Home Historical art Berlin’s struggling Humboldt Forum has finally opened. Can he persuade his critics to give him a chance?

Berlin’s struggling Humboldt Forum has finally opened. Can he persuade his critics to give him a chance?



The long-awaited and much-criticized Humboldt Forum will finally open its doors to the public tomorrow in Berlin after years of delay.

The 680 million euros ($ 802 million) cultural institution will open with six shows this week, followed by a phased rollout of other exhibits in the fall and early next year.

Since its initially scheduled opening in December was effectively canceled due to the pandemic, the building has remained empty, except for curators working inside. The patio chairs that dot the main courtyard have done little to add warmth to the Franco Stella-designed building, which is both a plaster ode to the Prussian palace that once stood on the site before WWII, and a hyper-modern structure of cold concrete.

The opening of the most closely watched parts of the institution – the ethnological and Asian art collections – will open on September 22. Early next year, a temporary exhibition from the bronze collection of the Berlin State Museums in Benin, one of the largest in the world, will open, and Germany has pledged to begin restitution this that year in Nigeria. Other sections of exhibitions from these collections will open at the same time, including those related to South America, Islam and Southeast Asia.

View of the exhibition “Terrible beauty” © Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss / Photo: Alexander Schipel

Society and nature

For now, the building’s first and second floors will host large-scale public performances that address the intersection of society and nature. The building’s name comes from Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian-era scientist and naturalist who is said to have been one of the first to discuss human-induced climate change. (He was also an accomplice in the colonial-era expeditions where he conducted his research.)

Highlights of Humboldt’s inaugural program include “Terrible Beauty: Elephant. Human. Ivory ”, an exhibition that examines the history of the ivory trade and covers millennia of human fascination with the animal part.

“Ivory has a unique relationship with nature and culture,” said one of the exhibition’s co-curators, Alberto Saviello. “It is a symbol of purity, wealth and power, but also the ruthless exploitation of nature and humans.” The show brings out the global scale of the illicit industry. Historical artefacts like the earliest known mammoth sculpture, carved with mammoth tooth ivory, date back 40,000 years, a delicately carved jewelry box from 16th century Sri Lanka, and a crashed car from a mission to failed elephant rescue can be found in a red-space. Throughout the exhibition, you can hear the labored breathing of a dying elephant.

View of the exhibition “terrible beauty” © Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss / Photo: Alexander Schipel.

After all the criticism of how the objects arrived in Humboldt’s collections, the exhibit remains somewhat opaque on provenance. More often than not, details about the source of the objects are not included in the show’s many instruction panels; instead, they’re tucked away in red drawers that you have to pull out to read.

Despite its rugged exterior, the Humboldt Forum rests on increasingly fragile ethical ground. In the more than 10 years since his plans were drawn up, awareness of Europe’s long history of illicit acquisitions has shifted from university backwaters to news headlines.

One of the most captivating exhibits is the Humboldt Lab’s “After Nature” exhibit on the second floor, which takes a new, deconstructed take on a science show about how climate change and species extinction are linked. to democracy.

Kulturprojekte Berlin and Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin.  Photo: Alexandre Schipel.

Kulturprojekte Berlin and Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin. Photo: Alexandre Schipel.

Glass display cases hang from a grid metal rail in rows from the ceiling. The interactive exhibition is a kind of wunderkammer various articles which reconsider the inextricably linked political ideologies in scientific research. The curator of the exhibition, Johanna Stapelfeldt, described it as an act of “ambivalent remembering”.

Of course, even with the inaugural offer of ambitious exhibits, the institution continues to spark discussions about whether it should even exist. The parliament of the German Democratic Republic, the Palast der Republik, stood in the same location until 2006, when it was demolished to make way for what would become the Humboldt Forum. An exhibition in the cellar attempts to offer a reconciling perspective by showing the many manifestations of the site from the relics found in the excavations, illustrating how the place has an even longer history than the Prussian era. Through its rooms, small rooms of the Palast der Republik are suspended or appear on special screens. (A permanent video panorama from the chezweitz design office tells the story of the place more effectively.)

“I don’t think anyone would have demolished the Palast der Republik today,” said Alfred Hagemann, head of Humboldt’s “site history” department.

It is indeed encouraging to see the museum’s intellectual prowess finally working in concert with the building, but how well this will all play out given the challenges that remain in public opinion is an open question.

The Humboldt Forum in Berlin open July 20.

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