Replanning is not forbidden, now is the time for new concepts:
Why Berlin should withdraw its presentation from the Humboldt Forum.
Translation from German
Frustration reigns Berlin city centre. As soon as the dispute about the cross on the palace dome has subsided, new anger arises. And this irritation will not pass so quickly. It is about German colonial history and the related implications concerning the Humboldt Forum and the museums in general. This is an urgent provenance research project. How did the artefacts come from Africa? How are their paths into the exhibition halls of the Humboldt Forum to be explained? What story will these mute objects communicate?
It is obvious: The Humboldt Forum has a legitimation problem. This can be seen on several levels, in the outdoors as well as in the indoors. As the palace shell increasingly takes shape, so also rises the criticism to this fake architecture. Berlin’s Senator for Culture Klaus Lederer speaks of a “disaster”.
The Humboldt expert Bénèdicte Savoy has left the Advisory Council with poise saying: “The Humboldt Forum is like Chernobyl.” Harsh words. Monika Grütters, Cultural Affairs Minister of State to the Federal Chancellor, sees the matter positively. The Humboldt Forum functions as a catalyst for overdue debates and structural reforms, just as it was always hoped for. “The Humboldt Forum has become a huge projection screen, on which numerous discourses focus”, writes Horst Bredekamp, one of the three founding directors, in the new edition of the newspaper “DIE ZEIT”.
Looted art will not cause the Humboldt Forum to fail.
Germany’s largest and, indeed, the greatest cultural project seems to be shrinking under the immense pressure of expectations. We thus read that it will be gradually opened, starting in autumn/winter 2019. Everything else would be too overwhelming for the public, is the strange argument. Or is there another reason for not presenting the whole thing at once? Are there any major problems concealed?
Berlin suffers from the traumata of the new airport and the State Opera House Unter den Linden. This time, there should be no significant delay and increase in price. And these goals seem to subordinate everything else, including the success of the new institution.
The question of provenance cannot be the reason when the Humboldt Forum extends its time planning. These researches are lengthy, and, to our surprise, they have just begun. Relevant positions must be established anew. Neil MacGregor, the chieftain of the three founding directors, presented with his exhibition “Germany. Memories of a Nation” a first-class testimony of the processing of Germany’s past, with its dictatorships and war crimes. This show at London’s British Museum was crucial for MacGregor’s appointment to Berlin. Looted art will not cause the Humboldt Forum to fail. For it is one of its tasks to explore in an open process these complex issues. It would be inconceivable to neglect one’s own history behind the historicizing façade.
The best thing would be to have Christo pack the building.
The Berlin façade of the palace is not God given, the best thing would be to have Christo pack the building, as he did with the Reichstag building, at a time when there was a peaceful uplifting mood in the city, with optimism and a sense of community. This is how the designers of Hybrid Space Lab Berlin also think. They have designed a tropical garden for the Humboldt boxlike building, with mighty greenery and water cascades. They call it “Humboldt Jungle” and “Humboldt Volcano” – a reference to the travels of Alexander von Humboldt in Latin America. Everything flows. The designs remind of the green enchanted Musée du Quai Branly. Jean Nouvel is the architect of this museum complex for indigenous art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, opened in Paris in 2006. France had the courage for contemporary architecture.
The exterior, which threatens to fail, can be changed and loosened up. This also applies to the interior. There have been bad compromises in the planning of the Forum’s levels. There is a shortage of space. The new presentation of the Dahlemer collections, a generous entrance area, spaces for events, the Humboldt University’s science laboratory and room for special and temporary exhibitions, all push into the Forum. In addition, the Berlin space: 4000 square meters on the first floor are dedicated to a representation of the history of the city in its relationship to the world. Why this?
Does the Louvre have a ‘Paris-Window’, the British Museum a ‘London-Show’?
Originally, the Berlin Central State Library was to be integrated into the Humboldt Forum. This idea was wisely dropped. Now the founding directors, the Minister of Cultural Affairs and the Berlin Senator for Culture should have the courage to give up the Berlin show in the Humboldt Forum. The plans for this exhibition are being developed by the City Museum Foundation and its director Paul Spies together with Kulturprojekte GmbH. But why this location?
Does the Louvre have a ‘Paris-Window’, the British Museum a ‘London-Show’? Only Berlin has to permanently beg for and reassure itself concerning its condition as a world city. As if the Humboldt project was not convincing enough.
Berlin’s cultural history in the Humboldt Forum? This could only be focused on Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt and progressive Prussia. However, this is not foreseen. The Berlin show wants to present itself under vague terms such as “revolution, fashion, migration, war, open spaces, borders, pleasure and world-thinking” in an “own experience world”. This it to come, if not decided otherwise: Here Berlin, and there the collections. No continuous presentation and aesthetics, no integrated responsibility. Already, the entire Humboldt Forum project suffers from a confusion of competences – a giant animal with many heads and feet.
It does not need to be done, just because it was once planned this way. With the Märkisches Museum still to be renovated, the Nikolaikirche, the Ephraimpalais and the Knoblauchhaus, the City Museum Foundation has already a prominent presence in the centre of the city. All these venues need to be curated and maintained with a high level of quality.
In one go 4000 square meters would be free.
One gets the impression that the red-red-green Senate would not be so sad at all, would it come to a rescheduling without the Berlin show. Therefore the silence. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, headed by President Hermann Parzinger, who is also one of the founding directors of the Humboldt Forum, is certainly looking forward to such a solution.
If Berlin lets go, the federal government would have to take over the Berlin state’s share of the Humboldt Forum, at least 32 out of a total of around 600 million euros. In one go 4000 square meters would be free. They are desperately needed by the Prussian Foundation, which provides the collections for the Humboldt Forum. There is again a question of legitimation. With this gained space the Humboldt Forum could become more flexible, and perhaps also set up an exhibition focusing on the provenance of the artifacts. In the newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” Bénèdicte Savoy calls for spaces “to support the interlinking of science and research. Why not have school classes have their regular classes here?”
There are other ways to fill the Berlin show spaces in a much more sensible way than previously planned. The Dahlem collections are moving into the Humboldt Forum. But not in their total. The Museum of European Cultures remains behind. There is not enough space for it in the Berlin city centre. Around 280,000 objects are included in its collection, in which German and European cultural history is viewed ethnologically. Naive art, religious artefacts, everyday objects from our regions: Here is the decisive point.
The time after the inauguration has already begun.
With the Museum of European Cultures in the Humboldt Forum, at the Museumsinsel, the great circle of cultures would close and explain itself. The visitor, wherever she comes from, from Bamberg, Burkina Faso, or Brazil, would look at our world in a similar way she looks at an “Amazon module” or African seating furniture. Alexander von Humboldt knew that things are not comparable but connected. What a tremendous profit, if in the Humboldt Forum the former colonial powers were examined for rites and customs in the same way as colonialized people are usually treated in museums. The traditional western distinction between art and objects of use, sacred and profane objects, is anyway questionable. In the long run, the geographical boundaries of the colonial period are dissolving. They anyway contradict Humboldt’s thinking.
If the Berlin exhibition was renounced in favour of the Museum of European Cultures. This would enable to develop a well-conceived whole. This is of great importance for the future director of the Humboldt Forum. The search for the new director has already started. She will take over after the opening, as Neil MacGregor then leaves. But the time after the inauguration has already begun, as the course is being set now. But there is still a problem: the 4000 square meters of the Berlin show are not designed to accommodate museum objects. The conversion would require structural changes and increase costs. If you want to tackle this, then now. Correcting mistakes later would be even more expensive and frustrating. And we already had that.