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Berlin's Humboldt Forum launches

Philipp Jedicke
December 16, 2020

The debate around looted art has intensified just as Berlin's new museum opens. The museum has been criticized for the colonial-era African pieces in its collection.

The Humboldt Forum
The Humboldt ForumImage: SHF/Christoph Musiol

After years of preparation, a large-scale project finally comes to fruition. The Humboldt Forum, located in the reconstructed Berlin Palace, will open its doors on December 16 — virtually, of course, due to the current coronavirus lockdown effective in Germany.

The concept for the project goes as far back as the 1990s and was once described by the Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Monika Grütters, as the "largest cultural project in Europe." Nearly €680 million ($848 million) have been poured into the museum, which according to its own description aims to be "Berlin's newest landmark," and a hub for exchanges between the cultural and scientific realms.

The forum's ambitious program will consist of events and performances as well as the Humboldt Laboratory, a workshop that will present the public with research from working groups of various cultural and scientific institutions.

The Humboldt Forum will also host exhibitions related to the history of the site, Berlin and its role in the world. It will also have permanent exhibitions featuring the collections of the Museum of Asian Art and the Ethnological Museum.

Problematic origins

In 2021, the museum will unveil its ethnological collection in a series of large-scale exhibitions. The planned centerpiece will be the so-called Benin bronzes, which will be relocated from their current home, the Ethnological Museum in Berlin's southwest, to the Humboldt Forum, and thus to the heart of the capital.

While the move may sound harmless, the African statues have caused a stir in the days leading up to the big opening — and not for the first time.

The bronzes originate from the Kingdom of Benin, a highly-developed monarchy whose capital was located in the southwest of present-day Nigeria. In 1897, the Benin Empire had become too powerful for the British colonial powers to control, so they in turn reduced it to rubble with a punitive expedition, massacring residents. The British plundered Benin's royal palace, taking everything they could get their hands on. 

Three sculptures from Benin, including a bronze sculpture of a man's head
Bronze sculptures from Benin were plundered by British colonial forces and sold to German museumsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

Stolen history of a continent

In the years that followed, the bronze figures came into the possession of European museums via British auction houses and retailers. To this day, the major museums in London, Paris and Berlin compete to see who can display the most impressive treasures from the world's great cultures.

According to art experts, at least 80% of Africa's cultural heritage is in European museums, the majority of which are gathering dust in depots. Until the end of the colonial era, artistic treasures from the colonies were considered the natural property of colonial powers.

A photograph of Benedicte Savoy smiling
Benedicte Savoy, an expert on looted art Image: Thilo Rückeis/picture-alliance

Yet in recent decades, the tides have turned and former colonies are speaking out about the topic of looted art in attempts to reclaim their cultural heritage.

Renowned French art historian Benedicte Savoy is an expert on looted art and was a member of the Humboldt Forum's panel of international experts. In 2017, she left the panel after only two years, in part because the provenance research of the pieces planned for the exhibition was not progressing fast enough for her. She told Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper at the time, "I want to know how much blood is dripping from a work of art." And she added: "Without this research, no Humboldt Forum or ethnological museum should open."  

Savoy has repeatedly criticized provenance research by the Berlin-based Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which manages the ethnological collection, most recently in an interview with late-night talkshow host Jan Böhmermann on German TV station ZDF. 

When questioned by DW, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) responded via its press department that the origin "cannot yet be definitively traced" in "only a few works" of the approximately 530 objects from the Kingdom of Benin. The statement said that provenance research is one of the SPK's "daily tasks." 

Stolen Soul — Africa's Looted Art

According to the foundation's website, "Holdings with a particularly critical history (...) are researched as a matter of priority as much as possible." However, it has only been since the end of 2019 that the Forum has filled four full-time provenience research positions in the Ethnological and Asian collection. These four individuals are responsible for tracing the origins of  several thousand works of art

Colonialism expert Jürgen Zimmerer calls the fact that a state-of-the-art museum like the Humboldt Forum will now open with artworks whose provenance is still partly unclear an "embarrassment" and Tweeted that he would be "sitting it out."

In the meantime, politicians have also become involved.

Nigeria's Ambassador Yusuf Tuggar demanded the return of the bronze pieces in a letter to the German Foreign Office in August 2019. He repeated his demand in an official letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters on December 9, exactly one week before the opening of the Humboldt Forum.

For Berlin's Senator for Culture Klaus Lederer, the matter is clear: "If the Benin bronzes are reclaimed, then they must be returned," he told German newspaper Tagesspiegel, saying he felt there was "no doubt about it." 

The Foyer of the Humboldt Forum with a large work of art on the left side
It's uncertain when the new Humboldt Forum will be open to the public, due to the current coronavirus restrictionsImage: SHF/Alexander Schippel

Debate as an opportunity

The debate, which has been going on for several years and heated up shortly before the opening of the Humboldt Forum, is exemplary of the major issues surrounding looted art and restitution that museums are facing in the 21st century.

"The fact that (...) the debate about colonial contexts was fueled was overdue, and it's good that the Humboldt Forum is doing just that even before it opens," Monika Grütters told DW, adding, "From what I know, I'm very confident that we'll also find new perspectives on this difficult topic."

Benedicte Savoy, one of the harshest critics of the planned exhibition, also continues to believe in the "huge potential" of the Humboldt Forum, even in light of the debate — as long as the issues are put out in the open and taken seriously. 

The digital opening of the Humboldt Forum will take place on December 16 from 7 to 8 p.m. here.

This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.