A long and eventful history
One night in August 1870
The museums of Strasbourg as we know them today are partially the result of a tragic event. Their evolution would have been decidedly different if it weren’t for a disastrous event that took place on August 24th 1870. That evening a fire broke out when the city was bombed during the siege of 1870, ravaging the Aubette building and burning the Museum of Painting and Sculpture to the ground. The former Dominican church (now Temple Neuf) underwent the same fate and flames destroyed invaluable treasures shelved in its library in addition to irreplaceable documents and archives detailing Strasbourg’s history. The one-night disaster decimated nearly all of the municipal collections, be they artistic, archeological or historical.
The museum’s rebirth
This two-fold catastrophe was a shock for the people of Strasbourg though they were quick to take action. Beginning in 1872 mayor Ernest Lauth, assisted by the Friends of the Arts Society solicited artists and collectors to help reconstitute the Museum of Painting and Sculpture. The Society for the Conservation of Historical Monuments headed by its president, Canon Straub reassembled everything salvageable after the Dominican church fires and transferred it to the former Academy. Little by little, the collections were rebuilt thanks to archeological excavations across the region and the acquisition of numerous artistic and historical works spanning all periods.
The late 19th century and early 20th century were crucial periods in the museum’s history
Three distinct events occurring in 1898 were responsible for the true birth of a new Fine Arts Museum: after housing the new German University since 1872 upon its creation in 1871, the Rohan Palace finally became available; following numerous difficulties and setbacks the city received an allowance of 552,700 marks (for a total of 5 billion in war damages paid by France to Prussia); Wilhelm Bode, general director of the Berlin Museum was appointed to map out a program for the Museum of Fine Arts and moved forward with the purchase of paintings. The collections were thus enhanced quickly in both quality and quantity.
By 1896, the archeological collections reconstituted thanks to the Alsatian Society for the Conservation of Historical Monuments had already taken up headquarters in the Rohan Palace, Place du Château. Robert Forrer who succeeded professor Henning in 1909 as the new curator first chose to exhibit them in the Cardinals’ library, and the stable wing and its annexes, finally transferring them to the building’s basement in 1913.
In 1908, the Print Room, created ten years prior on the Academy’s premises merged with the library of the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts. At that time it contained a collection of graphic documents especially designed for architects, decorators and craftsmen.
Piece by piece, the museums that had disappeared in 1870 found new life in the former Episcopal palace. The latter became an ideal setting for artistic activities where Strasbourg’s cultural societies, including the industrious Friends of the Arts Society, were able to present major exhibitions. Other museums were added to these newly reborn museums which now enjoyed permanent shelter honoring their excellence. In 1887 the Museum of Arts and Métiers (Kunstgewerbe Museum), born from an official initiative, took on the initial form of what was to become the Decorative Arts Museum. The Hohenlohe Museum as it was called, was transferred to the first floor of the Grande Boucherie (the old Slaughterhouse) under the watchful eyes of Auguste Schricker and Ersnt Polaczek. As for the Alsatian Museum, it originated as the fruit of private enterprise, a share-holding company created in 1902 that rapidly assembled a significant collection and acquired a beautiful old house located at 23, Quai Saint-Nicolas. Its inauguration held in 1907 proved to be a festive occasion. The museum’s private status nearly brought about its downfall however, as it was sequestrated and put up for sale by the German administration in 1917. Fortunately the city of Strasbourg was able to purchase it, thereby preventing the collection’s dispersion.
The museums of Strasbourg in the face of two World Wars
The first World War (1914-1918) brought the museums’ activities to a halt without causing any noteworthy damage, either to buildings or to the collections. In 1919 Hans Haug assumed responsibilities as director of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Decorative Arts. A new historical phase began for the museums which, under his guidance would obtain international acclaim and thanks to him, for the first time ever Strasbourg’s museums adopted a global policy. In the palace of the Cardinals of Rohan, the decorative art collections from the Grande Boucherie were added to paintings in the Fine Arts Museum and in the Print Room. This transfer freed up a part of the Grande Boucherie. In collaboration with Adolphe Riff, curator of the Alsatian Museum, Hans Haug established a Historical museum, created in 1919 from numerous patriotic donations by some of Strasbourg’s influential families. This had the goal of evoking Strasbourg’s historical past, and more particularly at the onset, the glorious military past of a city that was once again French. Therefore, little by little, through a series of reclassification and regroupings, a coherent group of museums saw the light of day, each having its own unique personality and identity. This venture was further developed in 1931 with the opening of the Oeuvre Notre-Dame, a museum featuring Medieval and Renaissance art and civilization in the same buildings that had housed the Oeuvre’s Foundation from the time of the Middle Ages, managing the construction and maintenance of Strasbourg’s cathedral just a stone’s throw away.
After the war
On the eve of the second World War, the museums inside the Rohan Palace, those of the Grand Boucherie and the Oeuvre Notre-Dame Museum offered the public a complete and concrete overview of the art and history of Alsace, from its early origins to contemporary times, while on the river Ill‘s bank, the Alsatian Museum displayed the riches and diversity of the province’s traditional folk art. In spite of their tribulations (evacuation, finding shelter safely outside Strasbourg…) and owing to the fine management practices of Kurt Martin, a friend of Hans Haug named director of the Museums of the Upper Rhine, as well as the region’s annexation to the 3rd Reich between 1940 and 1944, the collections ended up suffering very little during hostilities. Alas in 1944, American bombardments sadly hit the Cathedral, the Rohan Palace and the Museum Oeuvre Notre Dame. Reconstruction of the latter was quickly administered by the City and the Service for Historical Monuments allowing a general reorganization of the museum, though the Prince-Bishop’s residence was not completely restored to its former state until 1978. During this time, under Paul Ahnne’s supervision, the Print Room gradually became less and less dependant on the Fine Arts Museum until vacating the Rohan Palace completely and moving to a new location at 5, Place du Château in the 1980’s.
Strasbourg’s network of museums
The major event of the last twenty years however, has been the creation of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Conceived in the mid-1960’s, it did not come to full fruition until its inauguration date in November 1998. Prior to that its collections were housed on the first floor of the Ancienne Douane (Customs building), and subsequently at 5, Place du Château with a presentation prefiguring current collections. Another noteworthy event was the founding of the Tomi Ungerer Center in 1990, made possible after several donations by the artist to the city of Strasbourg beginning in 1975. Today Strasbourg’s Museums form a tightly woven network of 10 museums under one common directorship including the most recent addition, the Zoological Museum. The richness and diversity of the complete collections offer an encyclopedic overview of regional and Rhenish cultural heritage. But the museums are ever-evolving and in an effort to carry on their predecessor’s work its curators are dedicated to its continual expansion and development, and to reaching out to a new public, respecting the true spirit of its first craftsmen. Following this framework in 2007, the Historical Museum closed for renovation and reopened its doors in 2007 and the Tomi Ungerer Center moved to a new venue in the Villa Greiner.
Éditions Publitotal, Strasbourg, 1977, pp. 13-20.