Of reconstructing and reinventing: the debate surrounding the Humboldt Forum in Berlin

On 4 July 2002, after 10 years of debate, the German parliament voted in favour of reconstructing the Berlin Palace. A few months earlier, the international commission of experts “Historische Mitte Berlin” (Historical Centre Berlin) had presented their final report, which advocated for the building to be used as a place of dialogue, civic involvement, and to represent equality between contemporary world cultures. Although with noble plans in mind, the hefty project was far from manoeuvring itself out of public debate.

The criticism of the construction, and the institution it houses, the Humboldt Forum, is multi-layered. As so often, the first step in search of an explanation is to look at history: 

The original Berlin Palace, which the new construction partly resembles today, was built between 1443 and 1453 and served as the residence and political decision centre of the Hohenzollern and other significant Prussian aristocracy from 1701 onward. During the time of the German Empire, it was a centre point from which Germany was aiming to expand around the globe – just like its neighbouring countries. This resulted in many colonialist expeditions setting sail to Africa and islands in the western and southern Pacific Ocean.

As a landmark of German colonial politics, the Berlin Palace has a questionable and violent history. A history which the country nowadays acknowledges, yet often fails to bring to the forefront of German history education and international politics. 

One such example is the genocide of the Herero and Nama in 1904. With tens of thousands indigenous people killed by German forces, the event is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. Negotiations regarding reparations for the genocide between Namibia and Germany have only been in process for about seven years. As well intentioned or not they might be, Germany seems to overlook the fact that the Namibian government does not represent the Herero and Nama people. Today, these groups are a minority in the region, and lack political opportunity to engage in the negotiations taking place regarding their memory, traditions and existence. There are hints of remorse when it comes to the German colonial past, but ongoing reparation attempts lack inclusivity and fail to involve those it intends to benefit.

Preserving a certain history?

Supporters of the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace argued for its economic and historical relevance but especially its cultural significance – its elaborate baroque architecture that was one of a kind in Europe at the time. This stance, though, presupposes turning a blind eye to the time and context the palace was constructed in. The choice to reconstruct, rather than building something new in its place entirely, cannot be separated from the intention to preserve a certain historical perspective. 

This kind of selectivity has happened to the site before. The palace was bombed during the Second World War and later demolished. Under the East German leadership, the Palace of the Republic was built which would become not only the home of the parliament under the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) but a place for culture too as it hosted bars and concert halls. Although a past not exactly untainted, the building and events associated with it have become a part of the dual German history. Yet, as of now, just a few objects and only certain exhibitions in the new building involve Eastern German history in their narratives.

The Palace of the Republic in 1976 in the eastern part of Berlin. (Lutz Schramm/Wikimedia Commons)

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the palace was left vacant. Its following demolition due to asbestos found inside which raised concerns about health and safety certainly made sense to many – yet the decision to demolish the building entirely instead of renovating or reconstructing parts of it has critics asking what history makes German history.

In their statutes, the association “Palast.Jetzt” advocates for the reconstruction of the Palace of the Republic by arguing that its demolition mirrors how history was written in the process of reunification. What they are trying to highlight here is an imbalance in the modern historical consciousness of many Germans: The Soviet era of Eastern Germany, the GDR, is often given a fraction of the attention that other German histories receive. By reconstructing the Berlin Palace instead of the Palace of the Republic, politicians and financiers have, consciously or not, taken another step in undermining the historical relevance of former Eastern Germany.

Objects of Contention

But critics do not only see flaws in the outer construction: within the walls of the reconstructed Palace, the newly established “Humboldt Forum” has found its home. Opened for the public in summer 2021 after more than ten years of construction, it is a partnership of four institutions, all involved in the areas of museum work, cultural projects and academic research. 

It is here that one of Germany’s largest collections of objects from the non-European world is displayed and worked with. The decision to include the Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art in a reconstruction of a place so entrenched in the colonial past is certainly a point of contention, with some asking if this can be considered appropriate today. Others, however, see it as a way to highlight the very debate that is currently ongoing in Germany and across Europe when it comes to provenance research – that is the tracing of the origin of an artwork or historical object, and looted artefacts.

 

In 2016, three years after the foundation was laid, the new palace was still under construction. Not to be finished until another five years later. (Hanohiki/Shutterstock.com)

Research on provenance has not only become more popular and important within archeology, history and art, but also in international politics as it unearths evidence of past atrocities and crimes. This evidence begs the question of who should display looted artefacts, if they should be displayed at all or if they should be returned to their place of origin. These are often topics discussed between countries of the Global North and former colonies in the South. 

In the case of the Humboldt Forum, the partner responsible for the Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art (the “Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz”) is still aiming to display Nigerian Benin Bronzes of which many are looted artefacts acquired during the British Empire’s colonial era, and sold throughout Europe. As of now, the plan to display the artefacts is discussed with partners in Nigeria to determine precisely which ones will be displayed and which will return home. 

On their website, the museum acknowledges the criticism regarding coloniality stating that “privileges that come to light in a cultural institution […] reflect a society”, and aims to critically examine “their own canon”. It is moreso a question of whether the museum can fulfil its own promise. Currently, the Humboldt Forum’s website hosts many opportunities for visitors and others interested to engage with the topic through podcasts, videos or the in-house magazine

Since the Ethnological Museum is still not fully open to the public, the debate surely will continue. The Humboldt Forum struggles to resolve its position in the public discourse but is currently aiming for diversity and plurality of voices as key components of their marketing strategy and the institution’s identity.  

The forum, its journey of construction, and the proposed values it embodies are a reflection of our times. From the decision to reconstruct the Berlin Palace to the actual opening of the Humboldt Forum, the discourses around histories, memories and coloniality have changed drastically, paving the way for a diverse conversation between proponents of different cultures that undoubtedly deserve a spotlight among the narratives of the Global North. It will take a while to determine how the young museum will make use of its goals and reputation over the years, what it will choose to focus on, and who and whose voices it will represent in the future.

Jette Strohschneider

 

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