Unlike the many ethnographic museums that emerged from royal ‘cabinets of curiosities’, the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt was founded by citizens for citizens. Its beginnings date from 1817, the founding year of the Senckenberg Natural History Society. This society built up collections in natural science and initially also in ethnography. Its ethnographic collection was given to the city of Frankfurt in 1877, and was housed in a dedicated ethnological section of the Frankfurt Historical Museum.

On 22 October 1904, the “Städtisches Völkermuseum” opened at Münzgasse 1. The museum’s founder and first director (until 1919) was the privy councillor and physician Dr. Bernhard Hagen. Because of its rapidly growing collections – in 1904 there were 4000 objects, by 1908 there were 16,000 – the museum moved to a new home after only four years.

On 22 October 1908, the museum reopened, now in the spacious premises of the Palais Thurn und Taxis at Große Eschersheimer Strasse 26. The ethnographic artefacts were presented in a permanent display and research collection along with smaller special exhibitions (sixteen of them up to 1944).

In the period from 1919 to 1935, Dr. Johannes Lehmann, former assistant at the museum, was its acting director.

From 1935 to 1938, Professor Leo Frobenius directed the museum. According to the handover documentation, in 1935 the collection consisted of 30,075 objects. Frobenius was also the director of the Institut für Kulturmorphologie, and a tradition began: From then until 1969, the two institutions would be headed by the same person. The Palais Thurn und Taxis was renovated and redesigned in line with its new tasks.

When Leo Frobenius died on 3 August 1938, Dr. Adolf Ellegard Jensen, one of the museum’s curators, became the acting director. He remained in post until 1946. By the beginning of the Second World War, the “Städtisches Völkermuseum” had become Frankfurt’s most-visited museum.

In 1940, the museum was closed to the public. Dr. Karin Hahn-Hissink, an anthropologist attached to the museum, instigated and organised the evacuation of two-thirds of the museum’s collections to ten safe locations in Thuringia, Franconia and Bavaria.

A bombing in March 1944 destroyed the museum in the Palais Thurn und Taxis with all its remaining ethnographic artefacts, photographic archives, collection records, and research and administration files. All that survived was the majority of the inventory books. Thanks to Karin Hahn-Hissink’s forward thinking, the evacuated artefacts were undamaged.
In the post-war period, Frankfurt’s museums lay in ruins. The collections that had been rescued were kept in cellars, bunkers and in an emergency storage. Some of these cultural treasures were presented in temporary exhibitions. In this period – between 1945 and 1972 – the “Städtisches Völkermuseum” created thirty-one exhibitions held in many different locations inside and outside the city of Frankfurt. The exhibitions provided information on the research and collection activities that were resumed soon after the end of the war (starting in the 1950s).

In 1946, Professor Adolf Ellegard Jensen was appointed director. Until 1965, he was simultaneously director of the museum, the Frobenius Institut (formerly the Institute for Cultural Morphology) and the newly established anthropology department at the University of Frankfurt. In 1946 the name of the museum was changed from “Städtisches Völkermuseum” to “Städtisches Museum für Völkerkunde” (Municipal Museum of Ethnology).

On 4 July 1954, the museum celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Dr. vom Rath, the city councillor responsible for cultural affairs at the time, hoped to set aside a plot of land for a future new building, but despite the examination of twenty projects the plan could not be implemented.

In the 1960s, the museum’s name changed again, to “Museum für Völkerkunde der Stadt Frankfurt am Main” (Museum of Anthropology of the City of Frankfurt am Main).

From 1965 to 1966, Professor Carl August Schmitz was the director of the museum.

Professor Hermann Niggemeyer took on acting management of the museum in 1966 and was appointed director in 1967.

1969 saw the separation of the Frobenius Institut from the museum. The museum moved to a villa at Schaumainkai 29 on the bank of the River Main. The first plans were drawn up for a new building in the Museum Park, between villa 29 on Schaumainkai and the Kutscherhaus on Metzelerstraße, which is where the restoration workshops have been housed ever since. The new-build plans were never realised, and were officially abandoned in the 1980s.

From 1972 to 1983, Dr. Heinz Kelm was the director of the museum.

Partly influenced by the student movement of the 1960s, from the 1970s heated debates began over contemporary tasks and objectives of ethnographic museums as institutions. In these discussions, anthropology drew inspiration from sociology, and the Frankfurt museum’s educational mission was seen primarily as a sociopolitical one. Well into the 1980s, the museum defined itself as an information centre for the ‘Third World’, with changing exhibitions that introduced the public to the history and lifestyles of other cultures and offered information on their current situation, particularly problems of the present day. Moving through the thematically and regionally defined exhibitions, visitors were always confronted with their own society and especially with the destructive influence of imperialism and neo-imperialism on the cultures and economies of ‘Third World’ peoples. Great value was placed on the critical explanation of social contexts. In this period, there was a radical rejection of the dusty display cabinets and unrealistic dioramas that characterised most ethnographic museums of the day.

In 1983 Dr. Johanna Agthe – curator of the museum’s Africa collections – became the acting director (until 1985).

From 1985 to 1999, Professor Josef Franz Thiel was director.
In the mid-1980s, the “Museum für Völkerkunde der Stadt Frankfurt am Main” moved away from the model of the 1970s – that is, the primarily sociopolitical exhibition that shunned sensual aspects in its design. New approaches, topics and exhibition projects began to take shape.
For the first time, exhibitions addressed questions around the anthropology of religion, myth and the phenomenon of xenophobia, using cultural comparison and critical contextual presentation. In addition, contemporary art was introduced as a new focal point of collecting, even though at the time there was no consensus within museum anthropology that such art was worthy of collection and exhibition in an ethnographic museum.

Between 1985 and 1992, the second and third rounds of planning for a new museum of ethnology in the Museum Park were undertaken. In terms of content, detailed plans for the new building were completed right down to the selection of exhibits for each room. Despite this intensive preliminary work a lack of funds put paid to the new building.

Working with the collection’s historical ethnographic photographs, Professor Josef Franz Thiel systematically built up an image archive for the museum. Since it was established in 1987, its holdings have grown steadily through gifts, bequests of private papers and new purchases.

In 1987, the museum’s biggest post-1945 exhibition opened at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt am Main. Entitled “Neuguinea. Nutzung und Deutung der Umwelt“ (New Guinea. Uses and Interpretations of the Environment), the exhibition displayed very large objects that could never have been shown to Frankfurt citizens in the Schaumainkai villa.

In the 1990s, the museum was extended along Schaumainkai, adding the villas at nos. 35 and 37 to the existing premises at no. 29. The new villas, along with the workshops in the Kutscherhaus, were fully renovated. A few years later, the fourth set of plans took shape for a large ethnographic exhibition space, this time based on the designs of artist Claus Bury.

The association “Friends of the Weltkulturen Museum” was founded in 1993. Ever since then it has accompanied and supported the museum’s many different activities.

1997 saw the opening of “Galerie 37” in the villa at Schaumainkai 37, which presented changing exhibitions of contemporary works by artists from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America alongside historical artefacts from the collection. UNESCO recognised the Galerie 37 project as a contribution to the World Decade of Cultural Development due to its programme of presenting and promoting cultural identities.

From 1997 to 1998, the museum’s main building (Schaumainkai 29) remained closed for renovation.

In October 1998 the villa reopened with the exhibition “Talofa! Samoa, South Seas”.

The facades of the villas at nos. 35 and 37 were restored between 1988 and 2000.

From 1999, the acting directorship passed back to Dr. Johanna Agthe, curator of the Africa collection.

In 2000, Dr. Anette Rein became director of the museum (until 2008).
The “Interkulturelle Atelier“ (IKAT) was founded as a dedicated museum educational department.

In 2001, the museum was renamed “Museum der Weltkulturen” ("Museum of World Cultures").
Exhibitions and events cast a critical light on issues such as the meaning of life, death, ancestry, gender and age.
A fifth round of planning for a new exhibition building took place; this one, too, came to nothing.
Despite its new home on the southern bank of the Main, the museum continued the tradition of displaying its collections in different locations across Germany and abroad. Between 1975 and 2004, a total of thirty-nine of such large and small exhibitions were presented.

In 2003, the Museum der Weltkulturen launched an online magazine, “Journal Ethnologie” (headed by Ulrike Krasberg, who was responsible for the idea, project management and editing between 2003 and 2009). With sections on current topics, world music, interviews, exhibitions and media coverage, the journal published contributions by scholars in anthropology and cultural studies.

In 2004, discussions on the new building were resumed (sixth round of planning). This time the exhibition hall was to be combined with a parking lot underneath the river. Again, the plans were not realised.

On 22 October 2004, the museum celebrated its centenary. For the occasion, the Museum der Weltkulturen opened up parts of the museum’s collection that were usually closed to the public, presenting selected artefacts in the exhibition “Ansichtssachen aus 100 Jahren. Museum der Weltkulturen Frankfurt am Main” (Points of View from 100 Years).

From 2008 to 2010, Dr. Christine Stelzig, curator of the museum’s Africa collection, became the acting director.

In 2010, Dr. Clémentine Deliss was appointed director of the museum. Since then, the institution has been known as the “Weltkulturen Museum”.

For the seventh time, plans were drawn up for an extension to the museum. The architectural competition was won by the Berlin practice Kuehn Malvezzi, with designs that offered ideal spatial conditions for the museum’s role as a pioneering hub for exhibitions, education, research and artistic production. Because of the current budget situation, plans for an extension of the Weltkulturen Museum were postponed. The museum will now try to present some of its large-format treasures to the public outside its own limited spaces.

In 2011, the villas at the Schaumainkai were renovated.

On 4th February 2011, the “Weltkulturen Labor” opened in the villa at Schaumainkai 37. The villa houses exhibition spaces, the project space “Green Room”, an event room, guest apartments, studios, and the collection Visual Anthropology

On 19th April 2011, the “Green Room” in the Weltkulturen Labor opened with the exhibition “DAN REES“. Since then ten exhibitions were shown there.

On 25th January 2012, the villa at Schaumainkai 29 reopened with the path-breaking exhibition “OBJECT ATLAS. Fieldwork in the Museum”.
The Weltkulturen Museum’s education department is located on the second floor of this villa.

In May 2015, Dr. Eva Ch. Raabe, curator Oceania at the museum, became acting director of the museum.

In September 2019, Dr. Eva Ch. Raabe was appointed director of the museum. Since January 2024, Dr. Mona Suhrbier has been running the museum on an interim basis.


Dr. Mona Suhrbier, Acting Director since 2024 

Dr. Eva Ch. Raabe, Acting Director 2015 - 2019, Director 2019 - 2023
Dr. Clémentine Deliss, Director 2010 - 2015
Dr. Christine Stelzig, Acting Director 2008 – 2010
Dr. Anette Rein, Director 2000 – 2008
Dr. Johanna Agthe, Acting Director 1998 - 2000
Prof. Dr. J. F. Thiel, Director 1985 – 1998
Dr. Johanna Agthe,Acting Director 1984 – 1985
Dr. Heinz Kelm, Director 1972 – 1983
Prof. Dr. Hermann Niggemeyer, Director 1966 – 1971
Prof. Dr. Carl A. Schmitz, Director 1965 – 1966
Prof. Dr. Adolf E. Jensen, Director 1946 – 1965
Dr. Karin Hahn-Hissink, Acting Director 1940 – 1945
Dr. Adolf E. Jensen, Acting Director 1938 – 1939
Prof. Dr. Leo Frobenius, Director 1934 – 1938
Dr. Johannes Lehmann, Acting Director 1919 – 1934
Dr. Bernhard Hagen, Director 1904 – 1919

- Johanna Agthe,1994, "Geschichte des Museums für Völkerkunde Frankfurt", unpublished manuscript.
- Museum der Weltkulturen, 2004, "Ansichtssachen. Ein Lesebuch zu Museum und Ethnologie in Frankfurt am Main."
- Hilmar Hoffmann, 2009, "Das Frankfurter Museumsufer".