History of the Museum

Presentation of the Musée Unterlinden (1853 – 2015)

Herzog & de Meuron’s extension of the Musée Unterlinden, with the addition of a resolutely contemporary new building that integrates with the medieval architecture, constitutes a remarkable episode in the museum’s history.

When visiting the convent and the museum’s collections, visitors can see the successive stages of its history spanning over 150 years. The walls and the artworks bear witness to the dynamic work of the Société Schongauer, the association that has run the museum since 1853.

The Musée Unterlinden officially opened its doors on 3 April 1853. In addition to the 3rd-century mosaic discovered in Bergheim in 1848 and plaster casts of ancient sculptures, it presented artworks confiscated during the French Revolution, such as Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and Martin Schongauer’s Altarpiece of the Dominicans.
When it opened, the museum occupied only the chapel, where a large proportion of its collections were presented. The works soon outgrew the high walls of the nave, however, and gradually spread into the whole of the Unterlinden Convent from the second half of the 20th century.

In the late 19th century and over the course of the 20th century, refurbishment work was undertaken in order to make the spaces suitable for the presentation of artworks and to provide a comfortable environment for the increasing numbers of visitors:

– creation of the room known as the “Salle de la Cheminée”, displaying “Alsatian curiosities”

– creation of the Salle Théophile Klem for the works from the collegiate church of St Martin

– creation of the Salle Fleischhauer for the archaeological collections, in tribute to the president of the Société Schongauer

– a major underground extension with an area of 450 m2 was undertaken in 1973-1974 to create space to display the modern art collections.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the museum was outgrowing the confines of the convent and during temporary exhibitions was forced to consign its works of modern art to the stores. The closure of the municipal baths in 2003 and the transfer of the buildings to the museum made it possible to plan an ambitious extension allowing for a complete reinstallation of the collections. Following an international architectural competition launched in 2009, the Basel-based architects Herzog & de Meuron were chosen to undertake the work.

The architects presented the Musée Unterlinden with a scheme combining architecture and museography, as well as considering the museum’s relationship to the city. Its guiding principle was to respect the history of the medieval convent, whilst supplementing it with a contemporary building adjoining the rear of the municipal baths and linked by an underground gallery.

The architects created symmetry behind the municipal baths with the creation of a new building echoing the volume of the chapel, whilst the garden beside the baths forms a counterpart to the cloister garden.

Herzog & de Meuron’s project also encompassed a dimension of urban planning, with the aim of turning the area between the baths and the convent into an animated circulation space, enhanced by the reopening of the Sinn Canal and the redevelopment of its banks. Within this space stands a “little house”, with large windows looking down into the underground gallery linking the convent to the baths. This structure plays a pivotal role in the urban design of the site. The forms of the small building echo those of the building that once marked the entrance to the Ackerhof, the convent’s former farm.

The final aspect of their project was a museographic redevelopment, with the aim of restoring coherence to the collections, by exhibiting the historical art collections in the convent, and the modern art in the new wing, whilst doubling the surface area available to the museum.