Greetings from Berlin IV

The Humboldt-Forum – A Promise already Broken

Some weeks ago I did research about the “Humboldt-Forum” – a huge museum complex which will be built in 2014 right in the centre of Berlin – for an article I wrote for a magazine. I was puzzled to find out that in spite of the explicit intention of the initiators of the project to bring together Europe (embodied in the museums on the “Museum Island” nearby) and extra-European cultures, the “Museum of European Cultures” will not move from the South-West of Berlin into the Forum. Only the “Ethnological Museum” and the “Museum for Asian Art”, situated also in the South-West, will move into the Forum, together with the collections of the Humboldt-University and selected departments of the “Central and Regional Library Berlin”.

I was not able to get a satisfying explication for the exclusion of the “Museum of European Cultures” which shall move in some years instead to the “Berlin Kulturforum” at the Potsdamer Platz. But still in my view this exclusion means a crucial logical error in the whole concept. Are European and non-European cultures not two sides of the same coin? And is this not just the statement the initiators of the Forum want to make?

Yesterday I visited thus the “Humboldt-Box”, an information centre which is placed right at the location the Forum will be built at. I was eager to find out more about the concept. I want to underline that in general I favour the idea of a forum in the heart of Berlin which demonstrates its cosmopolitanism. It is time for the South-Western museums to move as their buildings are ramshackle, and visitor numbers have declined immensely since the wall came down and tourists today are visiting mainly landmarks in the city core. But looking at the displays in the Humboldt-Box my irritation grew.

At first sight nothing was to criticise. All topics picked up somehow the relationships between Germany e.g. Europe and non-European countries. How Native Americans researched artifacts stemming from their culture in the “Ethnological Museum”, how Europeans had been fascinated by porcelain produced in China, how the age pyramid looks in Germany compared to that in Mali. An open storage contained masks from the South Pacific, because such sections will show in the future the abundance of the collections and shall demonstrate that displaying an artifact in a certain setting is just one possibility out of many. An African throne was accompanied by interviews with a historian, a curator and the grandson of the king who once had owned the throne, showing diverse perspectives on the same object. So far so good. But why then I still felt uneasy?

In terms of storytelling I would express it like this: even though it was a story about Europe and Non-Europe, and even though Non-Europeans were invited to contribute a commentary, the authorship and therefore the authority strictly remained European. And, second, the presentation of the displays was nice, but in my eyes its conventional manner is not adequately expressing the status of diverse cultures coming together in countless ways in our society today. Living in a multicultural city like Berlin can be exciting, it can hurt, it can be unsettling, it can be a question an answer is not yet found for. Consequently the presentation of the artifacts should be daring. Is there no German Fred Wilson in sight?

Including the “Museum of European Cultures” would demonstrate that all cultures are considered truly as equal which would enable a dialogue at eye level. Excluding it will in my opinion reduce all well-meant efforts to lip services.

But there is another logical error in the concept which bothers me. The Humboldt-Forum will be situated in a reconstruction of the Prussian castle which stood at this site for five centuries. This is due to the history of this highly political and conflictual project as first there was the wish to rebuild the castle (which was demolished in 1950 from the GDR-government) and then the idea was developed to move in the Extra-European collections. But how comprehensible this will be for a visitor, let’s say, from Kenya intending to look at artefacts from Africa, finding them wrapped in a building looking like a Prussian castle? I imagine myself standing in front of a museum about the French-German relationships in Paris which’ façade is decorated with a huge picture of Napoleon. Well…

I am realistic. The castle will be built, the architect is chosen, the design accepted. All the more it will be important that this golden cage will present the objects not as tame creatures but as wild animals, restless and in motion.


J said…
Great metaphor, Ariane. From my reading (I don't speak German, so I am referring to German scholars writing in English or in translation to English) I get the sense that German museology and art theory/history has not moved on much from the classical empirical episteme, and so the constructivist theories you would like to see are not present yet in Berlin. But that is why you are doing a PhD - to bring new perspectives to the field!
Ariane said…
Yes, I fear your are right. I think that one reason is the German Angst not to be serious enough. But there are of course some courageous and innovative curators like those in the "Museum of Things" I wrote about here some time ago. So I will look out for more examples... Ariane Holmes ;-)

Popular Posts