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Is the Humboldt Forum shying away from colonial history?

Gero Schließ ct
August 14, 2017

Bloody art? Some of the objects to be shown at Berlin's Humboldt Forum museum complex were unethically acquired during the colonial era. Critics say the institution isn't doing enough to dig into Germany's colonial past.

Panorama picture of Berlin City 'Palace under construction
Image: picture alliance/dpa/360-Berlin

"The largest and most ambitious cultural project in Germany," is how Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters has referred to Berlin's Humboldt Forum. It is meant to be a place for understanding the world. Yet at the moment, the creators of the Humboldt Forum seem to fall short when it comes to showing understanding for the world - at least the world beyond Europe -, in the eyes of an increasing number of critics.

Dealing with Germany's colonial past

TV tower reflected in puddle by Humboldt Forum
The Humboldt Forum has become a political construction siteImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kembowski

The large-scale museum project, which is overseen by the ministry of culture and has received a great deal of international attention, has landed in troubled waters. Unlike other model projects, such as the Berlin State Opera house on the Unter den Linden boulevard or the expansion of the Pergamon Museum, the criticism here does not center on exploding costs or construction delays.

The situation is far more serious, with the Humboldt Forum facing accusations of grave political shortcomings and a lack of transparency concerning Germany's colonial history.

The Hamburg-based expert on colonialism, Jürgen Zimmerer, recently wrote in the German faily Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung that those responsible for the Humboldt Forum had no idea how to approach the core issue of colonialism in the project.

Zimmerer insinuated that the organizers suffer from "colonial amnesia" and don't recognize the far-reaching consequences of that era, which took place from 1884 to 1918. 

Read more: Why a German museum is exploring its colonial past

Call for more provenience research

Along with religion and migration, the history of colonialism is to be one of the main subjects of the museum complex, according to the plans drawn up by the Humboldt Forum's three founding directors, Neil MacGregor, Hermann Parzinger and Horst Bredekamp.

Art and culture from non-European regions are to be the focus of upcoming exhibitions, based on the existing collections from the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum for Asian Art.

Critics including the activist collective No Humboldt 21 rejected the plans early on, pointing out that many of the historical objects from the collections may have been illegally acquired during the colonial days of the German Empire and that of other European nations.

Historian Christian Kopp, a member of No Humboldt 21, which comprises 88 immigration-related groups, told DW that the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, an umbrella organization that oversees Berlin's museums, has not seriously looked into the objects' origins. The foundation has not provide adequate funding for the necessary provenience research, he added.

How much research is necessary? 

"Whoever has 600 million euros for a palace, cannot argue that there is not enough money for provenience research," said Kopp, referring to the Berlin City Palace, which is currently undergoing renovation to house the Humboldt Forum. 

Read more: Berlin squabbles over cross on City Palace reconstruction

Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, told DW that the provenience research done by his organization is not generally funded on a project-basis by third-party donors.

"We need more funding to expand our research," he said. Parzinger pointed out one exception: a privately funded pilot project to look into the provenience of objects from Tanzania. But, he says, it is not possible to conduct a "global search for archival material that takes the oral traditions of the cultures of origin into account" before the Humboldt Forum opens in 2019.

Hermann Parzinger
Hermann Parzinger is a founding co-director of the Humboldt ForumImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Brakemeier

That, however, is exactly what renowned art historian Bénédicte Savoy called for in a recently published opinion piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "I want to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork," she wrote. "Without this research, no Humboldt Forum and no Ethnological Museum should open."

In July, Savoy resigned from her position on the board of experts at the Humboldt Forum in protest, unleashing a scandal.

Christian Kopp does not go as far as Savoy in saying that only works whose origins have been thoroughly clarified should be on display. Instead, he said the Humboldt Forum should lead a serious dialogue with the societies from which the artworks stem that goes beyond offering individual representatives patronizing invitations to Berlin.

"If an understanding has been reached and those affected are in agreement, why should we be against it" and still not show the artwork, Kopp told DW.

Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation President Parzinger has said that they are involved in ongoing dialogue with representatives of the communities of origin. Yet two years ahead of the Humboldt Forum's opening, not a single agreement has been made known.

Future exhibitions aside, mutual agreements regarding research on the human remains from East Africa that have found their way into the possession of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation should also be reached, maintain experts.

Read more: Germany to return skulls of colonial victims in Namibia

Political implications unrecognized

In the eyes of the critics, the half-hearted proveniance research being conducted signifies a lack of interest in seriously tackling Germany's colonial history altogether.

"The conflict over Germany's colonial legacy is one of the central identity debates of our present era," wrote Jürgen Zimmerer in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

For two years, Germany has grappled publicly with finding the right response to the genocide of the Herero and Nama tribes in contemporary Namibia, he added. "Now the Humboldt Forum has entered into the debate with the objects from that era."

Read more: German apology about colonial-era genocide in Namibia likely to be delayed

Skull said to be from victim of Namibian genocide
In the meantime, the remains of a victim of the Herero and Nama genocide have been returned to NamibiaImage: Imago/epd

Zimmerer sees Germany losing face in that debate, and it is questionable as to whether all those involved in the Humboldt Forum project have recognized its political implications.

Some, such as founding co-director Horst Bredekamp, seem to want to downplay Germany's colonial legacy in the Humboldt Forum. In response to Bénédict Savoy's criticism, he said that the Berlin collection traces 460 years of history and Germany's colonial empire "only" comprised 34 of those. In a radio interview he said, "It is playing a game to put colonial history in the spotlight."

Parzinger, however, vehemently disagreed. "Of course dealing with colonial times is not a game," he told DW.

Still, Bredekamp ruffled a lot of feathers with his comments. Experts fully agree that Germany's colonial era has to be viewed in the context of Europe's 500-year colonial history. For example: The institution's namesake, geographer, explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, collected countless valuable objects in the Spanish empire which he "did not fairly pay for," said historian Christian Kopp.

Herero survivors after their flight through the desert
Herero survivors after their flight through the desertImage: public domain

A heavy burden before the launch

Bredekamp's statement sounds like an unwillingness to engange in a discussion at a time when many experts have been pleading for an open dialogue over Germany's colonial history. Not only those impacted by the genocide against the Herero and Nama see a link to the Humboldt Forum - and the debate is picking up steam. 

For critics like historian Christian Kopp, it is high time. Other institutions are pursuing an honest debate over Germany's colonial era, including the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences, which has started a web-based portal dealing with the issue. And No Humboldt 21 has invited researchers from Tanzania, Namibia, Australia and Germany to a conference in October addressing Prussia's colonial legacy.

The Humboldt Forum has yet to present similar initiatives. If that does not change, the colonial history of Germany could become a heavy burden for Germany's "most ambitious cultural project."