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The beginnings of the Ethnological Museum date back to the Cabinet of Art and Rarities belonging to the Electors of Brandenburg. As early as the seventeenth century they collected not only works of European art but also rare objects from distant parts of the world. They eventually formed the Royal Prussian Art Cabinet from which, in 1829, the "Ethnographic Collection" was created. This collection then moved into the Neues Museum on Museum Island.
The Ethnological Museum was founded in 1873 and in 1886 it moved into its own building in Stresemannstrasse. Under its first director, Adolf Bastian, who died in 1905, acquisitions from throughout the world systematically increased the museum's possessions.
The building in Stresemannstrasse was destroyed during World War II. As a result all surviving objects which had been removed for safekeeping were reunited after the war in the former storage building in Dahlem. By 1970 new extensions had been completed providing facilities not only for the Ethnological Museum but also for the Museums of East Asian and Indian Art.