Berlin’s Humboldt Forum Is a Strange Marriage of Progressive Content and Conservative Form

The Humboldt Forum has been the subject of controversy since its plans were announced by the city of Berlin in 2002. Billed as the city’s new cultural focal point and proudly inhabiting the newly reconstructed imperial Berlin City Palace in the historic heart of the city (next to the “Museum Island” UNESCO World Heritage Site), the $802-million museum opened its doors on July 20 as one of the most expensive — and contentious — cultural projects in Europe.

Upon its opening, the German Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters praised the Humboldt Forum for “[creating] a tangible experience of the traditions of the Enlightenment and the ideal of peaceful dialogue between cultures.” Unfortunately, the Enlightenment traditions that the institution renders “tangible” are the very same ones that underpinned and continue to underpin Eurocentrism, capitalism, and colonialism/coloniality. The Humboldt Forum thinks it can genuinely pursue and cultivate “peaceful dialogue between cultures” from a position of global power. I’m not so sure.

While critiquing the institution of the Western museum as hierarchical, conservative, and Eurocentric is nothing new, the Humboldt Forum presents itself as faithfully addressing these critiques and contributing to the decolonial conversation — all from behind the façade of a reconstructed imperial palace. The effect is unconvincing.

I will say that the Humboldt Forum’s progressive curatorial efforts surprised me. I had expected something much more stilted, stale, and traditional when I entered the reconstructed seat of the former German empire. Despite, and perhaps because of, the controversies surrounding the museum, the Humboldt Forum’s inaugural exhibitions deal with the fraught relationship between humans and nature, Terrible Beauty: Elephant – Humans – Ivory and After Nature, as well as with Berlin’s complex history in a globalized world, Berlin Global. These exhibitions are sensitively curated and do not shy away from the issues of Eurocentrism, colonialism/coloniality, and repatriation that its critics have accused the institution of avoiding.

A “Save the Elephants” vehicle destroyed by an African elephant in Kenya in 2002 that is now part of the Terrible Beauty: Elephant – Humans – Ivory exhibition at the Humboldt Forum

For instance, Terrible Beauty begins with a disclaimer/warning that the included “Depictions, words, and objects … could trigger feelings of violation and powerlessness, memories, or flashbacks.” The origins of the pieces on display are rigorously chronicled and, at one point, there is even a placard engaging with critical whiteness studies. Throughout the exhibition, one also hears elephant noises that initially seem to be intended to provide an immersive ambiance in the subject matter. But towards the end, these noises are revealed to be the sounds of an elephant dying (from A Sporadic,a 2017 documentary by Liesel Burisch). While I was bracing for it to go awry, the exhibition’s content was sensitively handled, though it remains to be seen to what extent this curatorial tact will be extended to its most contentious collection, the notoriously looted Benin Bronzes, when this portion of the museum opens to the public in September 2021. (The Humboldt Forum is engaged in repatriation conversations concerning the pieces, which were pillaged by the British in 1897.)

While the exhibitions are more tactful than I had anticipated — engaging meaningfully with colonial history, climate change, and racialized representations — this progressive content does not sufficiently compensate for the conservative and majorly problematic architectural, symbolic, and financial aspects of the institution itself.

Apart from the questionable decision to commit well over half a billion euros to opening what is essentially an ethnographic museum at a moment when the very idea of ethnography is coming under increasingly serious scrutiny, it is insensitive (at best) and neo-imperialist (at worst) to house Berlin’s ethnographic and Asian art collections in the reconstructed former seat of the German colonial empire. As the activist group No Humboldt 21 asserts, it is akin to “those times when ‘exotic curiosities’ were displayed in the ‘cabinets of wonders’ belonging to the Princes of Brandenburg and the Prussian Kings.”

Oliver van den Berg’s “Elfenbeinträger (Altes Museum 1)” (2016) which shows four men in suits carrying an elephant tusk in front of the Altes Museum in Berlin, part of the Terrible Beauty: Elephant – Humans – Ivory exhibition at the Humboldt Forum

The Humboldt Forum does not seem too bothered by these symbolic concerns, though, and even quips that “one can argue about symbols splendidly” when introducing the debate concerning whether or not the Christian cross should be placed atop the museum’s cupola. For an institution striving to “play a role in identifying and addressing relations that are based on injustice” (as its disclaimer asserts) such a comment comes off as dismissive. This theme of disingenuousness runs throughout the Humboldt Forum: It plays lip-service to a progressive political orientation that it is fundamentally opposed to on an institutional level.

Finally, while museum gift shops are inevitable components of late capitalism, the Humboldt Forum’s selection of commodities for purchase left me particularly baffled. There, I found a puzzling combination of items, including a quick guide to bitcoin, a wall of Latin American handicrafts, and a fountain pen made from the wooden beams of the original Berlin City Palace. While the bitcoin book and handicrafts are simply indefensible in their irrelevance, the pen seems to be an explicit homage to Germany’s colonial era in the form of a €1,850 relic — another symbol about which one can argue “splendidly.”

Unfortunately, the Humboldt Forum’s progressive curatorial efforts cannot compensate for the ethically problematic architecture and conceptual framework of the museum itself. The experience makes for a problematic paradox — an awkward marriage of progressive content and conservative form — such that I was left feeling that the entire program was ultimately disingenuous.

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