The Dresden ethnographical museum, the Völkerkundemuseum, has its roots in the distant past. When August I, Elector of Saxony, founded the Kunstkammer in 1560, he laid the foundations for today’s museum. The items collected by him and his successors reflect their desire for ostentatious courtly display and their fascination with exotic and curious objects. From the 18th century onwards collecting was carried out in a systematic way according to scientific criteria. The year 1875 is regarded as the year of the museum's foundation. It holds an important collection of non-European works of art which is of international importance. Since 1977 changing exhibitions of objects from among its holdings have been held in the Japanisches Palais.
Even just a brief glance at a few exhibits testifies to the high quality of the fascinating objects. Take for example the carved and painted house beams from the Palau Islands in the Micronesian region of the South Seas, which were acquired in 1881. The naturalist Carl Gottfried Semper had discovered them after a shipwreck on these remote Pacific islands and later brought them to Dresden. The beams were part of a men’s club house. The coloured bas-relief decor shows mythical and erotic themes and it so impressed members of the Expressionist Dresden artists’ group “Brücke” that Max Pechstein was inspired to travel to Palau himself. Or take the 3.4 m long Malangan Boat from the island of Tabar which is now part of Papua and New Guinea. The boat is one of the highlights of the museum, being unique in the world. The collector and South Seas explorer Richard Parkinson gave the boat to Dresden as a gift in the 19th century, along with a rich collection of masks and carvings. Another outstanding item is the Kris with an ivory grip from the island of Java, now part of Indonesia. This dagger of Javanese origin was already owned by the electors of Saxony at the end of the 17th century.
The Dresden Völkerkundemuseum has breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating things to view and admire. However, the objects also reflect the everyday life of distant cultures and thus contribute to the development of understanding between the distant and the near, between them and us, and between the past and the present.