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In Berlin, a Humboldt Forum Now at Full Capacity

Published on , by Philippe Dufour

This is the third and final act of an ambitious project bringing together Berlin’s rich and varied ethnological and Asian collections—without evading any of today's postcolonial issues.

The Schlüter courtyard of the Humboldt Forum in central Berlin.© Stiftung Humboldt... In Berlin, a Humboldt Forum Now at Full Capacity

The Schlüter courtyard of the Humboldt Forum in central Berlin.
© Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/Photo: Alexander Schippel

On September 17, over 25,000 visitors discovered the final installations of the Humboldt Forum: a venture that has successfully made it through thick and thin over 20 years. After two partial openings—one virtual, because of the pandemic—this monumental journey, carried out under the auspices of Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and his brother Wilhelm (1767-1835), has firmly established itself as one of the world’s biggest spaces devoted to non-European cultures. Comprising not one but two museums housed in a brand-new Berlin palace, the institution exhibits over 24,000 objects—out of a total of 500,000 references from the Ethnologisches Museum and 40,000 from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst—in 17,000 m2 of exhibition space. This long development process, which was further slowed by the health crisis, is inseparable from another vast and controversial project. Although the idea of a Humboldt Forum as a "center for dialogue between cultures and science" (as it was originally called) dates from the 1990s and the fall of the Wall, it needed a few more years to become a reality. It eventually took the form of an imposing royal palace, destroyed 72 years ago. Its reconstruction was voted by the Bundestag on July 4, 2002, despite those arguing for a more contemporary architecture, who were in the minority. The project was contested by many people for budgetary reasons (the final bill will be €680 M), but according to its supporters, this monumental reconstruction—a sphere in which Germany is an expert—was an opportunity to restore Berlin’s historical heart. The former Baroque residence, where all the Hohenzollern kings and emperors lived from the 16th century onwards, was badly bombed during the Second World War, and finally finished off when it was blown up in 1950 by a Communist government that saw it as an imperialist symbol. It was replaced by the former GDR’s Palace of the Republic, inaugurated in 1976. After standing for three decades, this glass parallelepiped was destroyed in turn in 2006. And then, with the Humboldt Forum, a final jewel was added to the incredible "museum island" already boasting the Altes and Neues Museums, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Pergamonmuseum and the Bodemuseum. Begun in June 2013, the reconstruction of the courtyards and facades (built in the early 17th century by Andreas Schlüter, then Johann Friedrich Eosander von Göthe) was carried out under Franco Stella. The Italian architect was given the tricky task of resurrecting the magnificent original decor, high reliefs and statues. These were faithfully recarved, based on various remains and old photographs. Contemporary parts have also been integrated, like the eastern façade, whose extreme neutrality makes us appreciate the decision to rebuild the palace exactly as before.

Papua New Guinea, outrigger boat from Luf Island, Bismarck Archipelago.© Staatliche Museen zu Berli /Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner S

Papua New Guinea, outrigger boat from Luf Island, Bismarck Archipelago.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berli /Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/Photo: Alexander Schippel

Benin, 16th century. King with two guards, bronze.© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum/Photo: Jörg von Bruchhausen

Benin, 16th century. King with two guards, bronze.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum/Photo: Jörg von Bruchhausen

A Fascination With Distant Lands
Today, the Humboldt Forum's ethnographic and Asian art collections are overseen by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz). They unite collections that were previously split between various museums. For a long time, the most important of these was the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem. With the establishment of this large cultural complex in the city center, its organizers are simply reviving a tradition: the Kunstkammer of Frederick William I, Elector of Brandenburg, was once housed in the palace, and already contained numerous pieces from outside Europe, including African ivories and Far Eastern porcelain. But the Prussian passion for distant cultures took on a whole new scientific dimension with Alexander von Humboldt. The geographer and naturalist made several expeditions, his crowning achievement being a long journey in America from 1799 to 1804. Collecting plants, animals and, of course, indigenous artifacts, he paved the way for a string of 19th century German explorers, scholars and collectors, who all enriched the public collections in leaps and bounds. The fruits of this long quest can now be seen on two entire floors of the Humboldt Forum.
The museography designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates and Maisyteufel is extremely fluid, with temporary exhibitions blending seamlessly into the permanent circuit. Occupying the fourth floor since July 2021, the Museum für Asiatische Kunst presents works from Asian civilizations, and features some spectacular highlights. In the China section, visitors can enter the "Ring-bearing Doves" Buddhist cave temple, discovered in Kizil on the Silk Road and reassembled here. They can also admire one of the largest existing court paintings, The Buddha Preaching (50 m2), produced in the 1770s by Ding Guanpeng. India is naturally represented by statues of its countless gods, including an impressive processional Nandi bull. Gems from the Islamic Middle East include a striking Iranian dervish kaftan in multicolored patchwork. Meanwhile, the arts of Japan are staged around a real tea house, designed by a team of architects led by Jun Ura. On the third floor, the Ethnologisches Museum presents its own extremely dynamic vision of world cultures through an open dialogue with the original communities. Ancient and modern societies are brought to life, like the Cotzumalhuapa civilization (650-950) and its monumental stelas. Further on, the gold of the Inca caciques and the Quimbaya culture glitters within a circular cabinet displaying dozens of jewelry pieces and statuettes.

The weight of a colonial heritage
Further on, the Oceania section displays a large outrigger boat from Luf Island and a meeting house from Palau. The area dedicated to Africa is another department rich in treasures, dominated by artifacts from Cameroon, including thrones and effigies covered with colored beads and powerful, prophylactic evocations, with a Mangaaka figure as the most speaking example. For the most part, all of these objects left their continent of origin while the Germany was building up its colonial empire from Papua to Tanzania, and assembling large collections of artifacts from these countries. This often violent history means that the Humboldt Forum, like many leading Western ethnological museums today, is faced with all the questions raised by the legacy of colonialism: an arduous task the Berlin organizers are performing with considerable assiduity, dotting the circuit with educational panels and filmed testimonies, as well as exhibition-reports refuting most of the criticisms made since the start of this cultural adventure. Even before the museums opened, a polemic propagated by various national and international media overshadowed the scientific value of the project, and above all criticized the conditions in which the pieces had been acquired. In the face of this outcry, the curators introduced an irreproachable methodological system. According to Alexis von Poser, deputy director of the Museum für Asiastisches Kunst, "the main approach in developing an ethnological museum today is unquestionably research on provenance.” To carry out this mission, the Humboldt Forum brought in five researchers. They now devote their entire time to work made more difficult by the wide range of acquisition methods, more complex than had appeared, with purchases, exchanges, bequests from collectors and even gifts from foreign sovereigns—we learn, incidentally, that kings of Hawaii and Afghanistan were major donors—as well as genuine plunder. The second requirement, from the outset, was close collaboration between the museum teams and players in the artifacts’ countries of origin. Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, evoked this principle in his opening speech, when he underlined "the crucial importance of ever-more collaborations with partners from all over the world"—of which there are already around 100.


Canada, British Columbia, before 1881. Transformation mask, Fort Rupert, Vancouver Island, carved and painted red cedar.© Staatliche Musee

Canada, British Columbia, before 1881. Transformation mask, Fort Rupert, Vancouver Island, carved and painted red cedar.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum/Dietrich Graf

Cameroon, before 1885, Mandu Yenu throne with footrest.© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/Photo: Al

Cameroon, before 1885, Mandu Yenu throne with footrest.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/Photo: Alexander Schippel


Dialogue and Reconciliation
The most symbolic aspect of this dialogue is resolving the thorny issue of the Benin bronzes. Five hundred have already been returned to Nigeria, whose current borders encompass the former kingdom. (Most of these masterpieces were bought on the art market in London in 1900, where they appeared after the British looted the Edo Palace.) This remarkable operation has been led by a group of figures from both countries called the "Benin Dialogue Group", consisting of scientists, ethnologists and politicians. This multiple collaboration may take other forms; for instance, contemporary artists of the states involved are invited to participate in commemorative work with pieces of their own. The most eloquent example is a sculpture of a Herero woman by Namibian artist Cynthia Schimming. In the folds of her dress, this life-size figure drags symbols of the history of her country, colonized by the Germans and haunted by the genocide of 1904-1908. A real work in progress, to quote Claudia Roth, the Minister of State for Culture, the Humboldt Forum is certainly just at the beginning of its universalist mission: to reconcile past and present, and peoples with each other.

Worth knowing
"Against the Tide. Omaha, Francis La Flesche and his collection"
Until September 24, 2023.

"Ancestors, Goddesses, Heroes. Sculptures from Asia, Africa and Europe."
Until December 31, 2023.

Humboldt Forum, Ethnologisches Museum and Museum für Asiastisches Kunst, Berlin, Germany.

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