Wereldmuseum Leiden 2024

History Wereldmuseum Leiden

From 1837

Wereldmuseum Leiden has a long history and a collection of objects from all over the world. Here you can read about the history of the museum.

The oldest anthropological museum

The Wereldmuseum Leiden (previously Museum Volkenkunde) has a long history. Founded in 1837 as the Rijks Japansch Museum Von Siebold (National Japanese Museum Von Siebold), it is one of the oldest ethnographic museums in the world. The original collection was of objects collected by Philipp Franz von Siebold while he was working as a doctor on Deshima, the Dutch trading post near Nagasaki in Japan (1823-1830). His collection was open to the public at 19 Rapenburg (today’s SieboldHuis ), in Leiden. 

Image: Portrait Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) made by Edoardo Chiossone in 1875, RV-00-334

Afbeelding: Portret van Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) gemaakt door Edoardo Chiossone in 1875, RV-00-334

Royal roots

The history of the origins of Wereldmuseum Leiden is not just linked to Von Siebold but also to King Willem I. He encouraged the founding of national institutions to promote science and art, as well as commissioning scholars to collect objects in China, Indonesia and Japan. 

These were given a place in the Koninklijk Kabinet van Zeldzaamheden (Royal Cabinet of Rarities), which was founded in 1816. When the Royal Cabinet was closed in 1883, a large part of the collection was moved to the museum in Leiden, which had been renamed the ’s-Rijks Ethnographisch Museum (National Ethnographic Museum) in 1864

More and more cramped

The collection grew steadily in the last decades of the 19th century. In 1883 many of the objects shown in the International Colonial Exhibition in Amsterdam were added to the collection. The five bronze Japanese Buddhas, which are now displayed in the famous Buddha gallery, were also acquired in this period.

Vijf Japanse Boeddha's opgesteld in de tuin van het museumgebouw aan het Rapenburg rond 1920, RV-12265
Five Japanese Buddhas arranged in the garden of the museum building at Rapenburg around 1920, RV-12265

Around this time so many objects were received from the Dutch East Indies colony there was a shortage of space. Expansion seemed essential! When Queen Wilhelmina accompanied by the Queen Mother got lost in the building during a short visit in 1899, the museum was fortunately allocated an extra building on Rapenburg.

Image: The public display in the museum building on the Hoge Woerd where queens Wilhelmina and Emma got lost, RV-12362-4.

De openbare opstelling in het museumgebouw aan de Hoge Woerd waar de koninginnen Wilhelmina en Emma verdwaalden, RV-12362-4

Growing diversity

At the beginning of the 20th century the collection was expanded again. In 1903 the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO, Dutch National Museum of Antiquities) transferred its large Hindu-Javanese and American collections to Wereldmuseum Leiden (previously Museum Volkenkunde), an important acquisition.  With the bronzes from Benin, the Peruvian ceramics, the expedition collections from Aceh, Bali, Central Borneo and western New Guinea, as well as the collections from Tibet and Siberia, all acquired in the preceding years, the focus was no longer on Japan, China and Indonesia. A collection of objects from the entire world had been created.

Academic hospital

Shortly before 1920 the museum was yet again bursting at the seams and it acquired a third location at 18 Breestraat. In 1931 the Academic Hospital building became vacant, giving the collection some breathing space. Although the building was allocated to the museum in 1933,  owing to the economic crisis of the thirties, it was 1937 before it could open its doors to the public.

Image: The building of the former Academic Hospital, since 1937 the location of Wereldmuseum Leiden (formerly Museum Volkenkunde), Leiden.

Het gebouw van het voormalig Academisch Ziekenhuis, sedert 1937 de vestiging van Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden.


War threatened in 1939. It was decided to move the most important objects to the museum basements and the national shelters in the dunes near Heemskerk. Although the museum remained open during the early years of the war, in 1944 the public collections were cleared completely. On 11 December that year the museum grounds were showered with bombs, one of them hitting the building and breaking a huge amount of glass. Fortunately the collection had been moved to safety and was not damaged.

Collecting systematically

After the Second World War a period of ‘systematic’ collecting in the field began. Curators travelled to places where they could have direct contact with the people who made or used the objects themselves. The researchers tried to register as much information as possible about the objects. This knowledge was passed on to the general public in exhibitions that tried to evoke the atmosphere and original location of the objects displayed. Between 1956 and 1992 some of the exhibitions were also staged in Museum Volkenkunde’s (currently Wereldmuseum Leiden) subsidiary museum in Breda, the Volkenkundig Museum Justinus van Nassau. 

Evocatieve opstelling van een woonsituatie op Oost-Groenland tijdens de expositie “Overleven en over leven” 21 juni 1984 - 3 september 1985.
Evocative arrangement of a living situation in East Greenland during the exhibition “Survival and About Living” June 21, 1984 - September 3, 1985.
Evocatieve opstelling van een deel van een Afghaanse bazaar, als onderdeel van de expositie “Bazaar; marktsteden in Noord-Afghanistan”,  25 januari 1980 - 4 januari 1981.
Evocative arrangement of part of an Afghan bazaar, as part of the exhibition “Bazaar; Market Towns in Northern Afghanistan,” January 25, 1980 – January 4, 1981.


Thanks to the ‘Deltaplan voor Cultuurbehoud’ (Delta Plan for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage) the Wereldmuseum Leiden (previously Museum Volkenkunde) embarked on extensive renovations in the 1990s. The interior of the building was completely rebuilt and the collections, which were stored in very cramped conditions, were moved to four enormous storage units with climate control in ’s Gravenzande. All the objects were photographed and entered in a digital database at the same time. Museum Volkenkunde was one of the first museums to make its entire collection available online. 


In 2014 the Museum Volkenkunde merged with the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam to form the new Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (National Museum of World Cultures). By making more use of modern techniques and media, more attention was paid to the present day and the human beings behind the objects. The museum had entered a new era. From 2023, the museums will continue under the name Wereldmuseum: Wereldmuseum Leiden, Wereldmuseum Amsterdam, Wereldmuseum Berg en Dal and Wereldmuseum Rotterdam.