From the Landgrave's cabinet of curiosities to a modern museum of natural history
The natural history collection in the Ottoneum has a long tradition as it was one of the first to be established in all of Europe, and is definitely the oldest in Hesse.
The Ottoneum was built in 1604-1607 by Wilhelm Vernukken under Landgrave Moritz (reg. 1592-1627) as the first solid theater building on the European continent.
With the beginning of the Thirty Years' War the residence's early heyday as a cultural center came to an end, and the Ottoneum was put to other uses. It was not until the year 1696, when Landgrave Karl, an important supporter of the arts in Kassel, commissioned Master Builder Paul du Ry to redesign and to renovate the building as an art gallery to contain the Landgrave's collection of paintings and rarities and the biological and astronomical collection.
But this early cabinet of curiosities was still far removed from the museum as it is today, exemplifying in a unique way the changes in the demands made on such a collection of natural science during the centuries. The first pieces were collected by Wilhelm the Wise and his successor Moritz the Learned during the 16th century. Other rarities and curiosities were added piece by piece as years went by.
In 1709 Landgrave Karl founded the "Collegium Carolinum", housed within the walls of the Ottoneum, which soon developed into a center of scientific investigation. At this time the building also contained an observatory and a so-called 'anatomic theater'.
Two of the noted scientists who worked in the Collegium during the following decades were Georg Forster and Samuel Thomas Soemmering. In 1783, Soemmering was the one who lent the famous elephant skull to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, when the famous writer became interested in the study of vertebrates.
After a short period the "Art House" became too small for the increasing collection and thus, in 1779, was moved to the newly constructed Museum Fridericianum, where it became accessible to the public.
In 1888 - Kassel had meanwhile become part of Prussia - the natural science segment of the collection was separated and returned to the Ottoneum, which was then renamed the 'Prussian Museum of Naturalia'.
1928, posession of the Ottoneum was transferred to the City of Kassel and it was renamed Museum of Natural History. Since then, many local scientists and lay scientists have supported the work and collection of the museum.
In World War II, the building was heavily damaged during an allied forces air raid in 1943. More than fifty percent of the collection was destroyed. After the war the Ottoneum was rebuilt, based on the old construction drawings, from 1949 till 1954.
The Ottoneum today
After extensive functional alterations in the years 1993-1997, the museum today combines contemporary exhibition concepts with a historical environment, emphasizing regional natural history and wildlife.
It is not only a center for scientific research but also serves as a platform for public discussion related to the protection of nature and environment.
Additionally, a visit to the museum offers a wide range of material to school classes from the area, complementing their studies of biology and natural science.