‘Opinions are changing’: Berlin’s new cultural venue tackles colonial heritage

Berlin’s new cultural complex, the Humboldt Forum, has opened the doors to two museums showcasing works of art and artefacts from Africa, Asia and Oceania – among the most contested collections to be exhibited in the instead of 680 million euros.

The Ethnological Museum and the Asian Art Museum welcomed their first visitors last week after an opening ceremony attended by German President Walter Steinmeier and Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Made up largely of artefacts from former German colonies, museums have come under intense pressure as they approached opening to provide transparency on the imperial history of their collections and, in some cases, to commit to return looted items.

In a press conference before the opening, Hartmut Dorgerloh, director of the Humboldt Forum complex, said the institution was dedicated to “a critical examination of history” and would seek to act as “a platform international dialogue on the biggest issues. in our time”.

Dorgerloh acknowledged the controversy surrounding the collections. “It has been a heated debate which has intensified over the years and opinions are changing,” he said. “It was a learning process – the change is visible. “

Decolonial practice and cross-cultural cooperation are at the forefront of both museums. The Ethnological Museum has endeavored to create transparency around the provenance of the object, the history of acquisitions and the contemporary impact of colonialism. Exhibits feature sliding drawers and barcodes that offer more provenance information, while galleries in some former African colonies feature plexiglass reproductions and holograms rather than artefacts.

In a historic move earlier this year, the museum pledged to return much of its collection of 520 bronzes from Benin to Nigeria, where they were looted by British troops in 1897. The institution will continue to perform d ‘other repatriations, said Hermann Parzinger, chairman of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s state museums. He confirmed that “by next year some items will no longer be there.”

The museum emphasizes working with communities and societies of origin, enabling them to generate new narratives in its exhibition spaces. “We see the potential of the stories source communities want to tell – not just the victim’s story, but different forward-looking stories,” Parzinger said.

“This is not a traditional museum,” he added. “It is a place of discourse and change in a changing world.

In 2019, the German federal government committed state funding for research on colonial contexts, allowing the Humboldt Forum to employ four provenance and restitution experts. “It’s unique in the world,” said Andrea Scholz, head of the forum for cross-cultural cooperation. “Openness is only part of a process. Our partnerships will continue and be much more visible in the future.

Large outrigger boat on the island of Luf in Oceania: people and the sea. Galerie Une mer d’îles of the Ethnological Museum © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, photo by Alexander Schipel

These partnerships include a project that enabled the Ethnological Museum to trace the descendants of the population of Luf in the South Seas, an island community believed to have been wiped out in a massacre by German forces in 1882-83. One of the most controversial items in the museum’s collection is an Outrigger Boat acquired as a result of the massacre; the community of Le Luf has not requested the return of the boat but will work with the museum to revive traditional boat-making techniques in order to build a new one.

Although its collections are less contested than those of the Ethnological Museum, the Asian Art Museum also emphasizes cross-cultural cooperation through collaborations with contemporary Asian artists and practitioners. Exhibits include a reconstructed Japanese tea house and a hall dedicated to the design of Chinese imperial court art by famous architect Wang Shu.

Both museums were previously located in Dahlem, on the outskirts of Berlin. Now housed in the west wing of the Humboldt Forum, they are part of a larger complex that also includes a university, a sculpture gallery and a museum of Berlin history, as well as a shop, café, temporary exhibition spaces and two courtyards. Other cultural attractions are expected to open in the east wing of the building next year.

View of the domed room of the Turfan Collection Central Asia gallery at the Asian Art Museum © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, photo by Alexander Schipel

The Humboldt Forum, Germany’s largest cultural project for decades, has been in the works for almost 20 years and was led by a team of founding directors which included director Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum.

The building, which opened in July, has itself been the subject of much debate in Germany over its rising costs and perceived homage to the country’s colonial days. Designed by Italian architect Franco Stella, it is a replica of an 18e– Century baroque palace that was demolished by the East German government, interspersed with a more modern design.

The building stands on the site of the iconic Palast der Republik, a GDR-era parliament building and cultural center that was demolished in 2006.

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