The National Museum of Archeology, History and Art (MNAHA) owes its existence to a number of dedicated enthusiasts.
The members of the "Société archéologique", an organisation for the conservation and restoration of historical monuments, started assembling the museum's numismatic and archaeological collection in 1845. The collection continued to grow with a number of acquisitions, bequests and discoveries. Historical objects and documents and artworks were added later.
The society's work was recognised by the state in 1868. When the Grand Ducal Institute was established that year, the "Société archéologique" was appointed to run the institute's historical section. Over the following decades, the members often suggested that their collection be shown in a new museum, but to no avail. It was only in 1922 that the state acquired the Collart-de Scherff house on the Marché-aux-Poissons in order to turn it into a museum. After the renovation work began in 1927, the historical section of the Grand Ducal Institute decided to entrust the state with its collections, which form the basis of the museum’s collection today. The state also started to acquire works by Luxembourgish artists for the museum. Delayed by funding problems, the transformation of the Collart-de Scherff mansion into a museum was not completed until 1939, the year marking the 100th anniversary of Luxembourgish independence.
The Second World War broke out before the museum's inauguration. The barely installed collections had to be transferred to safe locations. However, a number of objects, in particular applied arts pieces, were acquired with the budget allocated during the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944.
After the Second World War, most of the collection was safely returned to the museum. In 1946, the "Musées de l’État" opened its doors to the public, featuring two departments: one for history and art and one for natural history. The museum staged annual contemporary art exhibitions and its acquisitions commission has been adding works by international artists to its collection since 1958.
In 1966, a group of amateurs discovered four exceptional Gallic burial chambers in Goeblange-Nospelt, with some dating back to the end of the second Iron Age and others to the beginning of the Gallo-Roman period. The impact of this spectacular discovery on the world of European archaeological research prompted public authorities to professionalise archeology in Luxembourg. In 1972, the first archaeologist was hired at the "Musées de l’État" and the excavations undertaken since then have continued to enrich its collection. Until 2022, the Centre National de Recherche Archéologique (CNRA), under the authority of the institute (the current MNAHA), was responsible for national archaeological heritage. Following the law of 25 February 2022, the CNRA became the Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques (INRA) and was placed directly under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture. However, the archaeological collections exhibited in the Nationalmusée um Fëschmaart remain under the institute's responsibility.
In 1988, the "Musées de l’État" were separated into the National Museum of History and Art (MNHA) and the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN, Naturmusée). Over the decades, their collections and activities had grown and increased to such an extent that only a separation would solve the lack of space and allow both institutions to develop. They were both located at the Marché-aux-Poissons until 1996, at which point the Naturmusée moved into its new building, the former Hospice Saint John, which was restored and refurbished for this purpose.
Following the new law on cultural institutes passed on 6 December 2022, our cultural institute is now called the National Museum of Archaeology, History and Art (MNAHA). The museum's home at the Marché-aux-Poissons will become the Nationalmusée um Fëschmaart. For more information, feel free to read article 12 of the Loi du 16 décembre 2022 portant modification de la loi modifiée du 25 juin 2004 portant réorganisation des instituts culturels de l’État.
The museum during the Second World War
The museum was on the brink of inauguration shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, when the Luxembourgish government decided to secure the collection in 1939. Following the occupation by German troops on 10 May 1940, the building was reused for several months to provide temporary shelter to displaced civilians and returnees from the Front by the Red Cross and the Wehrmacht authorities.
At the end of 1940, the museum was placed under Nazi civil authority directed by Gauleiter Gustav Simon, i.e. the "Verwaltung der Höheren Kommunalverbandsangelegenheiten beim Chef der Zivilverwaltung".
The Nazi regime conceived a specific design for the museum within the ideological framework of the Germanisation policy promoted under the slogan "Heim ins Reich". It is planned for the museum to be considerably enlarged in order to serve as a showcase for the culture of Germany ("Volkstum"). The ambitious venture was never undertaken though, due to the war.
Nevertheless, the Nazi administration hired further staff for the museum. This laid the foundations for the later development of professional museum services. In pursuit of the ideological cultural policy, the Gauleiter made funds available for the acquisition of objects, mainly from the context of Luxembourgish folklore, aiming to put together an ethnographic collection.
The acquisitions from 1940 to 1945
The inventories from 1940 to 1944 list about 450 inventory numbers. No entry was recorded in 1945. The total number of objects added to the collections is higher, since a single inventory number was often been assigned to multiple objects - at times more than 100. Over the course of the occupation about 3.500 objects were thus added the museum's collections, the large majority of which are folk objects with an average value of 60 Reichsmark per object. Only four objects were acquired for a price of more than 4.000 Reichsmark but never in excess of 9.000 Reichsmark. The expenses for acquisitions between 1940 and 1945 thus amount to roughly 200.000 Reichsmark.
Artworks only have a small part to play among the acquired objects. Only a handful of paintings were purchased, directly relating to the historic and ethnographic collection. These works, almost exclusively portraits, are of historical interest rather than artistic value.
The inventories from 1940 to 1945
The MNAHA is fully committed to establish complete transparency concerning the provenance of its collections. To this end, the museum published the whole inventories of the years of occupation online in 2006 (see PDFs). We remain entirely at your disposal for any further information on this matter.
The Edmond Reiffers collection
The partial acquisition of the collection of the Luxembourgish notary Edmond Reiffers is an exception to the acquisition policy of the years of occupation. The acquisition and subsequent transfer of 39 artworks to the museum occurred in two stages in 1942 and 1944, respectively (Inv. 1942-74/1-16 and Inv. 1944-22/1-23), following the Gauleiter's orders. The total collection had included least 71 works at the outbreak of the war.
For the voluntary sale of 35 paintings and four sculptures, the collector Edmond Reiffers received 831.250 Reichsmark in total. This amount represents four times the value of all other acquisitions carried out during the occupation. The artworks in question are not linked to the history of Luxembourg at all, which is yet another exception.
For 37 paintings nowadays preserved at the MNAHA, it can be proven that Edmond Reiffers already owned them in 1935 at the latest. It is unlikely that he was even able to acquire other works after 1933, since his financial situation considerably worsened during the depression and the following economic crisis.
The museum was not involved in the negotiations. It seems that the museum's executives' advice was not sought either. Rather, the purchase was prompted by the internal politics of occupation: the grave consequences of this collector's bankruptcy could have put the regime's stability at risk.
The inventory of the artworks from the Edmond Reiffers collection belonging to the MNAHA was published in 1967. See Joseph-Emile Muller, Catalogue des Peintures anciennes. Luxemburg, 1967 and Catalogue des Peintures anciennes. 2nd edition 1976. Luxemburg, 1976 for further information.
For the turbulent history of the collection and its partial purchase, see Michel Polfer, Nationalsozialistische Kulturpolitik oder Herrschaftsstabilisierung? Zum Ankauf der Kunstsammlung des Luxemburger Notars Edmond Reiffers durch die deutsche Zivilverwaltung, in: Du Luxembourg à l'Europe. Hommages à Gilbert Trausch à l'occasion de son 80e anniversaire, edited by Jacques P. Leider, Jean-Marie Majerus, Michel Polfer, and Marc Schoentgen. Luxembourg, 2011, p. 327-359.