The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation runs Berlin museums — and one of the world's largest collection of exhibits. The film "Berlin's Treasure Trove," co-produced by DW, rbb and Arte, explores the foundation's work.
When you think of archaeology, what's the image that comes to your mind? Geeky researchers analyzing artifacts in museums' storage rooms or painstakingly excavating archaeological sites at the other end of the world? Or adventurous Indiana Jones types risking their life to obtain the rare art treasures of humanity?
The documentary "Berlin's Treasure Trove — The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation," initiated and co-produced by Deutsche Welle, shows that the reality of an archaeologist includes a bit of both these roles.
The title, "Berlin's Treasure Trove," is a well chosen one, as the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation maintains one of the world's largest collections. It includes more than five million objects in 19 museums, including the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery, top picture) and the Pergamon Museum.
"We can learn a lot about ourselves through museums, by understanding how and where our culture developed — in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe," said DW director Peter Limbourg on Tuesday evening at the premiere of the film in Berlin.
The foundation's exhibits range from artifacts of the Stone Age to contemporary art, which can be seen at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum.
The State Library, also managed by the foundation, is one of the largest in the world.
The foundation is also responsible for different archives and research institutes. In 2017, it had a budget of around €330 million (nearly $400 million).
Hermann Parzinger, president of the foundation, praised the film, pointing out that "It is important to provide insight into our work and to demonstrate that what happens in museums is tightly connected to current research."
Around the world for Berlin's treasures
For the documentary, director Dag Freyer accompanied people behind the scenes, watching specialists work in museums and traveling with archaeologists to China and with a curator to Cameroon.
The film quickly reveals these researchers' passion for their work. Dry historical facts are decrypted by connecting their origins to present-day contexts.
How precise were German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt's 19th-century records? Who first came up with the idea to write something down? Those are some of the questions the film answers.
Freyer found the idea of exploring the history of humanity through museum exhibits "sympathetically megalomaniac."
"We reflected on the questions that have always preoccupied humanity, whether philosophical ones or every-day concerns: Should we fear death? Do I look good today? How can we use our resources in a sustainable way?" explained the filmmaker.
A difficult issue: Germany's colonial legacy
Berlin's treasure trove is currently undergoing major changes with the upcoming Humboldt Forum museum in the Berlin City Palace, which is slated to open at the end of 2019.
Some museums are already preparing the relocation of their exhibits. While documenting the move, film director Freyer also discussed with different protagonists the provenance of these artifacts: How did Germany use its own power during the colonial era to enrich its collections — and how should the country deal with them today?
The debate as to whether the ownership of all objects is lawful will continue when the Humboldt Forum opens its doors.
Freyer also explored the debate surrounding the Royal Throne from Bamum while filming in Cameroon. "Such exhibits are always described as problematic, but they are actually powerful objects, as they provide an opportunity to create contacts with people from their countries of origin today. It is a great opportunity, as museums aim to act upon this issue," the filmmaker said.
Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation President Hermann Parzinger said he felt strongly about establishing cultural exchanges with the places of origin of the disputed objects: "We must explore how those objects landed into the collections. If they got into our museums by force, we should discuss their return."
When exhibits from the colonial era are put on display, the societies of origin should also be involved in the exhibition and present their views, "at the Humboldt Forum we will attach great importance to this," Parzinger added.
DW director Peter Limbourg is looking forward to the opening of Berlin's Humboldt Forum museum. "This will stimulate further reporting in our target regions," he said. While he describes the current process of determining the origin of cultural goods as an emotional debate on the one hand, "on the other hand it also leads to important cultural exchanges."
Diving into archaeology
The film does feature an Indiana Jones moment, when the president of the foundation, Hermann Parzinger, personally dives into the Tollense River in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania right by the site of Europe's oldest known battlefield to search for arrowheads from the Bronze Age. That wasn't however an everyday experience for Parzinger, as he admitted: "Diving is a hobby for me, but in warmer climates while on holiday — not in the freezing Tollense,"
"Berlin's Treasure Trove — The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation," co-produced by DW, rbb and Arte, celebrated its premiere in Berlin on Tuesday May 15 and will be screened in different cinemas throughout Germany starting May 17. The documentary will also air later on television.