In 1864 the Maatschappij ter Bevordering van Nijverheid (The Society for Industrial Promotion) decided that a start should be made with the compilation of objects for a future museum on Dutch overseas territories. Frederik van Eeden was commissioned to do this (the father of the writer). A collection was established in the attic of his house in Haarlem, a part of which can still be found in the Tropenmuseum.
Van Eeden collected objects from the Netherlands Indies from various sources and within no time they moved into the first floor of Paviljoen Welgelegen in Haarlem. The Colonial Museum finally opened its doors in 1871.
In 1910 the Vereniging Koloniaal Instituut (Association of Colonial Institute) was founded and was responsible for finding a location for and the building of the new Colonial Institute and Colonial Museum in Amsterdam. In 1923 the building on the corner of Mauritskade and Linnaeusstraat was completed and the collections from Haarlem could be moved to Amsterdam. On 9 October 1926 Queen Wilhelmina officially opened the new Colonial Institute.
The aim and the name of the museum was changed in 1950. As from 1945 the museum had been shortly called the Indisch Museum (Indies Museum) until it was changed to the Tropenmuseum. The entire world of the tropics became the area of work of the institute that was now called the Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (Royal Tropical Institute). As the collection had mainly consisted of objects from the (former) colonies many new objects had to be bought or exchanged with other museums.
In 1971 the problems in the Third World became the key focus areas. There were exhibitions on global unemployment, diseases, dilapidation of cities and the position of women. The objects collected mainly originated from the “culture of poverty”.
As from the end of the 1990s the permanent exhibitions were reorganized. Objects once again became more important. The change in cultures and mutual influence are the main subjects of the museum.
The exhibitions focus on various themes, from contemporary art to religious traditions and historic photographs. The museum regularly organizes guided tours, lectures, scavenger hunts and musical workshops.
The Museum contains 160,000 objects and 170,000 historic and contemporary photographs.