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Humboldt Forum von der Seite, davor die Spree mit einem Touri Boot und im Hintergrund der Berliner Dom

A visit to the Humboldt Forum – reflections on the how of the exhibition practices

The Humboldt Forum in Berlin has been a controversial point of discussion for what seems like forever. The debate about this addition to the urban and cultural landscape of Berlin has revolved around a number of issues, including the history of the site, the cost of the project, and not least the objects to be exhibited there. It is this last point that is of particular interest to us at poco.lit., since the Forum is set to be the new home for Berlin’s ‘non-European’ collections.  If you’re interested in some more background, you could check out this report (in German) moderated by Hadnet Tesfai, in which you can also get a glimpse of some of the objects that are not yet open to the public. No Humboldt21, an initiative organised by Berlin Postkolonial and Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland amongst others, has compiled compelling arguments against the Humboldt Forum project, and you can find their resolution here.

So one fundamental cause for contention is that the Forum is set to house much of the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst. As the exhibition flyer puts it: “Around 20, 000 archaeological, ethnological and art-historical exhibits offer multiple perspectives on universal themes of humanity” – a gloss that, through its claims to ‘universality’, seems to smooth over the fact that many of the objects that have landed in these collections were acquired through the violence and coercion that were fundamental to colonialism. But given the increased attention such issues have been getting in recent years, the curators and researchers involved in the Forum have certainly also been occupied with the colonial histories of these objects – indeed, the museum names “discussions on colonialism and coloniality” as one of its core themes. I was curious to see how these delicate questions had been tackled, but in light of misgivings about these objects being displayed here at all, also reluctant to support the institution by paying for a ticket. As it turns out though, entrance is free of charge for the first 100 days (these 100 days end on the 13th of November).

Spanning some 30, 000 square metres, the Humboldt Forum is colossal, and it is the impression of its enormity that strikes one first. Whether the architectural juxtaposition of the modern with the reconstruction of some components of the old Berliner Schloss appeals is perhaps a matter of taste, though it probably serves the glorification of a past that doesn’t really need glorifying. What seems clear from the first either way is that the Forum wants to be impressive. It is grand in scale and imposing in presence, and I’m given to wonder if this is the right tone to set for what it will go on to house. As Priya Basil and Teresa Koloma Beck indicate in an article they wrote on an advertising campaign for the exhibitions at the Forum, something more in the key of humility might be closer to what is needed here. While grandeur of this style might be in the nature of a certain (European) museum tradition, surely the time when European metropoles built a colossus in their midst to showcase their stolen loot has passed?

I visited two exhibitions at the Forum: Schrecklich Schön/Terrible Beauty and the exhibit of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, or museum of Asian art. (The exhibitions of the Ethnologisches Museum are set to open to the public in the summer of 2022.) In both of the exhibits, I’ll confess to having been more interested in the how than the what from the outset. Schrecklich Schön/Terrible Beauty is subtitled “Elephant – Human – Ivory” and sets out to tackle how the elephant and its ivory constitute a nexus of art and violence. The first object the visitor is confronted with upon entry into the dimly lit space on the ground floor is a figurine of a mammoth carved from mammoth ivory, and found in the Swabian Jura mountain range in Germany. Since so many of the other objects in this exhibition come from the global South – or here perhaps more pertinently, the formerly colonised world – having arrived in European hands through very likely dubious means, it seemed a noteworthy choice that the first object displayed be from Germany. Does starting with a mammoth suggest a planetary past all humans share? Does it somehow imply that it all began in Europe? Does it constitute an effort to open the exhibition with something not stolen?

Provenance Emergency Station

Schrecklich Schön/Terrible Beauty tackles the problem of the origins of the objects it displays with something along the lines of provenance emergency stations. Painted in red and white stripes as though they might be warning of a traffic accident, there are such stations throughout the exhibition, where visitors can draw out retractable boards that offer information about the status of the provenance research on given objects. This is the case, for instance, with two carved human figurines from Camaroon that, as the text informs, “were part of the estate of Hans Casper Gans Edler Herr zu Putlitz, a colonial officer stationed in Camaroon.” It goes on to say, “In light of the systematic violence and oppression practiced by the German colonisers, even items in the collection that were ‘legally’ acquired or presented as gifts appear dubious in moral terms.” The juxtaposition of this recognition with the objects nevertheless displayed, in this reconstructed Prussian palace, is strange.

The exhibition of the holdings of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst on the third floor is significantly more expansive – and far too large to discuss in any detail here. (If escalators are not an option for you, be warned that at the moment some of the elevators don’t stop at the third floor.) Relevant to the question of how the Forum sets out to frame its objects, is that this exhibit is bookended by remarks on museum practices. The first such bookending panel, under the heading “Themes and questions of the exhibitions” initially frames the occupation of the exhibition as dealing with representations of different religions and the “human desire for protection, orientation, and spiritual grounding.” It goes on to emphasise that the research on the objects in these holdings is conducted in collaboration with representatives of the communities of origin. What are the terms of such collaborations? As I strolled through the many rooms filled with so very many objects, I noted that each of the objects displayed is accompanied by a little explainer plaque, and each of these provides a line of information: “purchased from…, donated by…, acquired from…”, I wondered about  the backstory of these purchases, these ‘acquisitions’. Casual visitors are unlikely to do further research, so this is the extent of the information on these issues they will walk away with. The exhibition’s closing remarks on museum practices, in its last room, appear under the heading “When were these objects brought to Berlin, and where were they put?”. This panel puts colonialism at the centre of the history it tells about the origin of the exhibited objects. That history includes the German Empire’s colonial ventures in China, as well as expansive practices of coercive “appropriation” of objects. It notes: “The fact that they [these objects] found their way into a museum in Berlin illustrates the complicated interconnections between museum politics and colonial power structures. At the same time, the objects testify to Germany’s high appreciation of Asian art and culture.” The last sentence in particular seems once more to strike altogether the wrong tone.

I continue to find the Forum in its entirety troubling. There are some core problems here that make it hard to view the project as a whole as in any way redeemable. As No Humboldt21 articulates it, these problems include not just that the Berlin museums’ ownership of these objects is not legitimate, but also that there is some kind of attempted rehabilitation of the city’s colonial past; that non-European cultures are implicitly marked as ‘other’ in these museum holdings; that the research on these objects can fall in line with a long history of Europeans making the global South the ‘object’ of their studies; and that the exhibitions are only available to those with the privilege of having access to the global North. All the same, perhaps the visibility of this project can help to create greater public awareness for some of the problems that underlie it, which are systemic and not confined to the Humboldt Forum.