Digging into history

Frankfurt museum takes visitors back to a time of kings and medieval life

“It belongs to the peculiarities of Frankfurt life that its citizens are constantly collecting and arranging: capital bills of exchange and currency on the one hand; rarities and treasures from the rich realm of the antique, the arts and nature on the other.” — Anton Kirchner, 1818

The Frankfurt museum is undergoing a major face-lift and expansion.Collections of paintings, furnishings, coins and a host of other objects by private citizens are on display through Frankfurt’s Historisches Museum. Cases of porcelain dominate one display room. Replicas of the royal crown, orb and scepter dating back to the 10th century.

Financial capital of the continent — the site of imperial elections —international trade center. These are just a few of the descriptions that capture the prominence of Hessen’s largest city.

A stroll into Frankfurt’s downtown from the main train station quickly reveals this well-deserved reputation for financial prowess with towering skyscrapers, the statue of a huge Euro symbol and a relentless passage of bicycle couriers, taxis and expensive cars. Mingled into this mix of money and the trappings of wealth are the historical buildings and rebuilt structures from times gone by.

In the decades since the greater portion of Frankfurt’s downtown was demolished during World War II Allied bombing raids, the city has slowly reemerged. Like the previous centuries which saw the small village on the Main River grow from a Roman settlement into an important center of commerce during the Middle Ages, Frankfurt has constantly evolved — building over the shards of earlier habitations and altering structures to meet present-day requirements — all the while attempting to capture some semblance of the significance of the city’s role in historical events in Europe through the ages.

While the city has seen its share of drab, post-war architecture filling the spaces where earlier buildings were blown apart or torn down to make room for parking garages, office buildings and stores, in recent years Frankfurt has also witnessed an effort to recreate the old-world charm of earlier times — particularly in the city’s center around the Roemer town hall square.

As work continues on and around the Historical Museum, visitors are invited to explore this effort to showcase the city’s history. With only a small portion of the museum currently open to the public while a massive construction project changes the layout of this section of Frankfurt’s old town, visitors are still able to come away with a deeper appreciation of how the city grew through the years.

Recent renovations of the 800-year-old Saalhof which serves as the current home of the City Museum which is projected to be completed by 2015 have greatly altered the interior layout of the former Historisches Museum.

A climb up into the Toll Tower which served a vital role in Frankfurt’s location as a merchant center — overlooking the arrival of goods on the river and the levying of taxes — and down into the cellar where one can view the earliest remaining remnants of wells, walls and canals from bygone times offers a glimpse of the city’s past. Other displays allude to the kings chosen to rule over Europe — such as Barbarossa in 1152 and Karl IV in 1356.

Several models and visual aids provide a detailed look at the changing cityscape with overlays showing how ever more buildings were constructed within the old city walls and beyond. Among the highlights is a diorama created by the brothers Hermann and Robert Treuner during the 20th century showing the old city.

But it is thanks to the many benefactors and individual collectors who donated vast collections of paintings, furnishings, coins and other artifacts that visitors are given a deeper look into those who have called the city home over the centuries. An eclectic mixture of everything from porcelain containers to period furniture, miniature paintings to medieval golden goblets — the displays showcase some of the many objects contributed by 12 collectors since the 16th century.

As with any historical presentation that runs through the 20th century, visitors are made keenly aware that National Socialism changed the face of the city — murdering or driving its Jewish population away, robbing Jewish benefactors of their gifts to the city and breaking the agreements made in wills with the city about how collections were to be displayed in the years to come.

In the early 19th century, as the city relished its position as a major trading center and its old fortifications were torn down, a family of architects played a major role in designing many of the prominent structures in and around the city — some of which are still standing. Rudolf Burnitz and his son Heinrich built buildings ranging from churches to synagogues, summer residences to industrial buildings in the years 1821 to 1880. Visitors today are invited to browse through this exhibit which details the evolution of these structures, their role in the city and whether they have endured into modern times.

The Historisches Museum Frankfurt is located on the river by the Eisenersteg pedestrian bridge, just past the Nikolai Kirche when walking south from the Roemer. Admission is €7 for adults. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and tours are available upon request. Visit www.historisches-museum-frankfurt.de for more information.