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