Berlin’s Ethnological Museum opened its doors in 1886, at the same time the German Empire was establishing its first colonies. The collection, which today includes half a million objects, was acquired in colonial expeditions.
Today, as long-overdo critiques of imperialist museums fill newspapers, it’s hard to imagine anyone opening a brand new institution for looted art. But that’s just what the German government did last September. The Ethnological Museum moved from its post-war home in Dahlem to the second floor of the rebuilt City Palace, also known as the Humboldt Forum.
The former home of the House of Hohenzollern is an ode to Prussian militarism. One of the main patrons of reconstruction was the banker Erhardt Bödecker, who was not a fan of democracy or of Jews — a plaque for the far-right historian was recently removed. It was not entirely surprising that the guy who built his own Prussia Museum out in Brandenburg was not a passionate democrat.
The first exhibition at Humboldt Forum, Berlin Global, was surprisingly progressive. The Ethnological Museum, in contrast, is despicable enough to earn its refined surroundings.
The curators had years to think about how to present their blood-soaked treasures. After visiting last week, I was left seriously wondering how they spent all their time and money. The biggest single item is known as the Luf Boot — a 15-meter sailboat that was built on the island of Luf (in the Hermit Islands off Papua New Guinea) at the end of the 19th century.
A recent book by Götz Aly, summarized in Der Spiegel, looks at boat’s history in great detail. The German navy sent a punitive expedition to Luf in 1882 to destroy the island’s villages and boats. Up to half of the inhabitants were killed, while the survivors lost their means of subsistence. It was only then that they built this ship — It seems it was never used because there were not enough people left to take it out to sea. This is how the Germans “bought” the boat.
So how is that horrific story presented today? Most visitors would never even guess about it. The only hint can be found on a small sign marked “PROVIENZ,” which is on a balcony overlooking the ship. There are a few dozen such signs scattered throughout the museum. They are waist high, forcing visitors to bend over to read the tiny font. They are often not placed next to the objects and, shockingly, have not been translated to English.
The Humboldt Forum cost €680 million (with more than 80% coming from tax money). Yet, it seems like dealing with Germany’s colonial history wasn’t budgeted for.
The museum is full of stuff like that. The Mandu Yenu throne is covered with vibrantly colored pearls. A hard-to-find and harder-to-read sign explains — only in German — that this was a “gift” from King Njoya of Bamum (in the German colony of Kamerun) to the Kaiser. Yet what kind of “gift” is given at the point of a gun?
Prints of Chinese soldiers were stolen from Beijing during another punitive exhibition. In 1900-01, the German Empire joined hands with the other imperialist powers to put down the Yihetuan Movement (known in the West as the “Boxer Rebellion”). In this case, the Kaiser famously declared that German soldiers should take no prisoners. While burning Beijing, they took this art.
Not everything at the Ethnological Museum is this bad. A room focussing on Cameroon gives a decent overview of Germany’s colonial crimes, with a lot of space dedicated to Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, a king who was executed by the German authorities in 1914. Strangely, the best presentation of disturbing material is contained in video games for children. The touch screen with Comic Sans font explains, much more clearly than anything else in the exhibition, that these items were brought here via mass murder.
As a whole, the museum seems überfordert, i.e. overwhelmed by an impossible task. It can’t decide if it wants to be an Ethnological Museum about far-off cultures or a History Museum about how these cultures were plundered by German imperialism. The result is “neither meat nor fish,” as the Germans say. Several rooms are in the style of an “open magazine”: big black cabinets full of stuff without any attempt at explanation. The curators are effectively throwing up their hands.
Thus, we have a very expensive “Can You Believe All the Stuff We Stole” Museum. It needs to be dismantled as quickly as possible. I know how it could be done. Some of the items need to return to the places they were made. Others can be featured in a Museum of German Colonial Crimes.
The building itself, the City Palace, is irredeemable. There is no saving this monument to the reactionary Prussian monarchy. The center of Berlin could use a nice park. Or perhaps a new Palace of the Republic.