The Cross @ Humboldt Forum

Professor Sharon Macdonald, Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Social Anthropology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, refers to Humboldt Jungle as an example and an inspiration for the creative appropriation and transformation of the Humboldt Forum.

Article,  Professor Sharon Macdonald, Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Social Anthropology @ Humboldt Forum, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Institute of European Ethnology, Berlin, 15 June 2020


The cross is there. So what now? One of the most remarkable things about the Humboldt Forum is how its very coming-into-being has galvanised public debate about how Germany should relate to its problematic pasts – especially colonial and GDR – and to cultural diversity. The fact that people have got cross about the Humboldt Forum is perhaps what is most socially valuable about it. The key questions then are: How to tap into the public hunger for debate? How to make sure that the energy and engagement generated are not stifled by tired platitudes about Christian niceness or untenable claims of authenticity? How to ensure that the Humboldt Forum remains – or becomes even more effective as – a spur to reflection and future action?

I take inspiration from the Fourth Plinth initiative in Trafalgar Square, London. Each year, an artist creates a work for the empty plinth. These are often brilliant – playing insightfully with the plinth’s form, historical and locational symbolism. It is always exciting to see what will happen next. And it always catches attention – not only from the media but also from the many visitors who pass by. In some ways, it acts as a kind of cultural weather vane, referencing concerns of the moment. The cross on the Humboldt Forum could operate likewise. Indeed, it might be repurposed to literally, as well as metaphorically, operate as a weather vane, responding to cross-currents of shifts in political and environmental climate. The designers and architects in the Matters of Activity research excellence cluster could, surely, contribute through their skills in the creation of clouds and bubbles (what better for corona times?), or self-generating structures that respond to the local conditions. Hybrid Space Lab’s designs for a greening of the Humboldt Forum as jungle, top the dome with a bird or gorilla. With just a little modification, the cross might function very readily as a bird feeder, or, should the pigeons become too much of a menace, perhaps as a scare-crow. It is, after all, shaped ready for a human body, having been designed as an instrument of bodily torture. Among many intelligent site-sensitive ideas, my artist colleague Tal Adler has already suggested that the cross might temporarily transformed into the finger of doubting Thomas – thus continuing the Christian iconography but highlighting also questions of the basis of belief, as well as being a neat gesture towards Lars Ø Ramberg’s Zweifel (Doubt)mounted on the Forum’s predecessor, the GDR Palace of the Republic in 2005, and proposed also for the current building (though remaining, I believe, in doubt).

My call, then, is for donors to support such an initiative to draw on the creativity and capacity for provocative engagement for which Berlin is so famous.



Professor Sharon Macdonald
Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Social Anthropology
Institute of European Ethnology
Director of CARMAH (Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage)
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

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