The first museum in the world

The History of Ambras Castle

‘Nicht weit von Inspruck ist auf einem Hügel gelegen’
(Not far from Innsbruck it is located on a hill)

Martin Zeiller, 1632

Ambras Castle lies on the southern outskirts of the Tyrolean provincial capital of Innsbruck. Information about Ambras is already known from the tenth century, with the spelling ‘Amras’ or ‘Omras’.

In the High Middle Ages it was, for example, the seat of the Upper Bavarian counts of Andechs. Via inheritance the estate then descended to the possession of the Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol. 

The medieval state can still be clearly recognized in the building substance of the Upper Castle. In 1564 Ambras Castle became the residence of the Tyrolean Landesfürst (Count) Archduke Ferdinand II, who settled here with his young family, his wife Philippine and their two sons, Andreas and Karl. 

The so-called Upper Castle was converted and extended as a residence in the Renaissance style. In contrast, below the residential building, the prestigious Spanish Hall and extensive gardens were newly laid out. 

A structure with many wings around a pentagonal court, the so-called Lower Castle, was also constructed as a new building. In addition to horse stables and a granary, the imposing collections of Ferdinand II, armour, weapons, objects of art, paintings, and a library were progressively housed in there. The entire estate was embedded in an extensive park, which was used as a zoological garden, kitchen garden, and ornamental garden with water features. A specifically erected building for ball games served the sporting requirements of society. 

Up until the death of Philippine Welser (1580), Ambras Castle was a site of convivial festivities, in which the who’s who of contemporary society participated. 

After the death of Ferdinand II (1595) and the sale of the collections to Emperor Rudolf II, the castle became a quieter place. In the following centuries, royal splendour only occasionally shone. Nevertheless, the castle with its treasures remained a centre of attraction for numerous travellers, who expressed great enthusiasm for the splendid collections. 

Eventually the Napoleonic Wars at the end of the eighteenth century brought upheaval, when the Ambras collections were evacuated from Innsbruck to Vienna on grounds of security. The objects in the collection were, for the most part, made available to the public at Belvedere Palace in Vienna after 1819.

Ambras Castle would one more time become the residence of a Habsburg: for Archduke Karl Ludwig, the brother of Emperor Franz Joseph. Between 1855 and 1858, Karl Ludwig caused Ambras Castle to be converted into his summer residence. The architects Ludwig and Heinrich Förster employed the Neo-Gothic design features in accordance with the taste of the times. The Spanish Hall received a new western facade in the form of a stepped gable;

the keep of the Upper Castle was increased up to a fourth floor and crowned with a narrow turret; a stair tower reaching to the second upper storey, and a balcony were added to the south facade. The front castle, in which the dining hall was originally located, was transformed into a ‘terrace storey’ reinforced with battlements. The largest-scale alteration in the castle park was the new, widely laid out approach ramp from the Lower Castle to the Upper Castle.

In 1881 the decision was taken to make Ambras Castle accessible to the public again, a decision that has continued uninterrupted until today. Since 1919 Ambras Castle and its collections are the property of the Republic of Austria. The museum is administered by the KHM Museum Association. 

The cultural-historical significance of Ambras Castle is undoubtedly based on the fact that Archduke Ferdinand II brought together his – at that time already widely famous – collection of armour, weapons, portraits, natural objects, the newest scientific instruments, musical instruments, and works of art, as well as a library. 

To this end, Ferdinand caused the Lower Castle to be erected, as a specific building identified as a ‘Musaeum’. This makes Ambras Castle the first museum in the world. Here, the building itself has become an exhibit, and only here can the historically earliest systematic concept for collection and presentation be experienced at its original site.  

‘furnished and fitted with many very beautiful and rare things’