The opening of Europe’s biggest cultural project in the heart of Berlin was meant to be a moment to celebrate the city’s cosmopolitan confidence. Instead, the Humboldt Forum museum has found itself at the centre of an increasingly toxic debate about colonialism and looted art.
Housed in a reconstructed royal palace, the €644m museum was designed as a new focal point for the German capital. It had the potential to “electrify the whole city, like the Centre Pompidou did with Paris in the 1970s”, said Monika Grütters, Germany’s cultural secretary. She will be one of those inaugurating the forum on Wednesday, in an opening ceremony which, thanks to coronavirus, will be digital-only.
Its centrepiece will be a display of 20,000 priceless objects drawn from the collections of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art. The organisers are hoping to create a “dialogue between world cultures” that will reflect Berlin’s reputation as one of Europe’s most open-minded, tolerant and diverse cities.
Horst Bredekamp, one of the Humboldt’s founding directors, said it was the first time that “non-European cultures were being placed at the heart of a nation in such a magnificent way”.
But critics have drawn attention to the often problematic provenance of the ethnic treasures that will be on display. Nigeria last week demanded the restitution of the Benin Bronzes, a group of plaques and sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin and were looted by British forces in 1897.
“A lot of these objects were stolen, robbed, looted,” said Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, a Tanzanian activist and founder of the NGO Berlin Postkolonial. “Some were used in rituals and prayers — it is like taking the altar from a Catholic church.”
The forum is a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss, or city palace, home to the Kings of Prussia and later the Kaisers of the German Reich. Considered one of Germany’s finest Baroque buildings, it was destroyed in Allied bombing raids in 1945 and its remains flattened by the East German communists in the 1950s.
They built a new “Palace of the Republic” — a vast modernist block containing the East German parliament as well as restaurants, shops, a disco and bowling alley. Found to be stuffed with asbestos, it was demolished in 2008, 18 years after German reunification.
But the decision to rebuild the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss in its stead, endorsed by the Bundestag in 2002, was contentious. “It is a Prussian Disneyland,” said Jürgen Zimmerer, a history professor at Hamburg University.
He said the project exemplified Germany’s failure to address its dark imperial past and colonial-era, such as the genocide of the Herero and Nama ethnic groups in what was then German South West Africa. “The Kaiser got his palace back, but there is still no memorial to the Herero and Nama,” said Mr Zimmerer.
The issue was thrust into the public eye in 2017 when Bénédicte Savoy, professor of art history at Berlin’s Technical University, quit the Humboldt’s advisory council, complaining that the organisers were not doing enough to expose the colonial history of the museum collections.
“You can’t just pretend these objects were dropped here by helicopter,” she told the Financial Times. “You have to explain how they got here, that they have a history.”
Since her departure, she said, much had improved. “The people running the Humboldt Forum now understand they have to engage with the issue of the collection’s past,” she said.
That comes through in the public messaging, with the museum’s website saying the displays feature a “critical examination of European colonialism” and “give voice to colonised people’s points of view”.
Regardless of the controversy, the museum on Unter den Linden, Berlin’s central avenue, will dominate the centre of the German capital. Built with 100,000 cubic meters of concrete and 20,000 tons of steel, it is a massive complex that includes public squares and thoroughfares. Planners say it will give Berlin an entire new quarter. A rooftop restaurant will offer spectacular views of the city.
Meanwhile, with its reference to the Humboldt brothers, two leading figures of the 19th century German enlightenment, the museum hopes to hark back to a period of the country’s history when the spirit of exploration and scientific inquiry reigned supreme.
That is precisely what bothers Mr Zimmerer. “It is trying to return us to the days when Germany was the country of poets and thinkers,” he said. “But it erases the time when we were judges and hangmen.”