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Humboldt Forum faces new criticism

Stefan Dege
June 1, 2021

The Humboldt Forum on the banks of the Spree River is scheduled to open its doors this summer. But there are mounting problems as the countdown nears. Will the opening be postponed?

Deutschland | Eröffnung Humboldt Forum in Berlin
Image: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture-alliance

Germany's State Minister of Culture Monika Grütters once referred to the new Prussian-style palace rising on the banks of the Spree Island as the "most ambitious cultural project in our country."

Mired in controversy from the start, the resurrection of the former Hohenzollern palace has indeed been a struggle for both the capital Berlin and the reunified German Federal Republic that has largely funded it. 

The GDR had blown up the original building in 1950 after it had suffered considerable damage during World War II. The East German regime then erected the Palace of the Republic in its place, which served as the communist nation's parliament until 1990 — and remained there in its asbestos-ridden form for nearly 20 years after the Wall fell.

'Museum of the world' postponed — again?

The new edifice replacing it was intended be no less than a museum of the world, designed to open up a dialogue between cultures. It was due to open its doors in just a few weeks time. But complications and delays seem to be mounting. 

Serious technical deficiencies have come to light in recent days. The German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported a list of construction defects that have not yet been rectified, quoting a letter penned by Hans-Dieter Hegner, the board member responsible for construction oversight.

According to the letter, the lack of an overarching security system for the building's IT infrastructure means attacks by hackers will be more likely.

With the Humboldt Forum Foundation unable "to guarantee secure operations," Hegner spoke of a "risk for the cultural assets and the visitors alike." 

Could the opening, which had to be postponed several times — partly due to the pandemic — now be delayed once more?

Allegations of harassment

But that's not all.

In the second week of June 2021, the courtyard with restaurants and shops were set to open. However, visitor service workers who will be vital to the operation have made some serious accusations against the management team recently.

The weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, in a collaboration with the TV magazine Frontal 21, reported that many employees feel they had been treated poorly in an atmosphere marked by deliberate humiliation and surveillance.

Of 75 people hired in November last year to work at the 44,000-square-meter complex, 28 have since left the company. While several were dismissed, others said they left of their own accord because they could no longer stand the pressure.

According to the daily Tagesspiegel newspaper, the Humboldt Forum Service GmbH, the company managing service workers for the Humboldt Forum Foundation, has allegedly kept "unacceptable and easily accessible lists" of employees of the visitor service. The lists are said to contain "private health details ranging from sleep disorders to psychotherapy."

The Humboldt Forum claims to have only learned of the allegations via the media, but the managing director in charge has been "relieved of her duties until the incidents have been clarified," said a statement.

a modernist building by a river with a church in the background
The more modernist Humboldt Forum wing of the palace contrasts with the revived Prussian styling of the main palace Image: SHF/Christoph Musiol

Slow progress at Humboldt Forum

Designed by Italian architect Franco Stella, the modernist  Humboldt Forum wing of the Berlin Palace houses two museums of the the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz), the state of Berlin and Humboldt University.

The center for culture, art and science is to host exhibitions featuring artifacts from Asia, Africa, America and Oceania — among them, controversial 'looted' colonial objects that are subject of restitution debates — as well as Berlin historical items.

However, it may be some time before the first visitors finally stream through the building.

The riverside walkway, the Spree terraces, the grove of trees and the Spree balcony are all now visible to the public, while the construction fences were removed in mid-December. The exhibition rooms, however, remain closed for the time being — chiefly due to the pandemic.

But visitors can already visit the Humboldt Forum virtually. Since December, digital content has been available on the project's website — including virtual tours as well as short films and discussion forums. Among other things, you can learn more about the itinerant Alexander von Humboldt, who gave the Forum its name, the state of provenance research in Germany, or how the country is dealing with its colonial history.

Now all that remains is for visitors to finally see the 'most ambitious cultural project in our country' up close.

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