Humboldt Forum addresses colonial issue with new museums | Arts | DW

Even before it opened, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin has been rife with controversy for years. Beyond the public reaction linked to its construction costs of 680 million euros ($ 800 million), the cutting-edge museum is at the center of a debate around the objects of the colonial era filling its rooms. ‘exposure.

The conservation team’s efforts to tackle the thorny issue are evident as the Humboldt Forum now inaugurates two new chapters. The museum rooms display some 20,000 African and Asian objects, which were once kept at the Ethnological Museum and the Asian Art Museum in Berlin’s Dahlem district.

The new museums were presented to the press on Monday, ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony with Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media Monika Grütters and Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as guests of honor.

Focus on restitution

Keywords such as provenance research, digitization of the collection, transparency, cross-cultural projects and restitution were at the heart of the introductory speeches of the three directors of the institution: Hartmut Dorgerloh, Director-General of the Humboldt Forum; Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation; and Lars-Christian Koch, director of the Ethnological Museum and the Asian Art Museum.

Hartmut Dorgerloh and Hermann Parzinger during the presentation of the new rooms of the museum

Addressing the difficult history of exhibitions should not be seen as a burden, but rather as “a real opportunity for a new intercultural dialogue”, said Parzinger.

The museum is “fundamentally willing to return exhibits,” he added, citing among others the infamous Benin Bronzes, which will be returned in 2022 following a brief exhibition in Berlin next year.

Some of the pieces that are currently in the museum, Parzinger added, “may one day be able to no longer be here, but that is part of that process and the result of that process is precisely that museums will completely redefine themselves.”

This is apparently a change of tone on the part of the director, who previously preferred the term “circulation of objects” to their actual rendering.

A new team to drive progress

Additional permanent posts have also been created to continue this process. As the new head of cross-cultural cooperation, Andrea Scholz described her duty as “pushing the door further, even if that means the institution needs to be reformed a bit”.

'Mandu Yenu' throne of Cameroon displayed at the Humboldt Forum Berlin

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That responsibility, Scholz told DW, is shared with a new team of four provenance researchers. Created in November 2019, it is directed by researcher Christine Howald, who underlined during the press conference that, given the thousands of pieces in the collections, they have work to do for several lives.

Priority is however given to “objects from the context of German colonialism”, she said, “as well as culturally sensitive objects and human remains”.

A re-examination of colonialist perspectives

Among the efforts to address the history charged with collections is a free booklet that guides postcolonial provenance research related to the permanent exhibits of the New Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art.

Provenance information is also available via QR codes in the museum, and multimedia stations address the issue of colonialism for children.

The temporary exhibition that opens the new Ethnological Museum was also designed in response to constant criticism. It focuses on traces of colonization in the former German territories of Cameroon, Namibia and Oceania.

Entitled “Matter (s) of Perspective: An Overture”, the installation examines the ways of seeing that not only contributed to colonialism, but that still shape Western views today, citing sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book, White fragility: why it is so hard for white people to talk about racism (2018).

An installation with the quote I have a white frame of reference and a white worldview

First exhibit quotes “White Fragility”, a bestseller on race relations, as opening statement

Another temporary exhibition presents the results of a collaborative partnership between researchers in Berlin and the Museum Association of Namibia, on the Herero and Nama genocide. It includes work by internationally renowned Namibian fashion designer Cynthia Schimming.

Calls for “radical transparency”

But will the Humboldt Forum’s defensive efforts win over critics?

It was a topic of discussion at the Berlin International Literature Festival during a panel titled “Decolonizing Worlds: Loot, Booty, Art”, held on September 14th. It brought together German historian Götz Aly, Ghanaian curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim and French art historian Benedicte Savoy. .

Bénédicte Savoie

Leading the debate on renditions, Bénédicte Savoy is one of the most prominent critics of the Humboldt Forum

Savoy, who resigned from an advisory board of the Humboldt Forum in 2017 at odds with the museum’s handling of colonial history, warned of the “false transparency” that can be read in the approach to the institution.

In her view, the museum’s attempts to be transparent, which came “only as a result of enormous public pressure”, are “really not enough,” she said. “It must be honest transparency.”

She cited as an example the euphemistic vocabulary used in the exhibition’s short 500-character labels, which primarily describe violent colonialists as collectors “serving” in the German military.

“It creates haze with words. It’s almost worse than having nothing at all,” she said.

The Luf Island boat

One of the ethnological museum’s most impressive exhibits is a 15.2-meter (50-foot) boat that was transported from Luf Island (part of present-day Papua New Guinea) to Berlin in 1904.

Historian Götz Aly examined how the boat landed in the Berlin museum. His book, Das Prachtboot (The Prestige Boat), describes the massacre of the German army on the island, which took place 20 years before the boat was acquired.

He said it was “unbelievably easy” to find information on Germany’s impact on the island, particularly in relation to his previous work, on the Nazi era, where documents were in great abundance. part destroyed. “It was precisely documented and the files are all there,” he told DW at the Berlin Literature Festival. “But no one was interested.”

Historical photo of the Isle of Luf boat, a man standing in the water beside it.

Several other boats on Luf Island were destroyed by German colonialists

Published in May, Aly’s research was another bombshell for the Humboldt Forum. During a press tour in June, the institution was criticized for not having addressed the violent colonial history linked to the boat which had been unearthed by the historian.

Meanwhile, the museum responded by sending a filmmaker, Martin Maden, to search for the remains of the culture decimated by the German colonialists.

Maden actually managed to track down the descendants of the people who built the Isle of Luf boat. For the moment, the successors do not reclaim the boat itself, for lack of means for its preservation and its exhibition, but they have expressed their interest in recovering their lost tradition: “The knowledge must be brought back to us”, says Stanley. Inum in the film this is part of the exhibition, adding that they plan to come to Berlin to examine the boat in order to build a new one.

Maden and Aly were both invited to discuss their findings on the Isle of Luf boat at the museum on October 20.

Acceptance of the paradigm shift?

There will always be room for improvement in what the museum has described as an “ongoing process”, but arriving researcher Christine Howald believes the “paradigm shift has now been absolutely accepted” within the institution.

“For curators, it’s clear, it’s not about preserving collections forever,” she told DW. “We want to return where we should be returning, and even in legitimate acquisitions where the items are simply culturally important to another company. There have been many steps in this direction.”

About Norma Wade

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