The Humboldt Forum: Colonial history in the 21st century

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A new museum is being built in Berlin, it is supposed to open in 2019, not far from the museums island. The Humboldt Forum is going to be the new building which will house the ethnological museum, the museum for Asian art as well as a Berlin-Museum and what is called the Humboldt-Labor by the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Construction is still underway, the first exhibits are being brought into the museum and visitors can get first impressions in the Humboldt-Box, a temporary exhibition which tells the story of the place and allows for a panorama-view of the city and a look into the works taking place from a rooftop-terrace and restaurant.

In the 18th century, the Berlin city palace stood where the Humboldt Forum stands today. It was an impressive building in Baroque architecture, for the Prussian kings and later the German emperor, which was demolished by the GDR regime in the 1950s after it was damaged badly during World War II. In its place the “palace of the republic“ was built, were the „People’s Chamber“ (German: Volkskammer) held their meetings and leisure facilities were installed. This building was demolished between 2003 and 2008 and since 2013, the city palace is being rebuilt.

And exactly this rebuilding of the baroque-style palace is what bothers many, as well as the accommodation of the ethnological museum and the museum for Asian art within. Both museums had been located in Dahlem prior to construction of the Humboldt Forum and are meant to be closer to the Museumsisland which is under construction as well; to form a large museums complex in the heart of Berlin. Under the motto „the west and the rest“ many criticise the accommodation of two large cultural groups within one building while European (or Western) cultures and art are spread across many buildings on the Museumsisland.

Additionally, for many the place itself is problematic, as well as the implications posed by the accommodation of the ethnological museums in such a building. During the winter of 1884/85, Reichskanzler Otto von Bismarck led a conference where the African continent was divided into sections by the former colonial powers in exactly this building. For the ethnological collection and its objects with too often questionable background to be residing at a place that gave rise to the brutality of German colonial power, seems rather clumsy to a lot of people. The initiative „No Humboldt 21!“, for example, discusses the legitimacy of ethnological collections in the 21st century, since many of those collections in the Western world came to be under dubios circumstances in colonial times, and many artifacts are known to be stolen cultural heritage. This has been discussed again and again, and there are claims for restitution in many former colonies for stolen objects and bones that were collected by colonialists for their research, but seldom those claims are heard muss less followed up; despite the fact that no-one can be prosecuted for anything done by colonial powers. However, nothing opposes the complete reappraisal of the past and debating issues arising from this. Naturally, through colonialism these objects have become a part of European cultural history today and obviously museums would not want to dissolve themselves by giving away all of their artifacts. Nonetheless, the dialogue between formally colonised and colonising countries has to be sought out and possible solutions need to be discussed. There are reparation claims for a throne from the former kingdom of Benin (today this is Benin-City in Southern Nigeria), which until today have only been recognised through copy that has been made for the royal family in Benin-City, which naturally they had to pay for themselves. In these cases, where the rightful owner of stolen objects can be retraced and demands for restitution have been made, it should be clear that those need to be followed up. Unfortunately, these restitutions are seldom and the discussion revolving around it seems to be avoided at all cost; this is exactly what needs to change. Especially because it can surely be argued whether Namibian or Tanzanian heads of state will like it very much when they are allowed to admire their own cultural heritage in German museums on trips to their former colonial ruler.

The Humboldt Forum calls itself a place for cosmopolitanism, a cabinet of wonders in which we can learn about our own culture and others, where presentations will be held and research will be the main focus. The idea of a place for intercultural exchange is obviously a very good one. It is to be desired that the colonial history of Europe — and this includes Germany — is reviewed, and a place like the Humboldt Forum would be perfect to discuss contemporary and colonial history but the construction of the building as it is carries negative connotations with it, especially because accounting for the past and open discussions of objects with questionable background does not seem to be part of the concept. The fact that the Altes Museum directly opposite, in the form of a Greek temple, seems much more inviting architecturally for such a task while the elitist facades of the Humboldt Forum are only part of the critique. By now, not much can be changed about this but it would be nice to see the people responsible for the Humboldt Forum open up to the discussion around the future of the objects. This is why the Humboldt Forum serves as an example for a long-overdue discussion about what remains of colonial times that should matter to the whole of Western civilisation and which nobody should turn away from.

Lea Hüntemann



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