The idea to create the institution of a museum in Gdansk was present in the cultural life of the city already in the first half of the 19th century. A contribution to this was provided by the activity of the Fine Arts Society (Kunstverein), established in 1835, which from its very beginnings purchased paintings with a future museum gallery of painting in mind.
One of the founding members of the Society, the painter Johann Carl Schultz, the future initiator of the establishment of the Association for the Preservation of Historical Architecture and Art in Gdansk (1856), met the sculptor Rudolf Freitag during his voyage to Italy in 1844 and talked him into coming to the city. Freitag took up the position of a professor of the Fine Arts School in Gdansk and engaged himself in putting the idea of the organisation of a museum into practice. In 1848, he was allowed to live in the ruined building of the former Franciscan monastery, which belonged to the Ministry of War. He brought here his collection of sculptures, plaster casts, items of decorative art and a collection of various “antiquities”. Owing to Freitag’s persistence, the historical building avoided demolition and was ultimately passed on to the city by the royal government in Berlin in 1864. For many years, the sculptor exercised considerable effort to open a museum, collecting historical objects from Gdansk and its environs and ineffectively trying to win funds for a restoration of the structure, sending petitions to the Prussian king and the city authorities. A formal establishment of the museum institution was made possible only owing to the foundation of a Gdansk merchant, Carl Gottfried Klose (1794-1868), and his heirs, Friedrich and Johanna Carolina Henning, who provided for the purpose the amount of 60,000 thalers and paintings to the value of 4,000 thalers. On 30 March 1870, the “Gdansk City Museum established by Carl Gottfried Klose and his heirs” was formally established and became a property of the city. Its Board of Curators was composed of twelve curators, with Rudolf Freitag becoming its first. At the beginning of 1872, the repair and reconstruction of the building to the design of the city’s construction officer Julius Albert Licht were completed. In the same year, in December, the first exhibition of art was opened to the public in the Gallery of Paintings.
In 1872, a precious collection gathered by a merchant from Gdansk, Jacob Kabrun (1759-1814), provided under testament to the Trade Academy in Gdansk (1814), was moved to the museum, and in 1875 it was formally included in its holdings. The collection included more than 300 paintings, mainly Flemish and Dutch, as well as almost 2,000 drawings and watercolours and about 11,000 prints. Within the structure of the Museum, it functioned as a separate collection with its own distinct legal personality.
In 1884, the collections of the Decorative Arts Museum (Westpreussisches Provinzial Gewerbe-Museum) were relocated to the building of the City Museum. It was an institution founded in Gdansk on 28 December 1881 as a branch of the Museum of the West Prussian Province (Westpreuβisches Provinzialmuseum) established more than a year earlier and housed in the Green Gate. The Decorative Arts Museum was founded on the collection of Eduard Ludwig Garbe, a Gdansk merchant and collector, comprising more than 400 objects, which was purchased for 9,000 marks by the West Prussian Province Association. It comprised ceramics – mostly faience, historical copper and brass objects and furniture. Initially, the collection was kept in the house of one of the members of the founding committee, Oskar Bischoff, at ul. Kowalska 3 in Gdansk. Since the relocation of the collection to the seat of the City Museum in April 1884, the combined institutions functioned as a Stadt- und Kunstgewerbemuseum. The first exhibition of decorative arts was opened to the public in the cloisters of the Franciscan monastery on 5 August 1885.
The function of the director of the Museum of Decorative Arts was fulfilled by Johannes Heise, a heritage conservation officer for the province of West Prussia. After his death in 1899, he was succeeded by Oskar E.S. Bischoff, a curator of the City Museum representing the Municipal Office. In 1912, Hans F. Secker became the manager of both the facilities – he obtained the title of a director in 1916 and fulfilled the function until 1922. He was ultimately successful in achieving the unification of both museums, modernisation and rebuilding of the galleries and making them available to the public. In 1921, the Decorative Arts Museum officially ceased to exist as a separate facility, and its collections became instead one of the departments of the City Museum. In this form, the institution functioned until the outbreak of the Second World War. After Gdansk’s incorporation to the Third Reich and the establishment of Region Gdansk – West Prussia, the museum was renamed to Stadtmuseum und Gaumuseum für Kunsthandwerk zu Danzig. Evacuated to locations in the vicinity of Gdansk and deep into Germany in 1943-1944, the collections gradually returned to the damaged building of the former Franciscan monastery, which was taken over by Polish authorities after the end of wartime operations. They became a foundation for the collection of the Pomeranian Museum established in 1948, which in 1972 was granted the rank of a National Museum.