The Museum der Kulturen Basel was opened more than 150 years ago. The collection was continuously enlarged by private collectors and by the museum’s own expeditions. Today the focus is on preserving, researching and communicating the collections.The institution now known as the Museum der Kulturen Basel can trace its origins back to the mid-19th century. The Museum der Stadt Basel, which opened in 1849 in Augustinergasse, also contained valuable pieces from ancient America. Basel therefore had one of the first ethnological collections in Europe that was open to the public.
While initially ethnological collections were mainly brought back by notable Basel citizens from their travels, ethnography became increasingly a matter for scientific research. During subsequent decades, scholars such as Fritz and Paul Sarasin, Felix Speiser and Paul Wirz contributed to the growth of the collection. It was thus that over generations Basel built up important collections on particular areas, for example Melanesia and Indonesia.
In 1892, a special commission was founded to deal with the ethnographic collection, and in 1917, the ethnological collection acquired a dedicated museum. An independent department for ethnographic studies was founded as early as 1904.
In 1944, the ethnological and ethnographic collections were given the official title «Museum für Völkerkunde und Schweizerisches Museum für Volkskunde». This name remained in existence for more than fifty years – until 1996 – when the new name of «Museum der Kulturen» came to reflect what had long been a guiding principle for the museum. Indeed, the museum had cultivated a spirit of intercultural dialogue and partnership between cultures from an early stage. A highlight in the museum’s history was the visit of the Dalai Lama in Mai 2001 to open the exhibition «Tibet. Buddhas, Gods, Saints». (The exhibition was closed in 2008.)
The museum underwent extensive structural renovations between 1978 and 1986. After more than 150 years in Augustinergasse, the new museum entrance will, after the fundamental realignment of the museum’s layout and design, be situated directly on Münsterplatz from September 2011.