History of the mineralogical collections at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin

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History of the mineral collection

Mineral collection

Meteorite collection

Current research

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History of the mineral collection

Since the beginning of time, man commonly gathered for various reasons, objects of inorganic nature. Princes and aristocrats were the first to collect unusual natural objects, as part of their priceless treasures. In Berlin, the tradition of collecting minerals goes back to Prussian royalties; their "Royal Art and Natural Cabinet" form the building blocks of the collection of minerals visible today at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin.

In 1753, councilor of the Prussian mining administration, J.G. Lehmann, used his private mineral to teach students. It was in 1765, when the Freiberg Mining Academy - the center of the Saxonian ore mining industry - was founded, that for the first time in Germany, a public collection was created for teaching purposes. In 1770, the foundation of the Berlin Mining Academy, contributed significantly to the development of the mineral collections as mining and metallurgical students required mineral collection for illustration purposes.These events started the tradition, long held in Berlin of not only displaying precious mineral collections, but also of using them extensively for research and teaching. In its beginning, the Berlin Mining Academy used the private collections of the academy founder and professor of mineralogy and mining sciences : Councilor Carl Abraham Gerhard (1738-1821). Today, his detailed lecture notes are still preserved in the archives of the Institute for Mineralogy. In 1781, Gerhard sold his collection to the mining academy in exchange for a pension of 200 taller until his death. In 1773, the "Berlin Society of friends of natural research" was created and also contributed significantly to the expansion of the Berlin Mining Academy collection.

In 1789, the young mining professor Dietrich Ludwig Gustav Karsten (1768-1810)became teacher of mineralogy and mining sciences and the curator of the mineral collection of the Berlin Mining Academy. He replaced Gerhard's more or less plutonistic (i. e. related to fire) approach by a neptunistic (i. e. related to water) one, following the Freiberg school of A. G. Werners, which had developed a systematic mineral identification based on external characteristics (such as color, hardiness, etc.). Karstens managed to enormously increase the collection. The rooms of the academy of art, which till then hosted the "Royal Mineral Cabinet" collection, became too small, in 1810 the collection was moved to the Neue Münze (New Mint) in the old center of Berlin.

The next important step in the history of the Berlin mineral collection was the foundation in 1810 of the Berlin University by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Mineralogy became a natural science subject taught at the University. In 1814, the University acquired the mineral collection and moved it into its main building located on the famous Unter den Linden avenue. The collection was renamed Mineralogical Museum of the University.

In 1810, the physicist Christian Samuel Weiß (1780-1856) succeeded Karsten and became professor of mineralogy. Weiß had developed a strong passion for minerals while working with A. G. Werner in Freiberg. Weiß preferred studying minerals by direct observations rather than by performing experiments or measurements. On this basis, he established many of the rules still used today in crystallometry (symmetry of axes, zones , Weiß zone law etc.). During his long tenure (46 years) modern mineralogical science began to appear. While Weiß covered mineralogy as an entire science, his students focus on different specific fields such as crystallography, mineralogy, petrography or paleontology. This approach increased and diversified the nature of the collection.

Gustav Rose (1798-1873), a student and a staff member of Weiß for many years, became his successor in 1856. He had a more experimental approach than his predecessor. Although Rose's research work covered all aspects of mineralogy, he is today better known as the founder of petrography and meteorite research. His efforts to understand the physical and chemical properties of minerals and to document the inner structure of crystals were especially remarkable. In his mineral systematic, he gave first priority to the mineral composition and chemistry and then to crystallographic data.

After Rose's death the mineral museum was divided into three departments. Martin Websky (1824 -1886), who is famous for his improvement of the reflection goniometer became Rose's direct successor in the mineralogy. J. Roth (1818 - 1892) was named head of the petrography and general geology department. H. E. Beyrich (1815-1896) became museum director and at the same time head of the paleontological department.

In 1887, Carl Klein (1824 - 1907) became director of the Mineralogy collection. Klein was a microscopist with a special interest in crystal optic anomalies. He is famous for constructing different accessory tools for microscopes. Because of the lack of space and the absence of laboratories in the main university building, between 1886 and 1889 a new "Museum of Natural History" was erected in the nearby Invalidenstrasse. It sill hosts the Mineralogical, Paleontological and the Zoological museum. The old Mineralogical museum was split into independent institutions: the "Mineralogical-Petrographical Institute and Museum" and the "Geological-Paleontological Institute and Museum". On 1 February 1890, the public exhibit at the Museum of Natural History opened.

In 1908, Theodor Liebisch (1852 - 1922) was called to the post of museum's director. He returned to a more experimental approach, concentrating on physico-chemical mineralogy and synthesis of minerals. This approach was also followed by his successor Arrien Johnson (1877 - 1934).

Paul Ramdohr (1890-1985) became director in 1934. He had a more global vision of natural phenomenon and applied it to mineralogy and in particular to ore genesis. Using reflective light microscopy he worked extensively on ore mineralogy and became a world leader in this field. He contributed his vast knowledge of mineralogy in an edition of the famous Klockmann book, which is considered a bible for mineralogy students in Germany.

The museum and its collection were gravely damaged during world war II. The majority of the exhibition was evacuated and parts have been lost.

In 1950, Ramdohr left Berlin for a professorship in Heidelberg. Will Kleber (1906-1970) started as director, in 1953. During his tenure the main teaching and research focus was on crystallography. In his view, the crystal provided the main link between all scientific fields dealing with inorganic solid matter. In his lecture "An introduction to crystallography" which was later published as a book he tries to create a synthesis of the science on crystals.

To satisfy the need for trained mineralogists Kleber increased the number of students and put a maximum emphasis to their education.

In 1969, the large mineral and petrographical collections were combined with other famous collections from paleontology, zoology, botany and anthropology to form the "Museum of Natural History of the Humboldt University". Günter Hoppe (1919), its new director, initiated research on accessory minerals. He was also interested in scientific historical work and studied the important contribution of Berlin mineralogists for the development of mineralogical science.

In 1984 when G. Hoppe retired Hans-Joachim Bautsch (1929) became director. He worked on minerals from ultra basic rocks and their metamorphic alteration. At the end of the eighties, he started research work on decorative stones.

After the reunification of Germany, the much needed-reconstruction of the museum started. The "Mineralogical Museum" became the "Institute of Mineralogy" and Dieter Stöffler (1939) was named director of the Museum of Natural History. Under Stöffler leadership, the institute was modernized, state of the art analytical equipment was acquired and new younger staff members were appointed. The main research focuses of the institute of mineralogy are in the development of the early solar system, cosmic mineralogy, planetology and meteoritics and the global biological and geological evolution of the Earth.


Summary of important dates and names of Museum directors

  Major events Directors
1770 Gerhard's private collection in the mining academy C.A. Gerhard, 1770-1789
1781 Purchase of Gerhard's collection by the academy  
1801 Collection moves to the New Mint D. L. G. Karsten, 1789-1810
1810 Transfer of the collection to the Berlin University C. S. Weiß, 1810-1856
1814 Mineralogical museum of the University  
1857 Creation of an paleontological department G. Rose, 1856-1873
1874 Division into three departments M. Websky, 1873-1886
1888 Mineralogical-petrographical Institute and Museum C. Klein, 1887-1907
1890 Opening of the public exhibition T. Liebisch, 1908-1921 A. Johnsen, 1921-1934
1945 Heavy damage during the World War I P. Ramdohr, 1934-1950
1954 Reopening of the public exhibition W. Kleber, 1953-1970
1969 Museum of Natural History G. Hoppe 1968-1984 J. Bautsch 1984-1993
1993 Modernization of the Museum and creation of the Institute for Mineralogy D. Stöffler ab 1993


Main donations and acquisitions

1781 C. A. Gerhard
1790 J. J. Ferber
1803 Tsar Alexander "old Russian collection" (D)
1811 C. S. Weiß
1817 M. H. Klaproth
1827 E. F. F. Chladni, Meteorite (D)
1829 G. Rose, with A. von Humboldt in the Ural and Altai expedition (A)
1837 Bergeman
1841 F. Tamnau
1879 C. Rammelsberg
1879 Travel funds by F. Tamnau (D)
1889 C. Rumpff (before owned by Archduke Stephan) (D), Largest donation
1889/94 C. A. Tenne (A) (Tamnau Foundation)
1892 J. Ewald (D)
1894 v. Knobelsdorf (D)
1899 A. v. Janson
1903 C. W. Ernst (D)
1910 Prager
1911/13 M. Belowsky (D) ( Tamnau Foundation and A. v. Gwinner)
1912 J. C. Dreher (D)
1912 E. Tosch (D)
1912 A. Posnansky (D)
1936 E. Reuning (d)
1936 W. Thometzek (D)
1946 W. Vogel
1946 Curtius
1963 E. Fischer (D)
1965 Eisenberg
1969 M. Köhler
1969 C. Gerber
  (D) = Donation (A) = Acquisition

Curators of the mineral collection

1875-1880 Theodor Liebisch (1852-1922)
1880-1883 Andreas Arzruni (1847-1898)
1883-1901 C. August Tenne (1853-1901)
1901-1930 Max Belowski (1865-1945)
1930-1941 Hans Seifert (1893-1976)
1941-1945 Hugo Strunz (*1910)
1954-1963 Emil Fischer (1895-1975)
seit 1963 Gert Wappler (*1935)


The mineral collection

With about 220 000 specimen, the mineral collection is the most extensive and historically important component of the institute of mineralogy . It is located in a almost 500 m2 room on the first floor of the museum near the main dinosaur exhibition hall. The specimens are hosted in wood build cabinets with drawers and glass cover. The minerals are systematically arranged based on the crystal-chemical mineral system of H. Strunz and place of origin.

The alphabetically card file of minerals is clearly documented, the minerals with the typically shaping and paragenese of the different finding places can be easily compared and studied. The systematic order is less suitable for historically studies, because all specimen are included with no consideration for previous owner and acquisition.

In the collection, there is a special emphasis on regional mineralogy, for example minerals from the Harz Mountains, former Silesia and former Prussia-Rhineland are particularly well represented. Further specimen from Bohemian and parts of the old Austrian-Hungarian territory were donated as part of the Rumpff-collection (Archduke Stephan) to the museum in 1889. Because of close and long lasting relationships to Scandinavia and Russia, these countries are also well represented in the collection. In 1803, Russian tsar Alexander I donated a major collection of minerals and A. von Humboldt and G. Rose, extensively collected specimens when travelling through Ural and Altai in 1829. The museum has one of the famous collections of specimen from the former mining-period in Tsumeb (Namibia), because of the donation of the collection from E. Reuning and W. Thometzek in 1936. During the last decades the museum focused on acquisitions of specific minerals from the mining parts of the former German Democratic Republic, like the Erzgebirge, Thuringia Forest and the area around Mansfeld.

Because the collection is still used as comparative material for scientific investigations, a major task of the curator(s) is to obtain newly discovered minerals from all over the world by exchange or buy. Today the mineral collection contains more than 75% of all known minerals.

History of the meteorite collection

The beginning of meteorite collection of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin dates back to 1781, to the mineral collection of Carl A. Gerhard (1738-1821), which contained a Pallas iron meteorite. The Gerhard collection constituted the foundation of the Royal Mineral Cabinet which was then housed in the Prussian Mining Academy. It was followed by several subsequent donations, some from very famous collectors, such as the Russian tsar Alexander I who, in 1803 gave another Pallas iron meteorite. In 1810, all minerals of Royal Mineral Cabinet were transferred to the Mineralogical Museum, associated with the newly founded University of Berlin (now Humboldt University of Berlin).

In 1817, Christian S. Weiss (1780-1856) bought 17 meteorites together with the mineral collection of renown chemist and discoverer of uranium and zirconium, Martin H. Klaproth (1743-1817). He was one of the first scientists who noticed the ubiquitous presence of nickel in iron meteorites and its significance for their identification. Weiss was in close contact with Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827), the real founder of meteoritics as a science. This relationship and the early acceptance of Chladni's ideas on the origin of meteorites by the Berlin scientific community probably explain why in his will he donated his precious collection of 41 meteorites to the Mineralogical Museum. Chladni's collection was described in great details in 1825 and then again in 1987. Today, Chladni meteorites are still part of the Museum collection, some with his original written comments.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was another famous patron of the meteorite collection. He donated nine meteorites, including the Durango iron meteorite, collected or obtained as gifts during his travels through the world. The first meteorite catalogue describing 31 specimens was produced by Gustav Rose in 18261. The largest acquisitions of the 19 th.. century were the Bergemann collection (1837) and parts of the Shepard collection in 1862. In 1864, Gustav Rose (1798-1873) established the first systematic description of meteorites based on the Museum collection which then contained 181 specimens out of a total of only 230 meteorites known worldwide. Carl Klein (1842-1907) increased the number of meteorites to 500 and published several catalogues in the years 1889 to 1906. The latest catalogues included a detailed description and investigation of all known meteorites. Unfortunately, in the following decades and despite the existing strength, the study of meteoritie was not a major research topic at the museum anymore. Günther Hoppe revived this activity and published meteorites catalogues in 1969 and 1975. A significant increase in the meteorite collection took place in 1993 and again in 1996 with the acquisition of many Saharan meteorites from Acfer, Hammadah al Hamra, Ilafegh, Tanezrouft, etc. The collection of the Museum of Natural History - Berlin now comprises about 3800 meteorites, from more than 1287 locations. All specimen of the Berlin meteorite collection are registered in a computerized database, made available to the scientific research community. If available, the following data are recorded in de database: 1. meteorite name, 2. synonym name, 3. inventory number, 4. original mass, 5. present mass, 6. number of pieces, 7. kind of acquisition, 8. supplying person or institution, and 9. date of acquisition, 10. exchanges, 11. shape, 12. remarks, and 13. storage place.

H. Schulze published in 1996, the latest version of the Catalogue of Meteorites from the Museum of Natural History, it is available upon request.

Current research work in the Institute of Mineralogy

The Institute is pursue research on the following topics : Cosmochemistry and cosmic mineralogy: The early evolution of the solar system and the accretion of organic and inorganic material into protoplanet bodies. Planetology and geosciences : The collision history of the terrestrial planets and the role of impact process on the evolution of the Earth biosphere and lithosphere.