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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin

What is the Humboldt Forum?

The Humboldt Forum is a museum of non-European ethnographic collections located in the rebuilt 15th-century Berlin Palace.

Humboldt Forum

Humboldt Forum History

The Humboldt Forum was conceived as the German equivalent of the British Museum, which also displays a vast array of non-European ethnographic collections. And like the British Museum, the Humboldt Forum is at the centre of an international debate about the repatriation of colonial loot. Germany has faced up to the darkness of its past more than any other European nation. But gaps remain, perhaps overshadowed by the singular horror of the Nazi regime. In recent years, some Germans have started to look further back, to the country’s colonial past. They argue that Germany has done little to acknowledge and atone for the oppressive regime it instantiated in its 19th-century colonies. One way of redressing the balance is to return precious ethnographic objects which were looted from occupied nations in Africa and the Pacific. In 2021, the Humboldt Forum agreed to repatriate many such objects.

The Forum’s distinctive building is a partial reconstruction of the Berliner Schloss (or Berlin Palace), which was built on this site in the mid-15th century. Originally a medieval fortress, it became the residence of the Hohenzollern dynasty, which ruled Brandenburg and Prussia on behalf of the Holy Roman Empire for many centuries.

At the turn of the 18th century the first Hohenzollern king, Frederick I, renovated his new residence. Frederick had inherited the titles of Duke of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg, but what he really wanted was to be a monarch. The Holy Roman Emperor agreed to let Frederick become a king, on the condition that he would be the King in Prussia rather than the King of Prussia, so as not to undermine the emperor. Frederick wanted a new palace to go with his shiny new title. He appointed the architect and artist Andreas Schlüter to unify the patchwork medieval and Renaissance palace that he’d inherited from his forbears. Schlüter created an architecturally coherent royal residence which embodied the Baroque ideals of symmetry and grandeur. In the new museum building, Schlüter’s ornate and handsome façade has been recreated.

The palace sustained serious fire damage in the Second World War. The East German authorities weren’t interested in restoring what they considered to be a symbol of Prussian imperialism – nominally the antithesis of everything East Germany and its Soviet overlords stood for – so in 1950 its remains were demolished, even though the walls of the palace were structurally sound. Schlüter’s palace was replaced by what is widely considered to be one of the ugliest public buildings of all time: the Modernist East German Palace of the Republic. Not only an eyesore, it threatened all aspects of the body: after German reunification and several years of debate, the communist palace, with its brown mirrored glass exterior and 5,000 tonnes of toxic asbestos, was itself demolished in the interest of public safety.

Reconstruction began in 2013 and just about every aspect has been hotly contested. Should it take place at all? What form should it take? What exactly should the new palace house? Should a golden cross sit atop the new dome as it did the old one? To the opponents of reconstruction, the project symbolised Prussian militarism and a dangerous resurgent nationalism, leading one critic to say that this was an attempt to ‘resurrect an idealised Germany of 1914’. However, the proponents countered that the project would restore a degree of cohesion to Berlin’s historic core.

The Humboldt Forum will no doubt be popular with both travellers and locals over the coming years. But as Germany enters negotiations with various countries with a view to repatriating its items, the very existence of ethnographic collections is being called into question. Will this new building, once again, have to be repurposed?

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