The MKG was initiated by the Patriotische Gesellschaft in Hamburg in 1866 and called the “Museum for Art and Industry”. The idea was to gather and exhibit historical and current examples of good design under the same roof as models for contemporary producers of arts and crafts and industrial designers. The founding Director, Justus Brinckmann (1877-1915), put these plans into practice and opened the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe on Steintorplatz in Hamburg in 1877 as one of the earliest examples of this new type of museum. Historical cultural achievements are presented in such a way that ordinary citizens can assimilate them and, through refining their taste, improve the quality of the work produced in the region, so as to maintain its market competitiveness. In the early years, the MKG lends out many objects as exemplary models intended to serve as a direct source of inspiration to the workshops. 

The next generation, with Director Max Sauerlandt (1919-1933), adds a new dimension to the original idea from the era of the industrial revolution, introducing the vision of an encyclopaedic collection of outstanding artefacts from cultural history recording 4000 years of human creativity. At the same time the Expressionist idea of the unity of all art forms takes firm root in the collection through progressive purchases of modern art. This commitment to the cause of contemporary art is interrupted by the artistic policies of the Nazis: in 1937 some 250 works were confiscated as a result of the defamatory exhibition “Degenerate Art“ and are thought, with only a few exceptions, to be lost.

After World War II, in 1945, the focus was made on scientific cataloguing of the inventory and systematically building up the collections. A high point in the history of the MKG was and will remain the “Tutenchamun” Exhibition in 1981. With 620,000 visitors, Director Axel von Saldern (1971-1988) organized Germany’s first blockbuster exhibition. Under the aegis of Wilhelm Hornbostel (1988-2008), the MKG expanded, adding the Schümann Wing in 2000, and was transformed into a foundation under public law in 1999. The Museum regards its closeness to the ordinary citizens with pride to this day, combining respect for tradition with openness to the future, and continues to fulfil the remit with which it was founded as an educational institution focusing on its public. Since its first beginnings, the MKG has acted as a player in the present, adopting a clear position on issues of contemporary design. An important instrument since 1879 in this has been the MKG Arts and Crafts Fair, at which the public can enter into a direct dialogue with craftsmen and product designers.