The Ethnographic Committee met for the first time in 1893. Hence the year is listed as the museum’s founding date.
The origins of the museum trace back to the mid-nineteenth century. The “Museum der Stadt Basel” (Basel Municipal Museum) presented in the newly opened Berri building (1849), among other things, Lukas Vischer’s remarkable Mexican collection, making Basel one of the first cities in Europe with an ethnographic collection open to the public.
In the early years it was culture-minded members of the Basel upper class who supplied the museum with objects gathered on their journeys across the world. Later, in the course of the professionalization of anthropology, the task of collecting was increasingly left to expert scholars such as Fritz and Paul Sarasin, Felix Speiser, Alfred Bühler and Paul Wirz who significantly extended the range and scope of the museum’s collections.
In 1892 the Basel government decided to separate the ethnographic from the historical-antiquarian collection and set up a committee to manage the new collection. The committee met for the first time in the following year, which is why 1893 is listed as the museum’s founding date. But it was only in 1918 that the ethnographic collection was renamed “Museum für Völkerkunde” (Museum of Ethnology). Fritz Sarasin was the first chairman of the collection and director of the museum, respectively.
In 1944 the Swiss Federal Council granted the museum’s European department, established in 1904, the title “Schweizerisches Museum für Volkskunde” (Swiss Museum of European Folklife). Henceforth the institution was called “Museum für Völkerkunde und Schweizerisches Museum für Volkskunde”. In 1996 the house received its present name “Museum der Kulturen Basel”.
One of the many highlights in the museum’s history was the visit of the Dalai Lama in 2001 for the opening of the exhibition Tibet. Buddha, Gods, Saints, which was shown until 2008. A further milestone was the reopening of the museum in 2011 after extensive refurbishment. It included a reorientation in terms of content and design, an extension and redefinition of the copious courtyard, and a new entrance opening on to the Münsterplatz.