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The picture shows the atrium before 1945. Photo: LWL

It all started with civic commitment and collectors’ passion

Both the Westphalian Art Association (Westfälischer Kunstverein, founded in 1831) and the Münster Section of the Westphalian Association for Patriotic History and Antique Research (Verein für vaterländische Geschichte und Altertumskunde Westfalens, founded in 1825) dedicated themselves to saving and preserving cultural assets after the great political upheavals around 1800, especially the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the subsequent occupation of Westphalia. The Westphalian Art Society focused on three main tasks: collecting sacred artworks from
churches and monasteries in the region that had lost their liturgical function as a consequence of secularisation; organising exhibitions of works by contemporary artists; and exhibiting plaster replicas of Ancient sculptures, as well as some eighty Italian Renaissance paintings from various Berlin museums. The collection of the Westphalian Association for Patriotic History and Antique Research included mainly archaeological items such as coins, books, maps, and documents relating to the history of the region. Both associations planned from the outset to exhibit their collections in a museum, which was in line with the trend of the time as Prussia had been developing a cultural policy calling for the establishment of patriotic museums across its territory since 1815.

In January 1836, state support enabled the Westphalian Art Association to open a museum in Münster, in the Stadtkeller building located on the corner of Prinzipalmarkt and Clemensstrasse, where the Association for Patriotic History and Antique Research was invited to stage temporary exhibitions. The Westphalian Art Association also ran a drawing school in the building from 1839 to 1856. Thanks to the support of the Provincial Association for Science and Art (Provinzialverein für Wissenschaft und Kunst, founded in 1872) that centralised state funding for cultural activities, the collections could finally be presented in a large edifice built especially for this purpose.

The old building around 1920. Photo: LWL 1908 to 1933: State Museum for the Province of Westphalia

The new State Museum for the Province of Westphalia (Landesmuseum für die Provinz Westfalen), located on Domplatz in the very heart of Münster, was officially opened on 17 March 1908. This neo-Renaissance building, today called “the old museum”, housed the collections of both the Westphalian Art Association and the Westphalian Association for Patriotic History and Antique Research. Two large temporary exhibitions, organised alternately by the museum and the Westphalian Art Association, were held here every year. (The museum and the association still collaborate to this day.)

The 1908 building

The planning, construction and furnishing of the new museum building took seven years. The Provincial Association for Science and Art, the museum’s sponsor at the time, had formulated clear specifications for the architectural competition launched in 1902, stating specifically: “The style of the building should be inspired by the medieval or Renaissance buildings that exist in Münster”. Hermann Schaedtler, the Hanover architect who won the competition, provided the structure with a stepped gable clearly inspired by those of the houses on Prinzipalmarkt. (This north-west façade was unfortunately destroyed during the Second World War.)

The new museum building not only presented the Westphalian cultural heritage, but also staged outstanding social events. One such event was held on 31 August 1907, even before the official opening of the museum, when the structure—the most prestigious venue in Münster, then capital city of the Prussian province of Westphalia—hosted a banquet attended by Emperor William II.

The museum exhibited works by modern artists from the outset: Adolf Brüning, director from 1905 to 1910, who came from Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum, acquired paintings by Emil Nolde and Max Slevogt from the Westphalian Art Association as early as May 1908, and organised an exhibition with paintings by French Impressionists the following year; in the winter of 1911/1912, the Association exhibited works by Alexej von Jawlensky and Franz Marc, two painters involved in the Blauer Reiter group founded in Munich in 1912; and in the following winter, the museum invited artists from the Vienna and Munich Secession art movements.

Max Geisberg directed the museum from 1910 to 1934. A specialist in art from past centuries, he acquired mainly works made in Westphalia or by Westphalian artists such as Wilhelm Morgner, Peter August Böckstiegel, Eberhard Viegener, and Paula Modersohn-Becker and her husband Otto Modersohn.

On 1 July 1934, however, after many years of successful research work as an art historian, Max Geisberg was dismissed from his post, as the Nazis deemed his employment incompatible with their museum policy.

1933 – 1945: Restructuring due to the Nazi cultural policy

Restructuring due to the Nazi cultural policy

Short after they seized power, the Nazis started to restructure the museum. The prehistoric collections, which had already been relocated in the former Episcopal school in 1925, became independent as early as 1934 to form the State Museum for Prehistory and Early History (Landesmuseum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, today’s LWL Museum für Archäologie in Herne). At the same time, Robert Nissen, the new director who was to remain in office until 1939, renamed the museum on Domplatz “State Museum for Art and Cultural History of the Province of Westphalia” (Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte der Provinz Westfalen) and rented another building, the Haus an der Rothenburg, to stage temporary exhibitions, in particular “Westphalia’s Contribution to Contemporary German Art” (Westfalens Beitrag zur deutschen Kunst der Gegenwart), held there in 1937.

The impact of the campaign launched by the Nazis to confiscate works of modern art had less impact at Münster’s State Museum than at other institutions. Nonetheless, forty-one artworks (or ninety, according to other sources) were seized, including paintings by Peter August Böckstiegel, Karel Niestrath, Otto Pankok, Christian Rohlfs and Eberhard Viegener. Members of the Board of the Westphalian Art Association, however, saved several endangered works, including a pastel by Lovis Corinth, by storing them in their private homes.

Surprisingly, in a time when restrictions hampered cultural policies, the State Museum was able to acquire works even by ostracized artists. In 1943, for example, Wilhelm Rave, who had taken over directorship of the museum when Robert Nissen was drafted for military service in 1939, purchased two busts by the Hagen sculptor Karel Niestrath; one figuring the “degenerate” painter Christian Rohlfs, the other Ferdinand von Lüninck, former president of the province of Westphalia who was later executed as a co-conspirator in the 20 July Plot that failed to overthrow Hitler in 1944.

From 1933 to 1945, the museum primarily focused on implementing the official guidelines aimed at restructuring the collections and revising the didactics, which necessitated hiring three new scientific specialists. Temporary exhibitions at this time followed clear propaganda purposes, from “Danzig, a German city” (Das deutsche Danzig, 1937) to the show presenting captured enemy weapons that was held in the atrium in autumn 1942 and attracted some 60,000 visitors within a few weeks.

An air raid damaged the museum in 1941 for the fist time. This prompted Max Geisberg, who had been re-appointed director of the museum, to relocate the collections to fourteen different safe places, principally castles scattered across Westphalia, saving them from destruction in subsequent air raids. The annexe at the Haus an der Rothenburg, however, was completely destroyed by bombs, and the roof and other parts of the museum building on Domplatz severely damaged, so that the period immediately after the war was marked by improvisation in precarious conditions.

Bomb damage as seen from Saint Lambert’s Church 1945 – 1974: Reconstruction, reorientation of the collections, getting ready for the future

The reconstruction of the old building and the restoration of the damaged works took two years. Walther Greischel, museum director from 1946 to 1954, decided to reorient the collections. In the first phase, he acquired works by 19th-century German artists, and then concentrated on developing the Modern Art collection in the early 1950s, acquiring late Expressionist paintings that had been banned by the Nazis. He justified his acquisition policy in an article published in 1954, writing: “It is rightful to exhibit everywhere works by artists who were banned for many years”. In addition, Greischel suppressed the rule that permitted purchase only of works by Westphalian artists, and endeavoured to contextualise the collections in order to present the public with a comprehensive approach similar to that followed by the University of Münster.

1974 – 2009: Gaining international recognition

A new annexe, approved in the early 1960s, opened in 1974. Its striking architecture, designed by Hans Spiertz, dominated Münster’s city centre for over thirty years.

Professor Dr Paul Pieper (director from 1972 to 1977) acquired works by Hans Arp, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, Kurt Schwitters, and Wols to fill the gaps in the collection of 20th-century paintings, thus establishing the continuity between old and recent artistic tends. In 1980, he also acquired the Diepenbroick Portrait Archive, a collection of more than 100,000 engravings and drawings that ranks among the largest of its kind in the world. Under Professor Pieper and his successor, the numismatist and historian Professor Dr Peter Berghaus (1977 to 1984), the State Museum attracted 250,000 to 350,000 visitors each year, who enjoyed – free of charge – major exhibitions such as “Johann Conrad Schlaun” (1973), “Still lifes” (Stilleben, 1979), “Cologne and Westphalia 1180–1980” (Köln – Westfalen 1180–1980) and “The Tunisia Trip – Klee, Macke, Moillet” (Die Tunisreise – Klee, Macke, Moillet,1982).

In 1977, the first edition of an exhibition series entitled Skulptur Projekte marked the starting point of a new collection composed of sculptures exhibited in the urban space, outside the museum. The series was initiated by Professor Dr Klaus Bussmann, head of the Modern Art department in 1977 and director of the State Museum from 1985 to 2004. Together with Kasper König, who was director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne until his retirement, Professor Bussmann made the Skulptur Projekte exhibition one of the most popular open-air art events the world over.

With the large installations exhibited in the atrium, contemporary sculpture also conquered the interior of the museum. Particularly noteworthy among these works are the installations by such renowned artists as Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, Ellsworth Kelly, Maria Nordmann, Rainer Ruthenbeck, and Rachel Whiteread.

The August Macke temporary exhibition held in 1987 was one of the most successful events ever held at the museum, attracting more than 400,000 visitors. The retrospective of the work of the American painter Ellsworth Kelly, organised in 1992 together with the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the National Gallery in Washington, was praised by the media as an outstanding example of international cooperation. Among the other highly successful temporary exhibitions are “1648 – War and Peace in Europe” (1648 – Krieg und Frieden in Europa, organised in collaboration with the Council of Europe on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the Peace of
Westphalia) and “Places of Longing – Travelling with Artists” (Orte der Sehnsucht – Mit Künstlern auf Reisen, held in 2008 to celebrate the centennial of the museum).

No less outstanding was the exhibition “Golden Splendour” (Goldene Pracht, 2012) organised in cooperation with the Diocese of Münster and the "Cluster of Excellence" Religion and Politics programme launched by the University of Münster, which presented remarkable works made in the region by medieval goldsmiths and decisively contributed to a better understanding of the history of Westphalia in the Middle Ages.

Dr Hermann Arnhold was appointed director of the State Museum in 2004, and the institution was officially renamed LWL–Museum für Kunst und Kultur in 2013. Dr Arnhold launched an ambitious project for the future that provides not only for demolition of the annexe built in the 1970s, which was in need of extensive renovation work, but also for construction of a new building designed by Berlin architect Volker Staab.

New building

The opening of the new museum building in September 2014 was the occasion to update the presentation of the collections. Works that illustrate the art and cultural history of the last 1000 years—some of them never exhibited before—are now presented in fully modernized displays that meet tomorrow’s challenges. Moreover, the museum has produced a multimedia guide, edited new explanatory texts, and developed new pedagogical concepts to offer an unforgettable experience to all visitors.