In the late 18th century Landgravine Karoline bequeathed her collection of natural curiosities and physical instruments to her son Ludwig X (1753-1830, since 1806 Grand Duke Ludewig I) that make up the foundation of the scientific collection of today’s HLMD. During his reign (1790-1830) Ludewig I added important collections: glass paintings,altar screens of the German Renaissance, Dutch paintings of the 17th century, copper engravings and natural history objects in addition to the collection of Johann Heinrich Merck, which contained many mammal fossils. In 1802 Ludewig I acquired the entire body of prints by Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt. In 1805 Baron von Hüpsch, a natural scientist and scholar from Cologne, bequeathed Ludewig I his highly significant collection of art and natural curiosities, including ivory carvings and paintings of the Middle Ages as well as precious minerals and fossils. 52 paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries were acquired from the Basel merchant Nikolas Reber in 1808. Shortly thereafter, the collection of Count Truchseß von Waldburg comprising 81 paintings was purchased, as were 1450 drawings of all major European schools from the collection E. F. J. von Dalberg.
In 1820 Ludewig I presented his collection of art and natural history exhibits to the state in the form of a foundation. Thus he made the collection,which had been continuously assembled by the Landgraves Hessen-Darmstadt since the 17th century, accessible to the public.
Alfred Messel’s Museum Building
In 1817 the collection was moved from the ducal palace to the new palace. However, the steadily growing collection necessitated a new building, which was begun at the instigation of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig in 1897. The architect was Alfred Messel, a native of Darmstadt, who was famed for the construction of the Wertheim department store in Berlin. For the Darmstadt building, he was confronted with the task of uniting four departments – Zoology, Geology, Picture Gallery and Cultural History – with their highly diverse collections beneath one roof. Outwardly, the building was also required to harmonise with the design and proportions of the palace and additionally to afford the city a new landmark, in the form of a tower.
Messel fulfilled his task by arranging the three collections Zoology, Geology and Gallery above one another in a high north wing, each functioning virtually as an independent museum accessible from the central hall and an imposing staircase. In front of it he placed a lower southern section featuring a number of open courtyards with cultural history exhibits grouped around them. Fully acquainted with the style of the museum building favoured in previous decades and in close consultation with the respective curators of the departments, Messel gave each collection its own specific architectural setting, providing optimal exhibition possibilities, often adapted to conform stylistically to the respective artefacts. He even designed the gratings of the ventilation system, the doorknobs and the showcases, so that the museum itself constituted an artwork. Upon its completion and opening, it was accordingly universally acclaimed by the public, the media and the experts.
During the Second World War especially the collection of prints and drawings and the holdings of German Expressionist Painting suffered severe damages, which after 1945 could only be partly compensated. In 1944 the building was partly destroyed. However, the most valuable objects of the collection had been evacuated.
Extension and renovation of the Messel Building
In the years after the Second World War the Messel building was reconstructed; in 1955 it was finally possible to reopen the HLMD. The collections have grown significantly since then. A considerable collection of corals and molluscs was added to the zoological section and the large Art Nouveau collection of the Amsterdam jeweller Karel A. Citroen was acquired. The systematic excavation of the Messel Pit began in 1966, and the fossils found there make up build the focus of the geological-paleontological section. In addition the Darmstadt industrialist Karl Ströher permanently loaned his considerable collection of Pop Art and the largest assemblage of works by Joseph Beuys to the HLMD.
In 1980 the work on an extension to the main building had been started. Designed by the architect Reinhold Kargel, the building housing the collection of the 20th century was inaugurated in 1984. Today it holds the Picture Gallery with its works from the Middle Ages to 1945.
Art after 1945 as well as the “Block Beuys”, which comprises seven rooms and was acquired by the state of Hesse in 1989, are located in the Messel building. The “Forest of Sculptures” is exhibited opposite the “Block Beuys”– 40 sculptures donated to the HLMD by the collector Simon Spierer from Geneva in 2004.
Basic Repairs and Modernisation from 2007 to 2014
In late 2007, the HLMD was closed to the public and comprehensively renovated. The modernisation encompassed the complete renewal of building technology and roofs, reinforcement of the foundation, drains and ceilings and also the installation of modern fire protection and security technology. In keeping with the building’s status as an architectural monument, the aim was to expose as much of the original architecture as possible, including the visual axes and passageways.
One task was to restore and preserve the content-oriented structure of the building as intended by Alfred Messel through the arrangement of the collections. The archaeological and handicrafts wings were thus reinstated to the right and left of the main hall, leaving the Zoology and Geology collections and the Collection of Prints and Drawings in their historical places.
The modern art is united on one floor and encompasses the “Block Beuys”, the Spierer Collection and the wing donated by Karl Ströher on the opposite side. The Picture Gallery in its complete and successional form, spanning the 13th to the 20th centuries, can now be displayed again in the extension built by Reinhold Kargel.
International Art Nouveau, Prehistoric and Early History, Japanese Art and the Egyptian and Greek Collection are housed in the new exhibition spaces in the basement.
The visitor can thus now experience a wide variety of collections in a modern exhibition environment that presents objects in a variety of settings and offers a high level of informative content. In terms of technology, infrastructure and content, the newly renovated museum is well equipped for the 21th century.