How will the besieged Humboldt Forum in Berlin deal with its imperialist past? Its new Asian and ethnological museums provide clues

After the July inauguration of the Humboldt Forum, the museum of non-European art that has been arguably Germany’s most controversial cultural project in decades, the institution is now opening up its most besieged divisions.

On Wednesday, with festive addresses by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Humboldt inaugurated the Asian Art Museum and the Ethnological Museum, institutions teeming with objects of dubious origins.

Sleeping on the outskirts of Berlin in Dahlem for a century, the formidable treasures of 500,000 objects, one of the world’s largest ethnographic collections, only came to attention with their relocation to the Humboldt Forum.

The partially reconstructed Baroque Imperial Palace in the historic center of the district, sometimes referred to as a ‘heritage shopping center’, was built with a budget of 680 million euros ($ 802 million) and was controversial even before its use. be determined. Besides the ethnographic collections, it also houses the Foundation for the Humboldt Forum, parts of Humboldt University and the City Museum. By next spring, approximately 20,000 objects from the ethnographic museums, many of which are on public display for the first time, will occupy an exhibition space of approximately 90,000 square feet, designed by Ralph Applebaum Associates on the second and third floors. of the west wing of the building.

A small statue is prepared in an exhibition hall at the Humboldt Forum. Photo by Christophe Gateau / picture alliance via Getty Images.

To some academics and activists, the non-European collections, exhibited in a vessel revived by Prussian imperialism, sounded like bitter irony. Public objections have grown since art historian Bénédicte Savoy resigned from the Humboldt Forum’s expert panel in 2017, citing her displeasure at the institution’s inability to resolve issues. of provenance. The Ethnological Museum and the Asian Art Museum have since hired four restitution experts.

But as controversies continue, the opening illustrated how the focus of the presentation has shifted from What must be posted at How? ‘Or’ What it must be displayed. It was the kick-off of an ongoing negotiation.

“It’s not a museum, it’s a place,” said Hermann Parzinger, chairman of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which oversees museums, in his opening speech. Andrea Scholz, Scientific Director of Museums for Transcultural Cooperation, added that the colonial debate is just the tip of the iceberg, which society is only beginning to understand: “We always practice to listen.

The attempt is particularly evident in contemporary interventions in the African collection. Between exhibits of African antiquities, sorted – without context – by region, the stories of Sambian migrants in East Germany and a collaboration with the Namibia Museum Association attempted to place Germany’s colonial ties back in. a current context. Cross-cultural cooperation with the “societies of origin” of cultural objects will remain essential, underlined the SPK.

But despite these efforts and repeated promises to combat racism and the vestiges of colonialism associated with ethnographic collections, the exhibits have failed to answer some obvious questions. One of the main exhibitions of the African collection, the 19e-throne of the kingdom of Bamum, seems placed at random in the middle of a room rather than in a royal framework which befits. Besides the rather rare visible discussions (the information comes mainly via QR codes), little has been mentioned that some ancestors of the king of Bamoum in Cameroon, a former German colony, have demanded restitution.

A young man examines an Aztec sculpture at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Photo by Britta Pedersen / picture alliance via Getty Images.

The SPK was the first to initiate the return process of its collection of some 500 Benin bronzes, which will be exhibited in this place for the last time in the spring before returning to Nigeria from June 2022. The institution has remained. quieter on other matters, with Parzinger reiterating only that there will be more “substantial renditions” in the future.

Other objects also remain problematic, in particular the display of the outrigger boat from Luf Island and numerous objects from the South Seas, former German colonies. Until German historian Götz Aly reveals that a punitive expedition and virtual eradication of the local population directly preceded the boat’s relocation in May this year, the SPK maintained that it was acquired from rightly. In a gesture of apology, the museum added information about the looting of Luf Island and commissioned Melanesian filmmaker Martin Maden to visit the island to look into the story. Maden discovered the descendants of survivors of the German massacre. Stanley Inum, a descendant, did not raise the issue of restitution; he suggested a visit to Berlin to see the boat and build a new one. “The knowledge must be brought back to us,” he said in a film shown next to the boat.

But the ship is just one object in one of the largest and finest collections of Oceanic art and artifacts in the world. Most of the treasure in the Oceanic collection is likely to have been stolen, but the museum’s descriptions remain “dull and empty,” according to Aly, writing in a recent editorial in the German daily FAZ.

Klaas Ruitenbeek, director of the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin, stands next to the exhibits of the Museum of Asian Art in the special exhibition hall of the Dahlem Museum in Berlin. Photo by Bernd von Jutrczenka / picture alliance via Getty Images.

This can apply to intangible heritage as well: the museum has been confronted with the call of the Indonesian people to destroy some of the audio recordings of their department of musical ethnology, which are considered sacred by the societies of origin.

Although less contested, as Germany was not a significant colonial power in Asia, the Museum of Asian Art also holds remarkable treasures, notably the Wang Shu Room which houses the 18th century mural “The Sermon of the Buddha. And the ‘Nandi’, a sculpture of a bull from South India. While most of the Asian section’s exhibits have remained largely insulated from postcolonial controversies, the Silk Road murals have also recently raised questions of legitimate acquisition.

Even before it opened, the Humboldt Forum became a negotiating ground in a way he hadn’t envisioned. The Asian Art Museum and the Ethnological Museum, the two institutions at the center of the storm, maintain a willingness to address pressing issues of historical justice and current entanglements and vestiges of colonialism. But as they have yet to fully open up, they will have to work on a deeper mediation on the provenance of their collection – and that is a long road given the treasures of around 500,000 materials and hundreds of thousands more. intangible objects.

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