settings of foreign countries. Hugo Schauinsland, who was instrumental in developing this exhibition, benefited in several respects. He collected valuable contacts to the Bremen merchants as well as numerous suggestions and commercial exhibits for the subsequent exhibitions of the Übersee-Museum.

Financed by Donors and the Senate: Founding of the Museum

Highly committed citizens: The responsible persons of the “Nordwestdeutsche Gewerbe- und Industrieausstellung” of 1890 wanted to establish a trade museum for the objects from their exhibit. They joined forces with the “Städtische Sammlungen für Naturgeschichte und Ethnographie”, which was also in need of new premises. Within just one year, the association, which was founded especially for this purpose, succeeded in collecting donations in the amount of 400,000 German marks for the construction of a museum, and more than half of this amount was donated by the Sparkasse Bremen.

Municipal Museum for Nature, Ethnology and Commerce

The association, which had the purpose of founding a trade museum, donated both money and exhibits from the “Gewerbe- und Industrieausstellung” to the Bremen federal state government. In return, it had to appropriate the same amount, in addition to authorising building ground at the main train station, which had already been selected, and assuming the responsibility for the new building. The federal state government and Bürgerschaft (legislative assembly of the German state of Bremen) agreed to this. Construction commenced in 1892 and the “Städtisches Museum für Natur-, Völker- und Handelskunde” was inaugurated on the 15th of January 1896.

The “Bremer Modell”

New forms of presentation: Hugo Schauinsland developed a new type of exhibition with groups and dioramas. The purpose was to present humans and animals in their natural environment and to reflect reality in the best possible way. This had the goal of creating a complete impression – the whole world under one umbrella. This form of exhibition gained renown beyond regional borders as the so-called “Bremer Modell”.

1911: Extension 2nd Atrium

Lack of space: According to Schauinsland, the museum was “completely filled” by 1899. The museum could already inaugurate an extension in 1911, with the 2nd atrium, thus giving it its present-day form. Once again, endeavours to raise 410,300 Deutschmark from private donors were successful, and three-quarters of this amount came from the Sparkasse, the Norddeutsche Lloyd and the Bremen businessman Carl Schütte. The federal state government and the Bürgerschaft (legislative assembly of the German state of Bremen) agreed to the construction, accepted the amount as a gift and supplemented it by an amount that approximately equaled that of the donation.

Devastation and Reconstruction

The Second World War also left its mark on both the building and the collections of the Übersee-Museum. Parts of the museum’s exhibits could be stored in the cellar or were sent to the surrounding countryside. However, the 1st atrium was completely devastated by a bomb on 12-20-1943. Although the Übersee-Museum was subsequently considered a total loss, a part of the exhibition could again be presented to the public in 1949. In the middle of the 1950s, the museum had once again regained its renown as an attraction in the city, which was also well-known beyond regional borders.

Deutsches Kolonial- und Übersee-Museum

In 1935, on the order of the Bremen federal state government, the building was renamed to “Deutsches Kolonial- und Übersee-Museum”. Here special emphasis was placed on the museum’s collections coming from former German colonies. The director Carl Friedrich Roewer took over from the curator Hugo Schauinsland, who had been dismissed due to his religion, as Jewish people had been placed under an occupational ban. Now the visitors were to be offered an insight into nature, culture and the economy of all German colonies. The museum collection was enlarged by corresponding purchases.

Übersee-Museum prevails

On the 28th of September 1945 the museum regained its old name, albeit without the addition “Städtisch” (municipal), because the constitutional position of the city had not yet been clarified at the time. However, the name “Museum für Natur-, Völker- und Handelskunde” did not prevail in Bremen. It remained the “Handels-, Völker- oder Kolonialmuseum” until such time as the museum’s logo was changed to “Übersee-Museum” in 1960 – a change which had already been decided by Bremen’s federal state government in 1952, and which was quickly adopted in colloquial speech.

Reconstruction of the Exhibition

From the beginning of the 1950, the reconstruction of the exhibition was at the centre of attention. Already during Easter of 1951, the first atrium and the main entrance of the museum were once again opened for visitors. In the mid of the 1950s the Übersee-Museum had once again retained its status as a tourist attraction that was well-known far beyond the borders of Bremen. In 1957 alone, the Übersee-Museum welcomed 263,940 visitors – which is an attendance record to this very day.

Long-term Effects of the War

Since the re-design of the exhibitions was given priority, the temporary constructions from the post-war period remained in place until the beginning of the 1970s. The director, Herbert Abel, reports about leaking glass roofs in the atria, a lack of illumination, and technical installations on the verge of collapse. For this reason, the Übersee-Museum was closed between 1976 and 1978, among others for comprehensive restoration measures.

New Opening 1979

The Übersee-Museum was re-opened in 1979. The South Pacific, Australia and parts of the department Bremen/Unterweser were initially at the centre of attention, all of which were now based on a new concept. The disciplines of natural history, ethnology and commerce were integrated in a consolidated exhibition. The museum was divided into continents and countries. Still, the visitors not only gained an insight into the history, but also into the present day and age of individual countries and cultures.

Modernisation: Foundation and New Exhibitions

Ever since the end of the 1990s, the history of the Übersee-Museum has been characterised by transition, both internally and externally. The transformation to a public law foundation, and the introduction of a management and foundation board, as well as the inauguration of the first exhibit depot in Europe, was followed by a fundamental re-design of the museum’s permanent exhibitions which has been ongoing since 2001. The first results of these changes are seen in the exhibition “Oceania – Living Environments in the South Pacific” as well as “Asia – Continent of Contrasts” and “What makes the world go round”.

First Exhibit Depot in Europe

The first of its kind in Europe: In 1999, the Übermaxx exhibit depot, which is located next to the Übersee-Museum and in the same building as the Cinemaxx cinema, was inaugurated. With its exhibit depot, the museum succeeded in setting nationwide standards. Worldwide, it is the second museum, and in Germany the first, to make a large share of its collection publicly accessible in this manner. Today a large number of the approximately 1.2 million museum objects are located here.

New design: Oceania and Asia

Since 2001, little by little, the Übersee-Museum has been reworking its permanent exhibitions. The start was made in 2003 with the 1st atrium, with “Oceania – Living Environments in the South Pacific”. In 2006 this was followed by the exhibition “Asia – Continent of Contrasts” in the 2nd atrium. Key aspects taken from previous design ideas were consistently refined – here, for instance, the approach to offer an integrated presentation of the three collections in focus, i.e. ethnology, commerce and natural history.

New Bridge connects

Waldemar Koch Bridge: With the purpose of creating a stronger connection between the Übermaxx exhibit depot and the main building, in addition to facilitating visitors’ access to the collection, the two buildings were connected with a bridge in 2008, with financial support of the Waldemar Koch foundation.

What makes the world go round

The world is getting smaller: Oceania, Asia and Africa – the geographical partition of the Übersee-Museum helps visitors find their way. The current globalisation trend makes apparent that these themes are moving people and are relevant all over the world. Since 2010, with the “What makes the world go round” exhibition, the museum has taken account of this development. An own area has been dedicated to each of the following themes: Communication, global economy, climate change, sex & gender, migration, time, and human rights.