The contentious ‘Humboldt Forum’: Museums and the mediation of German memory culture

The reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, the former headquarters of the Margraves of Brandenburg, Kings of Prussia and German Emperors is one of several heritage projects designed to ‘restore the familiar picture of Berlin…’ The reconstruction of the eighteenth-century palace, expected to open in stages from September 2020, will become home to the Humboldt Forum; a museum for world culture. Many critics have scorned the project as a nostalgic throw-back to Germany’s nationalistic, militaristic and imperialist past, tarnished in-part by colonialism, forever to be a memorial to the German colonial era. Several academics and activists have, for example, criticised the apparent lack of effort being put into provenance research of its objects that were acquired during the colonial era. Others have criticised the museum project as being symbolic of the erasure of East Berlin cultural heritage. The Humboldt Forum then, whatever you make of it, is a monument to contentious German memory culture and politics currently being debated in Berlin. We anxiously await its opening.

The original Schloss was reinvented as a Baroque royal residence by architect and sculptor Andreas Schlüter (1664–1714) at the turn of the 18th century for Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg (1657–1713); later Prussia’s first King. After German unification in 1871, the Stadtschloss became the seat of German Emperors, coinciding with German colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century.

The German colonial period has long been a blind spot in Germany’s culture of remembrance. Only recently have more critical interventions taken place, such as the 2016 exhibition ‘Deutscher Kolonialismus’ staged at the Deutsches Historiches Museum. The idea, therefore, of placing objects gathered during the colonial era together within the former imperial seat of Kaiser Wilhelm II has focused criticism on a period which the nation has failed to adequately address. Almost all of the ethnological materials in the Museum’s collection were amassed during the German colonial era, and under circumstances that have come under scholarly criticism.

In 2017 Art Historian Bénédicte Savoy, who would go on to co-author the report on the ‘Restitution of African Cultural Heritage’ with Felwine Sarr in 2018 (commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron), resigned from the Humboldt’s advisory board in frustration with the lack of focus on provenance research on objects looted during the German colonial era. Since then, and with the arrival of the Sarr-Savoy report in 2018, more has been done by museums across Europe with regards to restitution of looted cultural heritage and provenance research.

In October 2018, the Humboldt Forum revealed their planned exhibition of Benin bronzes, with the assistance of the Benin Dialogue Group of European museums, which will include a detailed description of their provenance and current debates. In December 2019, Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum, now part of the Humboldt Forum, concluded their pilot project: ‘Tanzania-Germany: Shared Object Histories?’. The project team, which included scholars and artists in residence from Tanzania, researched artefacts which came to the museum through violent appropriation, such as those stolen during the Maji War of 1905-07, an armed rebellion against German colonial rule in German East Africa. It is critical here to mention that these initiatives have largely been energised and made possible by a ground-swell in grass roots activism that has brought critical debates around German’s colonial past and the physical legacies of German imperialism into the public sphere. One such group is Berlin Postkolonial, a Berlin-based association committed to the critical review of colonial history in Berlin.

The re-building of the Stadtschloss also speaks, in-part, to the issue of post-1989 reunification, a febrile and ongoing process in which West German heritage is seen to be more valued than that of East Germany. After much of the Stadtschloss was burned down in 1945, the GDR government destroyed what remained of the original building; what they saw as a symbol of Prussian Imperialism. Over the following quarter century, architect Heinz Graffunder created the large brown-glass covered Palast Der Republik. The aim was to repudiate Prussian elitism, and to provide a social space containing art galleries, cafes, theatres and a bowling alley. However, it quickly became a favourite meeting place of the communist elite. The Palast Der Republik was undoubtedly a significant part of GDR history, which for many former east Berliners still holds both fond memories of exciting cultural activities, as well as an uneasiness around the site as a symbol of a corrupt and failing socialism. The decision to level the Palast Der Republik and its demolition in 2008 caused a great deal of resentment among those who saw this act as the dominance of Wester interest – a view that remains common today as the reconstruction nears completion.

Palast Der Republik
PHOTOGRAPH BY Wikipedia Commons

The Humboldt Forum will open in stages from September 2020. Is it going to be the case, as Bénédicte Savoy put it, of a baby ‘dead on arrival’; a project that will fail to capture a modern Germany changed and shaped by immigration and cultural diversity? We will have to wait. Though currently there are no exhibitions, the Humboldt Forum has been staging exhibitions at various sites around Berlin to provide a glimpse into future exhibitions at the new museum. What is important is that the public, potential visitors, academic, activists and campaigners continue to hold the Museum’s feet to the fire in order to ensure it acts in the best interests of those whose cultural heritage it is currently the custodian.

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Samuel Aylett

Samuel Aylett is a historian of museums and British colonial History and was recently awarded his PhD in Empire and Colonial History from the Open University.