Humboldt facade
Humboldt Forum facade in Berlin. Photo: Alexander Schippel / Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss

In 2021, the city of Berlin gained a new space for debate on culture, which also brought enormous historical responsibility and present demands: the current Humboldt Forum, built on the site of the former Palace of the Republic (1976-2003), previously occupied by the Berliner Palace (1443-1950). It is a place that, due to its political, geographical and symbolic centrality, has long reflected the German identity. Today the museum and its exhibition spaces are synchronized using the collections of the Berlin State Museums (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz), in partnership also with the Cultural Projects Berlin (Kulturprojekte Berlin) and the of the City of Berlin (Stadtmuseum Berlin).

After serious damage suffered during the Second World War (1939-1945), the Berliner Palace was demolished to make room for a new building that would indicate the rebirth in a new era, and not just in architectural assumptions. The Palace of the Republic, designed by Heinz Graffunder and his team of architects, Karl-Ernst Swora, Wolf-Rüdiger Eisentraut, Günter Kunert, Manfred Prasser and Heinz Aust, was built in 1976 and operated until 1990, when it was discontinued. due to the use of asbestos in the fire insulation system. The building continued to function partially and be inhabited upon approval on special occasions, and after 2004 it gave space to an intermediate project for the creation of cultural events under the name of Palácio do Povo (Volkspalast), until it was demolished in 2006. In 2000, at the However, a commission had already been formed to examine the future use of the space in a new phase and in 2002 the project to retake the baroque facade of the former Berliner Palace was approved – the building would now be inhabited by the previously listed collections. After so many changes and a project that extended and cost more than anyone had imagined, totaling more than 600 million Euros, the Humboldt Forum is the most expensive cultural building in German history. The Berliner Palace, which had its facade redesigned in Baroque style by the German architect Andreas Schlüter in the 17th century, received a new reading from the Italian Franco Stella, winner of the competition for the design of the new building, and was reopened in 2021 for visitation with an area exhibition area of ​​approximately 28 thousand square meters.

One of the current objectives of the institution is of significant difficulty: to house the “ethnographic” art collections[1] acquired during the German colonial past between 1885, with the Berlin Conference[2], until the present, and to position itself critically through the objects of material culture displayed. This premise, together with the retaking of the facade of the Berliner Palace, opened up great resistance and protests from the artistic and cultural community – essentially cosmopolitan and pluricultural in Berlin. The long-term exhibition that opens the building to the public is entitled Ethnological Museum and Museum for Asian Art (in free translation from German), show divided into several segments.

As if the strong gesture – quite anachronistic – of bringing the baroque facade of the German imperial period into contemporaneity, the exhibitions, in an attempt to instruct and educate the public in Berlin, actively express the desire to correspond to the interests of the European country were not enough. . Two-thirds of the objects in the German ethnographic collection come from colonial times and were collected with the “intention of having basic material for future research”. However, even if the storage of these objects is quite laborious and requires extensive funding, and even if research on their provenance is encouraged by the Humboldt Forum in partnership with institutions and researchers in their areas of the place of production of these objects, bringing them to the European museological context, ignoring their additional qualities, which go beyond their aesthetic weight, contributes to the current social complexity of the countries from which they were taken. The context and original provenance of the objects are ignored to consider only their usefulness to the foreign culture that shelters them, as can be read in some of the texts of the exhibition: “The selection of the exhibited objects does not intend to define, homogenize or delimit the cultures . It does not offer an overview of cultural history, but reflects European and German interests, aesthetic leanings and scientific orientations in the past and present.”[3].

The exposure a matter of perspective (free translation), which welcomes visitors to the Ethnological Museum, is quite interesting precisely because it deals with files and not with objects. With several axes, it offers a reconstitution of the past c German in the 19th century, including East Germany's relationship with its colonies through native accounts and features miniatures depicting the occupiers through local eyes[4]. In the image, text and video exhibition complex, the autonomous visitor has to physically engage to discover information and photos and thus reconstitute, or “reveal”, the colonial dynamics. It is clear that colonialism is a tactic of dominance that considers only physical space, while ignoring the social and cultural spaces previously cultivated in the place of occupation. For example, one of the photos shows the Women's School of the German Colonial Federation (an official organization of the German state), which aimed to “treat the German family spirit and its kind” by bringing women to the colonies so that the soldiers and occupiers Germans do not marry African women[5].

Throne "Mandu Yenu" (Cameroon, before 1885) in the "Colonial Tangles" module of the Humboldt Forum
Throne “Mandu Yenu” (Cameroon, before 1885) in the module “Colonial Tangles” of the Humboldt Forum. Photo: Alexander Schippel / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss

Another example that stands out for the absence of contact between colonizer and colonized was the Gauturnfest 1939 in Lüderitzbucht (Namibia), which took young Germans to compete in the colony, where they remained isolated from the locals during the tournament. on the axis Life Between Cultures the story of young Namibians, children of exiles and refugees who were raised in East Germany during the Namibian War of Independence (1966-1990) between 1975 and 1990 is addressed. Europe at the Berlin Conference (1884-1885). Later, with the end of the war, young Namibians were repatriated by the independent State of Namibia, which caused a significant culture shock.

African objects

After the relativization of perspectives indicated by the previous exhibition structure, the next cycle within the exhibition is the Africa Open Warehouse, which reproduces the way in which the collection is stored, displaying the objects in showcases, accompanied by their identification numbers. There are weapons, knives, swords, ivory ornaments, earrings, bracelets, representations of spirits and statues of political significance representing rulers of various sizes, musical instruments such as drums and wind instruments. Wood and metal, ropes, shells and ivory are the main materials, carved and composed with remarkable technique. It is evident that the removal of these objects from their places of origin is primarily a deviation from the work, not only of the makers of the objects, but also of an entire people who passed their knowledge of work from generation to generation through a hereditary education system. or from tutor to pupil. The objects accumulated here come from several expeditions to African territory at the end of the 19th century and their exhibition in Europe directly influenced modern art.[6]. These expeditions were led by officers from colonial Germany such as Hans Glauning, who died on one of his expeditions in Cameroon.

Cameroon's relationship with Germany is brought into focus in the next exhibition segment, through hand-carved doorframes, sculptures of different sizes, paraphernalia, benches, ornate masks and other historical objects. Most of the items denote the degree of importance of their holders in Cameroonian society at the beginning of the last century, in addition to adorning the character of the person who owned them. These objects, charged with social and spiritual agency, also had political purpose and effect. A prime example of this is the King Tufoyn's Commemorative Throne, of the Bekom people, dating from the 19th century and whose disappearance generated a state of emergency, since its presence was necessary so that power could be transferred to the next ruler of the hereditary matrix. The throne was acquired in 1906 by the German explorer Hans Gaspar Ganz zu Putzliz. To avoid a crisis in power and succession, King Yuh, Tufoyn's nephew and successor, ordered the creation of a new throne, nowadays considered to be original, while the one found in Europe was expropriated of its official character. The techniques of cultural domination motivated by foreign fetishism directly reflect on the political destabilization of the cultures they intended to dominate.

Oceania and the culture of the seas

The collection of material culture objects from the former colonies of Oceania is also part of the exhibition. A room was dedicated to house a collection of props and the last ship built by the inhabitants of Luf Island in Papua New Guinea in 1890 – as all others were destroyed in the war by the Germans. After the war, this last ship was purchased by a German trading company, which brought it to Berlin. The prohibition of free movement imposed by the occupiers on the people of Papua New Guinea also contributed to the extinction of boat building techniques that were of singular importance in the region's economy, as they were exchanged for other types of goods in a barter system. . The union between native peoples and nature is evident not only because of the direct relationship with the sea, understood as an extension of their territory as much as the soil, but also because they knew how to read it, finding paths through its currents and using its materials. The sea plays a central role in oral tradition and in the connection with gods and ancestors. The alienation of the way of production of boats, in addition to the prohibition of locomotion, as well as the diseases brought by the Europeans and the destruction caused by the war, caused the autonomy of the Polynesian people to die completely. In Micronesia and Melanesia the knowledge of shipbuilding was also almost completely extinct. It is important to emphasize that the boat producer was also endowed with spiritual authority and, therefore, could perform rituals accessing supernatural powers, playing a central role in society. Currently the construction of boats is slowly taken up by the people of the Polynesian region through the model of this last boat that is in German possession.

In another room, the Oceania Open Warehouse, with several showcases that present the material culture coming from Oceania occupied by Germany. Here, too, it is a collection formed by several expeditions and in different regions. As in African societies, sculptures here had the power to organize society, signal gender-distinctive social functions, and motivate through common spirituality and rites of passage and celebrations. An example are the sculptures used in rituals malagan, which had different meanings and functions, being used for spiritual purposes such as connection with ancestors and also practical functions, such as the transmission of land rights.  As they are considered dangerous and powerful spirits, the sculptures were used only once and destroyed after the ritual. The collection and exhibition of these objects disregards and disrespects their conception and cultural function. Spiritual images called tikki, in the Marquesas Islands, had the characteristic of carrying a space with sacred properties where only the high priest could enter. This space and the rituals conducted there formed the center of spiritual life and the proximity to the tikki gifted to the priest mana. This supernatural energy gave them power that could be used for various purposes, such as ruining people or blessing people before a battle, which made them high-ranking leaders. Through the imposition of Christianity, today a religion that represents 90% of the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, several parts of the local tradition died. As in the former African colonies, the pattern of domination through the separation between a people and their objects of culture and worship was also present.

colonial times

This would be the ideal moment for countries that hold material cultural objects from other peoples and regions, such as Germany, to initiate a true ethical reparation from the cultural point of view in relation to countries that suffered the imposition of notably unilateral and extractive colonial relations. The current function could be classified as unethical, as Germany continues to benefit from these goods without really offering anything of equivalent value to the other countries of origin, whose absence of these objects has completely changed the self-perception of different cultures. It is an institution that minimizes the value of the objects it intends to safeguard, reducing their importance to the aesthetic value, and denies, in the macro-political scope, that these objects also bring other dimensions of power, so that the immediate return of these assets. The native peoples' lack of access to these objects not only contributes to a deficient sense of identity, but also allows the former occupier to control the history of formerly occupied countries. The Humboldt Forum is to Germany's former colonies what the Russian Hermitage museum is to Ukraine – objects were taken from the country by Nazi fighters and then returned to the Soviet Union after the end of World War II. By removing cultural symbols with different functions from their place of production, it seeks to keep other cultures subjugated through divisions in the social fabric, a colonial tactic that has as a final product the gain of time so that the ghost of fascism - which many countries have in its political dynamics and in the case of Germany it is active, even if it is a minority – take advantage if your project comes to fruition.


[1] Other institutions with the same type of collection, such as the Grassi Museum (Leipzig, Germany) have taken a critical position regarding the “ethnographic” classification, since this name produces comparisons between material cultural productions from different contexts.
[2] The Berlin conference divided Africa among the countries of Western Europe, generating its current territorial division, which disregards the different African peoples and cultures.
[3] trd. “Die Auswahl der Exponate erhebt nicht den Anspruch, Kulturen zu definieren, zu homoizieren, oder voneinander abzugrenzen. Sie bietet keinen Kulturgeschichten Überblick, aber sie spiegelt europäische und deutsche Interessen, ästhetische Neigungen und wissenschaftliche Ausrichtungen in der Vergangenheit und Gegenwart wieder”. (Humboldt Forum, 2022, our translation).
[4] The exhibition focuses on the relationship with the following countries: Cameroon, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, German-Samoa and Tanzania. However, Germany had many other colonies before World War I (1939-1945).
[5] trd. Den deutschen Familiengeist und die deutsche Art zu pflegen. (Humboldt Forum, 2022, our translation).
[6] One of the biggest commodities on the secondary market are the works of Pablo Picasso, who was a collector of African art.