‘Not an easily likeable object’: what the critics are saying about the Humboldt Forum

The ‘massive’ €800m museum complex is designed to house Berlin’s vast holdings of non-European art

The Humboldt Forum
The Humboldt Forum: an ethnographic museum for the 21st century
(Image credit: David von Becker)

After years of delay, one of Europe’s most ambitious and hotly debated cultural projects has at long last opened to the public, said Deutsche Welle.

Located in the centre of Berlin, on an island in the River Spree that was once home to both the Kaiser’s palace and East Germany’s parliament, the Humboldt Forum is a “massive” €800m state-of-the-art new museum complex. It is controversial mainly because it is designed to house the city’s vast holdings of non-European art; it is, essentially, an ethnographic museum for the 21st century.

While such institutions fell out of favour owing to their associations with colonialism, the Forum insists that its mission is in keeping with the exalted ideals of those it is named after, the Enlightenment polymaths Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt.

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Boasting a collection of 20,000 exhibits from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, and hosting six temporary exhibitions – from an exploration of the ivory trade to a show investigating the role that sitting down plays in different cultures – it is an ambitious attempt to bring a discredited, imperial-era tradition into the modern age.

Can it succeed? Reactions so far have “alternated between sharp criticism and indifference”, said Emily Pugh in The Architect’s Newspaper. The building itself is “not an easily likeable object”.

The Prussian royal palace’s historic baroque façade has been faithfully rebuilt, and merged with a modern interior by the Italian architect Franco Stella–“a crisp grid of finished concrete and recessed windows”. The result is a “muddled” marriage of old and new.

Its contents are treated rather more sensitively, said Abby Klinkenberg on Hyperallergic.com. The displays “meaningfully” engage with colonialism, race and climate change: one titled Berlin Global addresses the city’s historical and present-day standing in relation to the rest of the world, while a show called After Nature explores “the fraught relationship between humans and nature”, focusing on the links between global warming and politics.

Yet all this progressive rhetoric seems “disingenuous” when you consider the murky provenance of the Forum’s collection – some of which consists of colonial plunder. The Forum’s critics regard it as a “giant temple to the worst excesses of the German empire”, said Oliver Moody in The Times. But its curators, led by Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, have given a great deal of thought to the issue, and are “excruciatingly sensitive to the treacherous layers of history underfoot”.

Trigger warnings abound; indeed, one is even accompanied by its own separate trigger warning, advising anyone with “objections to the terms ‘white people’ and ‘black people’” to look away. And the shows themselves are great. The exhibition on ivory, Terrible Beauty, is “a corker”, filled with “heart-stopping exhibits” including the world’s oldest known piece of representational art, a 40,000-year-old sculpture of a mammoth no bigger than an apricot.

When its African collections – including some Benin Bronzes – open later this month, more controversy is guaranteed. Yet whatever ethical questions the Humboldt Forum raises, its thoughtful but “hostile cross-examination of history” is welcome. After all, “we’re hardly going to learn from the past if we don’t encounter it”.

Museum Island, Berlin, Germany (+49 30 99 211 89 89, humboldtforum.org). Now open

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