Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters has called it it “the largest and most ambitious cultural project in Germany”. Protestors this summer brought banners demanding to “tear it down and turn it upside down”. This month’s partial opening of the Humbolt Forum (now only online until lockdown eases) marks the end of a 30-year saga with two distinct battlegrounds: the resurrection of a Prussian Baroque palace on Museum Island and, inside it, the opening of a new cultural institution that most contentiously includes Germany’s non-European ethnological collections.
The Berlin Palace you may have seen slowly re-emerging in Mitte like a spectre from the past was last seen on the Berlin skyline in 1950. Bombed during WW2, its remains were blown up and removed by the GDR to make way for their new parliament building Palast Der Republik, which stood on the site from 1964. Known by East Berliners as “Honecker’s light shop”, the once extravagantly lit structure still had its supporters even after the fall of the Wall: the empty building was used for exhibitions in the early 2000s and, despite 180 petitions for its preservation, the Bundestag eventually voted to tear it down.
The campaign to replace it with the rebuilt Berlin Palace, home to Prussia’s Kaisers and their ancestors since the 15th century, started soon after reunification and had a group of supporters so fervent they successfully petitioned to erect a to scale painted version of its facade on the site in 1993. These and other efforts were finally rewarded in 2003 when the Bundestag voted to rebuild the Schloss with a hefty €600m budget.
Construction work started in 2010 and in the long-held tradition of Berlin’s public building projects, budgets ran over by €77 million as opening dates moved further and further into the future. However, in the time since the project was conceived, the world had moved on, and even Germany had begun to address a blind spot in its Erinnerungskultur with the German Historical Museum’s 2017 exhibition German Colonialism. Change was on the horizon: that same year French president Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report on the restitution of African cultural heritage.
The Humboldt Forum seemed to take note and drafted in one of the French report’s authors, art historian Bénédicte Savoy. This move spectacularly backfired in 2017 when Savoy made a very public departure from the Forum’s advisory board.
“Personally speaking, I don’t think it’s a good idea, good timing, or the right way to proceed,” she told industry publication The Art Newspaper this year. “It is a symbol of German oppression, hegemony and colonialism.”
Savoy isn’t alone. For the same reason, groups such as No Humboldt 21 and the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt have organised against the Humboldt Forum. Is it ethical to show ethnological collections, much of which are the result of colonial looting, behind a Prussian façade? After all, Prussia was the architect of German colonialism.
However you feel about it, Covid permitting, the 42,000 square-metre Humboldt Forum will open digitally on December 16, and while much attention has focussed on it being the new home of the Ethnological Museum and Asian Art Museum (opening end of 2021), it will also house other exhibitions and initiatives.
A permanent exhibition exploring the history of the site will be one of the first elements to open, whenever that’s possible. Expect to see material on The Berlin Palace, including a sculpture gallery of some of the original statues that adorned its façade and parts of the 14th-century monastery that preceded the Schloss preserved in situ in the basement. There will also be original objects from the Palace Der Republik, such as way-finding signage, plates from the restaurant and the plastic voting box from its first and only open and free voting in 1990.
In public spaces and stairwells, contemporary art acquired for the building will include Statue of Limitations, a sculptural work by Kang Sunkoo. The black-patinated bronze sculpture is in the form of a flag at half-mast, a work the artist intends as an “artistic examination of colonial history and the Humboldt Forum”.
Exhibitions planned for next year include Have a Seat!, a children’s exhibition, and After Nature, which addresses the crisis of nature and democracy. There’s also the much-anticipated Berlin Global exhibition, a collaboration between Berlin State Museums and Kulturprojekte Berlin. Across 4,000 square metres of exhibition space, Berlin Global will tell the story of the city and its connections to the world in seven themed rooms. Exhibits will include legendary nightclub Tresor’s original door, a 360-degree mural that explores the world’s persisting colonial divisions by artists How and Nosm, and Philip Kojo Metz’s sculpture SORRYFORNOTHING.
Planned to fully open by the end of 2021, the Humboldt Forum has plenty of reputation to claw back already. Only time will tell if the €677m project can be the progressive cultural centre for the arts and sciences it promises.