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The Making of Berlin’s Humboldt-Forum: Negotiating History and the Cultural Politics of Place

by Friedrich von Bose
18 Nov 2013 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Afterlives [11] | Commons

After more than 15 years of intense public debate about the future of the Spree Island and the Palace Square (Schlossplatz) in Berlin, the German Bundestag decided in July 2002 for the much-contested reconstruction of the historical Prussian city palace. The palace, having served as the principal residence of Brandenburg margraves and electors and later of Prussian kings and the German Emperor, was partly demolished during WWII and subsequently, in 1950, blasted by the GDR government of Walter Ulbricht. In 1973, the Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik) was built on the eastern side of the Palace Square, housing the GDR People’s Parliament and serving as popular venue for cultural events after its inception in 1976. Importantly, the 2002 decision implied that the Palace of the Republic, one of the most important architectural monuments of the former GDR’s capital in the now unified Berlin, would be torn down. It was decided that it should give place to a new building in the cubature of the former city palace, including the reconstruction of its historical baroque facades on three sides of the building.[1]

Fig 1: The “Humboldt-Box”, bordering on the palace’s construction site, advertizes the future Humboldt-Forum © Bose.

The discussion about the Palace of the Republic’s demolition and the reconstruction of the city palace has been one of the most heated architectural debates of recent years both nationally and internationally. On a superficial level, it was a debate about aesthetics as well as deliberations of urban building in the capital’s centre of a unified Germany. However, as historian Alexander Schug among others has noted, it was also a conflict about the right way of dealing with GDR history, about “embedding new German lines of tradition in public memory”.[2] According to Beate Binder’s ethnographic study about the “city centre issue”, a recurring argument for the palace’s reconstruction was to re-establish the city ensemble’s “integrity”.[3] In this sense, the then-existing building ensemble with the Palace of the Republic on the Eastern side of the Palace Square was regarded as a break in continuity: “The history of the Historical Centre ‘ends’ with the war of bombs, and the GDR government has committed the error of ignoring history.”[4] Yet: “Who claims that with the reconstruction of the city palace the cityscape is being restored, either fully ignores the current ensemble – sees just an ‘empty square’ – or declassifies it as inferior, more precisely as insignificant, and puts it to free disposal.”[5]

The basis for the 2002 parliamentary decision was the final report of the International Expert Commission “Historische Mitte Berlin” (Historical Centre of Berlin).[6] The commission, installed in early 2001 to formulate advice about the future usage of the square,[7] adopted the proposal made earlier by the then-president of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, SPK),[8] Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, to move the “Dahlem Museums of non-European arts and cultures as public institutions to the historical centre”.[9] Initially, the commission followed Lehmann’s initiative, independently from the exact architectural composition to be decided upon and decided for the installation of the “Humboldt-Forum” as, so goes the rather vague initial characterization, a “place for dialogue, of civic participation and coequal contemporaneity of the world cultures”.[10] According to the expert commission, three institutions turned out to qualify best with regard to the historical location at Berlin’s Palace Square vis-à-vis Museum Island and Humboldt University and the content-related ideas for usage: the SPK with their Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art; the Central and Regional Library of Berlin as a broadly established and much frequented public institution; and the Humboldt University of Berlin with parts of its university collections. Regarding the two museums, the move of the “non-European”[11] collections would enable a juxtaposition between the arts of the European civilizations as represented on Museum Island, and their “non-European equivalent with the whole wealth of the Berlin collections of art from East Asia, India, Africa, pre-Columbian- and Mesoamerica as well as Oceania”.[12]

This concept stands in a close tradition to the 19th century idea of the Universal Museum: The endeavour to represent an encyclopaedic history of humankind by means of collecting, preserving and exhibiting its arts and cultures. As much as this idea is deeply rooted in a Western tradition of assessing the world through establishing taxonomies of its (artistic, culture-historical, ethnological etc.) artifacts, its implementation in 19th century Berlin has also been an important factor in the rivalry with other European metropolises, especially London and Paris.[13] The Universal Museum functions also as an important reference in current debates: The triangle of European high art (Museum Island), non-European arts and cultures (Humboldt-Forum) as well as of the sciences, represented by the scientific collections of Humboldt University, is not only said to resemble a unique “sanctuary for art and culture”,[14] but is last but not least regarded as an important selling point in the cultural landscape of European cities.[15] One important reason for both the museum and the university collections was the argument that they both have their origin in the “Kunstkammer”, which was located in the city palace. For the International Expert Commission, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt would be the references that best symbolize the “humanism, the great history of German and Berlin science, but also the fascination of the cultural remote”[16] that the Humboldt-Forum is meant to be standing for. The combination of the three respective institutions was regarded as strengthening this meaning.[17] Additionally, the “Agora” is planned as a space that will function as a “place for discussions where the major socio-political topics will be debated by an impressive array of speakers”, becoming “an integral part of our presentation of world cultures.”[18] According to Martin Heller, who has been in charge of the content for the Agora since 2010, it will be a space of contemporaneity that seeks to interact with the historical collections, covering the latest developments in contemporary art from Africa, America and Asia.[19]

The public debates regarding the plans for the Humboldt-Forum have been manifold and can barely be summarized in short. Artists, architects, city planners, museum representatives, cultural scientists and many others have expressed everything from skepticism to open contestation about the historico-political investment made by reconstructing the palace in its former cubature with the historical baroque facades.[20]

Fig. 2: A model of the castle at around 1900 inside the Humboldt-Box © Bose.

One recurring argument has been that a reconstruction of the palace would be a historically problematic gesture of identity politics towards an alleged 19th century Prussian glory. As noted by the architecture theoretician and an active participant in the debates from early on, Philipp Oswalt, the plea “Let’s give the city its identity back” made by one of the most outspoken proponents of the palace, Wilhelm von Boddien, establishes the time before 1918 as “the actual identity-establishing moment for Berlin”: “To build on the 19th century with the 21st and thereby erase the marks of the 20th century is an expression of a comprehensible – even if highly problematic – desire when considering German history.”[21] Even one of the expert commission members has explained his dissenting opinion with regard to the reconstruction along these lines: “The reconstruction of the former Prussian palace would (…) be a politically and historically wrong message.”[22] Artist and art historian Khadija Caroll La has argued that the “strategy of adaptive reuse has in many other cases proved to be a more successful subversion of previous programmes, yet this site on Museum Island, a palimpsest of German politics, will see the return of a phantom past.”[23]

In light of the many public criticisms, the expert commission’s advice to make the Palace Square a place for the “world cultures” has enabled the plan of reconstruction to gain great momentum. The idea to move the non-European collections into a reconstructed Prussian palace vis-à-vis the world famous site for the exhibition of the arts of European civilization, Museum Island, seems to have given the project its ultimate legitimization. However, the plan comes with its very own set of problems and only increases the problematics of investing in the reconstruction of a 19th century architectural ensemble. In the past years, ethnological museums have been subject to increased critical scrutiny by activists and scholars from a range of disciplines such as history and anthropology. As a result of these criticisms there has been much reflection in the field of museum studies, often followed by paradigmatic shifts in the museums themselves. How can we make sense of the making of the Humboldt-Forum in light of these developments? What are the historical narratives that made the collections qualify for the move to this symbolic place within the German capital? It is especially the ethnological collections that are the material reminders of the intertwinement between colonial structures of exchange and the ethnographic project around the turn of the previous century. How, then, are the recent discussions about colonial history, relevant to the planning of this “Grand Projet of the 21st century”[24] as they have finally, yet slowly become part of the public discourse in Germany? What cultural logic do we see at play when the idea of moving the non-European collections, as invoked so uncritically by many, nevertheless seems to give the palace its ultimate plausibility? As I will show with regard to the Berlin context, the planning of the Humboldt-Forum both resembles a broader trend of negotiating the current role of ethnological collections in Western museum institutions and follows a cultural-political logic quite specific to Berlin.[25]

The ‘cultures of the world’ in the centre of Berlin: Cosmopolitan place-making as narrativizing history

The Humboldt-Forum is intended to bring the arts and cultures of Asia, Africa, America, Australia and Oceania right into the heart of Berlin and form a central site for non-European cultures.[26]

Despite the diversity of the involved institutions to be moving to the Palace Square with their respective collections, aims and public functions, the public advertising statements are much focused on the non-European collections now exhibited in Berlin’s peripheral district of Dahlem. The above quote thereby reveals a problematic that is constitutive of the project as much as it is constitutive still to the majority of ethnographic museums up until today: we do find all continents represented except for Europe. ‘Cultures of the world’ is thus used to denote the non-European cultures, leaving out that part of the world, which traditionally has claimed to hold the definitional power over what ‘non-Western’ arts and cultures are or should be perceived to be. This not only equals a perpetuation of the fundamental division between Europe and its various ‘Others’, which has been an essential rationale in the history of ethnology and which has been widely critiqued both within and beyond the discipline;[27] it also reproduces the blind spot in the representation of the ‘Others’, which is constitutive to the history of ethnographic politics of display. Despite the assertion that the Humboldt-Forum, with its non-European historical collections, is aimed at completing the Museum Island as the world famous place for the arts of European civilization, the basic dividing line between the two is nevertheless being redrawn.[28]

Especially with regard to the ethnological collections, which comprise about 500,000 objects and constitute, by far, the larger part of the two Dahlem museums, there seems to be a further fundamental contradiction at play. On the one hand, they have been subject to numerous historical studies that have shown the colonial background of large parts of the collections: Especially after the beginning of Germany’s colonial rule in the African continent, which dates from the Berlin Africa Conference in 1884/85, the colonial infrastructure served as the very basis for amassing large parts of the present-day African collections. In this context, the Royal Museum of Ethnology in Berlin profited from a Federal Council resolution made in February 1889, after which the ethnographic collections gathered on government-financed expeditions had to be relinquished to the Berlin Museum.[29] Aside from the ethnologists themselves, collectors were all those who, to quote from a manual for collecting edited by the Royal Museum for Ethnology and issued several times between 1898 and 1914, “through their occupation as colonial officials and officers, as missionaries, merchants etc. are forced to live among natural peoples, and who have the priceless opportunity due to continuous contact to learn about customs, mindsets and lifestyle habits.”[30] Austrian anthropologist Felix von Luschan, who joined the Berlin museum in 1885 and later became director of the departments of Africa and Oceania, once talked about the museum as “the greatest monument to our colonial troops”.[31]

Adolf Bastian, the founder of the museum and the founding father of the discipline of ethnology in Germany, was internationally adored for his successes of acquiring objects.[32] However, in reducing the colonial implications of the history of ethnographic collecting and exhibiting to the complex and often violent practices of acquisition, one risks losing sight of an epistemic aspect: Even though ethnology stood in an uneasy relationship to the popular spectacles of live exhibits of people brought from the colonies, the “Völkerschauen”[33], its practices of knowledge production must nevertheless be seen as part of a regime of representation in which the cultures on display were constructed as constitutive ‘Other’ to the civilized, culturally advanced European ‘Self’. Exactly because of the ethnologists’ ongoing attempt to set themselves apart from the domain of popular culture by insisting on their empiricism that would follow natural scientific methods, their institution was a prominent, socially influential and, last but not least, politically well-supported locus for constructing knowledge about “natural peoples”.[34] It is last, but not least, the field of ethnological museums, where this history has been subjected to critical historical analysis. Christine Stelzig, formerly employed at the Berlin museum and now director of the ethnological museum in Munich, has concluded her historical study of the African Department at the Berlin institution stating that with regard to the institutionalized ethnological research on Africa, a detailed history about this early colonial knowledge production has yet to be written.[35]

The rhetoric of many of the institutional agents involved in the Humboldt-Forum’s planning process stands in a quite stark contrast to such critical references: Here, it is the ethnological collections that are invoked to best serve for showing to the world Berlin’s tradition of “scientific curiosity towards the unfamiliar and the other in the world”, as Hermann Parzinger, president of the SPK, has framed it.[36] One important underlying argument for this connection is the collections’ origin in the courtly “Kunstkammer”, which was situated in the palace since the turn to the 17th century[37] and from where they were partly moved to the Altes Museum in the 1830s and, in the 1850s, to the Kunstkammer in Friedrich August Stüler’s Neues Museum on what would later be named Museum Island. Characteristic feature of the Kunstkammer was that it did not separate naturalia from art or ethnographic materials as it became common in the later, discipline-specific modern museums. The Kunstkammer was regarded as conveying a summarily overview over the universe in a much more objective manner than travel accounts were granted to be.[38] It was understood as resembling the world in a mimetic relationship like a “macrocosm in microcosm”.  In recent years, the Kunstkammer has become an increased reference point in museum practice, be it by means of the presentation of objects from the late Renaissance and the baroque era in the mode of display of the time,[39] through special exhibitions on the related histories of science and the museum,[40] or just as a rather literal reference for smaller art spaces.[41] Art historian and historian of science Robert Felfe has argued that this attention cannot be explained without referencing the many recent studies in the field of history of science, in which the cabinets of wonder and curiosity have been examined as “complex cultural phenomenon, in which art historical, science historical and socio-historical aspects overlap.”[42] It is especially Horst Bredekamp, Professor of Art History at Humboldt University and active participant in the planning of the Humboldt-Forum from early on, who has stretched not only the genealogical ties to the palace, but who has also emphasized the Kunstkammer’s methodical implications of ordering for the Humboldt-Forum. Invoking the tradition of Wilhelm Leibniz’ “Theatrum naturae et artis”,[43] Bredekamp calls for the model of a “Weltmuseum” (world museum) in the sense that it was the Kunstkammer in which “objects of nature, the sciences, the arts and of ethnology were collected in the non-hierarchical classification of a research intense knowledge theatre”.[44]

It is striking that in the public accounts as quoted from here, there have been, so far, no noticeable connecting lines between the history of the museum as represented by the Kunstkammer and the broader political history of the Brandenburg-Prussian era, for whose electors the city palace served as residence. It is specifically the time of the Kunstkammer’s location in the palace, when Andreas Schlüter (1659-1714) and later Johann Friedrich Eosander von Göthe (1669-1728) built the baroque facades that are now going to be reconstructed with the help of private donations.[45]

Fig. 3: “Donation Vendor” for the castle’s reconstruction inside the Humboldt-Box © Bose.

It is also the same time when Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg-Preußen established the first German colony Groß Friedrichsburg on the African west coast, which lasted from 1683 until 1717, and entered into the transatlantic slave trade. Regarding the Kunstkammer, the resulting question should then also be how its politics of collecting and exhibiting are connected to these geopolitical developments, for which the reconstructed palace as the former political centre of control ultimately serves as a historical reference. Can they really be accounted as such an unprejudiced endeavour as is claimed in the present Humboldt-Forum characterizations? In his historical study of three practitioners of early modern collecting in Germany and England, Caspar Schmalkalden (1616-1673), Johann Michael Wansleben (1635-1679), and John Wintrop Jr. (1606-1676), Dominik Collet has argued that a closer look at their collecting practices “suggests a view of the non-European world that was far from unbiased.”[46] On the contrary:

Instead of providing a fresh and unbiased look, early museums portrayed distant lands as Europe’s primitive other. They presented non-Europeans as static, timeless, and heathen people close to nature. They ignored the actual diversity and complexity of indigenous societies as well as the rapidly changing colonial world, the emerging hybrid societies, and the dramatic environmental transformations. Instead of cultural encounter early museums presented cultural separation.[47]

Borrowing from the Kunstkammer for a present politics of display certainly is an interesting endeavour with regard to methodical questions about arranging artifacts, ideas and perspectives that, in the course of the modern museum’s history, have been separated into distinct institutions with their respective conventions of display. Yet, the history of the Berlin Kunstkammer should also and first of all be interrogated with regard to its role in constructing and shaping a view of the world wherein ideas of European ‘Self’ and non-European ‘Other’ were established. Regarding the methodical implications, it would then be an interesting question how a politics of display could ultimately serve as reflecting those very museum constructions by means of bringing together objects that have thus far been exhibited (or stored away) in very different institutional settings throughout Berlin.

Last, but not least, to make such historical problematization fruitful for the Berlin context would be of great importance because of the recent examinations of German colonial history in a more public realm. There is increasing involvement with Berlin as “colonial metropolis”,[48] and it has been the effort of many activist initiatives as well as of academic and artistic interventions over the past years to highlight the imprints of colonialism in the cityscape.[49] In this context, the history of the ethnological museum has also been subject to critical interventions, including the engagement with present museum politics of display.[50] It is in light of these attempts of translating critical reflections into a broader public debate about postcolonial Germany that many of the recent project descriptions and public invocations seem to fall back behind both artistic and academic problematizations. They invest in a rather romanticized narrative of the manifold historical connections and entanglements between Berlin and the “non-European” world.

With regard to recent discussion in the field of museums, the specific framing of the non-European collections is interesting at a time when museums with ethnographic collections slowly yet finally, start engaging in major paradigm shifts. These shifts are first and foremost a reaction to the manifold critiques from both within and outside the field of anthropology. In the context of these debates, one of the most recent and probably most controversially discussed museums has been the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. On the one hand, it is an interesting example of the engagement of a museum in the exhibition of ethnographic collections as high art, yet, on the other hand, it nevertheless fails to break with the exoticist display techniques and to account for the problematic institutional history of the ethnographic museum project.[51] Curator and critic Nora Sternfeld has described the museum’s strategy as one of transformism, i.e. a strategy of institutional redefinition that very selectively commemorates colonial history and therefore ultimately disposes of the difficult histories that ethnographic museums face in one way or another.[52]

The move of the collections to what is considered the historical centre of Berlin, then, marks a symbolic shift not only in terms of the acknowledgement of the value of the collections, but also in terms of the kind in which the historical relationship between Germany and the respective “non-European” cultures are envisioned. And it is in the light of the institutional history that the advertisements of the Humboldt-Forum become so problematic. They not only render many of the recent efforts to highlight the colonial history’s inscriptions into the Berlin cityscape invisible; they also invest in a historical redefinition of Germany’s relationship with the world as one of enlightened curiosity that is devoid of much of the critical historiographies undertaken in historical scholarship and activist research.

With the Humboldt-Forum, we see the enactment of a cosmopolitanism that manages to turn the material reminders of complex historical relations of mutual entanglement, appropriation and exploitation into an asset of cosmopolitan understanding and mutuality. Beate Binder has argued that the new conception of the Palace Square exemplifies a “planned cosmopolitanism” (Hannerz).[53] The Humboldt-Forum herewith functions as a signifier for the openness of a city that, speaking with cultural geographer Karen Till, is “haunted with landscapes that simultaneously embody presences and absences, voids and ruins, intentional forgetting and painful remembering”.[54] However, we find here a specific practice of place-making that “mediate[s] and construct[s] social memory and identity by localizing personal emotions and defining social relations to the past”.[55] These relationships are defined by a means of employing the narrative of scientific curiosity – it is the engagement with a highly selective politics of remembrance, which enables the Humboldt-Forum to incorporate a cosmopolitanism that at the same time serves as its very legitimacy. While indicating some awareness of the histories of colonial appropriation and entanglement, the institutional agents refrain from entering a controversy that could ultimately lead to a more radical questioning of the historical narrative employed. On the contrary, the Humboldt-Forum is envisioned as a site of identification where visitors can navigate the world and, very much in line with the history of the modern museum as a “factory of identity”,[56] can find a reassuring place in a time of perceived fragmentation. Instead of openly dealing with the multifaceted pasts that are especially manifest at this historical site of the Palace Square, thus, the Humboldt-Forum serves as a project through which Berlin’s “historical centre” becomes a symbol for the German capital’s openness towards the world, past and present.

The turn towards ‘dialogue’ and ‘multiperspectivity’: (re)enacting a colonial contact zone?

‘Dialogue’ and ‘multiperspectivity’ have been keywords in theoretical reflection about museums at the latest since the New Museology.[57] As an effect of these debates and in light of the increased criticisms of ethnographic museum representation and of the power relations as they are fundamental to Western institutions holding collections of non-Western cultural contexts, they have also become more and more prominent in ethnographic museum practice.[58] It is therefore not surprising that they also take up a central role in the statements about the projected exhibition concepts for the non-European collections in the Humboldt-Forum. This starts on a very practical level: Viola König, director of the Ethnological Museum, has repeatedly stated that both the concepts and the exhibition architecture have to remain flexible. Following König, there has to be the possibility for directing new questions at the collections, including the backgrounds of their acquisition, without great financial effort. This entails avoiding a steady ensemble of glass cases that determines the exhibition design for years or decades to come.[59] Such an aim certainly hints at the central dilemma of museums: Among other structural issues, the costly exhibition interiors often lead to a standstill of what should be movable, flexible and able to follow (and shape) current debates in contexts not limited to the museum institution. Art historian Hans Belting has addressed this problematic as fundamental to museums:

“Ideas are more flexible than museums, whose inventory is immobile and often determined by chance. In the museum, it is rather the idea of the museum itself that prevails over all other interests.”[60]

On another level, the responsible institutional agents have also referred to the actual question of perspective, expressing their purpose of including different agents with different narrating positions. In their 2009 introductory text about the non-European exhibition spaces in the Humboldt-Forum, Hermann Parzinger (president of the SPK), Michael Eissenhauer (director general of the State Museums of Berlin), Viola König (director of the Ethnological Museum) and Raffael Gadebusch (then-acting president of the Asian Art Museum) have stated that

[a]nother basic principle of presentation in the Humboldt-Forum will be multiperspectivity, the constant change of the narrating position: questions directed at the objects and answers resulting from those questions will give rise to a dialogue between maker or artist on the one hand and researcher or viewer on the other. [...] In this approach and with the conscious inclusion of diverging, indeed controversial views, our presentation of non-European cultures at the Humboldt-Forum will differ from the traditional ethnological Museum. Motion and change of the narrating position are unique features of the Humboldt-Forum.[61]

Here it becomes obvious that the questions of dialogue and multiperspectivity go far beyond, even though they are related to, the issue of exhibition inventory.  A constant change of the narrating position certainly increases the potential of an engaging, critical politics of display that is aware of the pitfalls of the exoticist gaze, which is so closely tied to the history of engagement with the respective collections. Yet, the question remains as to what consequences the notions of movement and multiperspectivity as invoked here entail for the possibility of an open and critical examination with the histories attached to the collections. Would this not mean to engage in a dialogue that is ultimately conflictual, and would such a dialogue not require more serious thought about how to delegate definitional power? Who and what is supposed to be part of the representation politics in the yet-to-be-built exhibition space? Do the possible and actual repatriation claims, as they have come to haunt also German ethnological museums in the past years, not call for including the question of property more fundamentally, leading to an ultimately more diverse set of agents on all levels of museum work, with an equally diverse set of perspectives involved?[62]

The following quote in the aforementioned advertising brochure ironically reveals that the ‘change of perspectives’ does not necessarily mean a delegation of definitional authority towards multiple agents and stakeholders: “The occidental view onto the world will be complemented by additional viewpoints and will thus provoke a change of perspective.”[63] Here, it becomes clear that the “additional viewpoints” are much more regarded as enrichment to an otherwise stable centre, which remains to occupy the position of the host. In that position, the centre continues to be the subject of the view rather than as addressee for the stated “change of perspective”.[64]

In a discussion lecture in 2010 about the Humboldt-Forum hosted by the Initiative Humboldt-Forum[65], the Indian poet, art critic, cultural theorist and independent curator Ranjit Hoskoté took the evening’s theme, “Voices of Cultures”, as an occasion to talk about the “possibility of transformative listening”.[66] While expressing his great hope for the Humboldt-Forum to “redeem the potentiality of intercultural dialogue”[67], he explicitly critiqued the idea of hosting the ‘world cultures’ without a radical questioning of definitional power: “there can no longer be a privileged position from which to listen to the voices of cultures: the host can no longer simply be a convenor, connoisseur and maker of the ground rules.”[68] Hoskoté goes on to historically situate this idea as

being inspired by the will to encyclopaedic knowledge that underwrote and was sustained by the will to global power of Europe from the 17th century onwards. It is important to renounce the idea that one can possess and control the world simply because one has the means of containing it within maps and measurements, an idea whose seed lies in the epic pioneering projects of exploration and taxonomy undertaken by Alexander von Humboldt.[69]

This quote hits at one very basic problem that I have mentioned above: The adherence to the object-centred idea of representing the world leaves exactly this history unproblematized. It rather reaffirms the separation between the ‘cultures of the world’ and Europe, as the so to say absent yet defining subject of the gaze, and perpetuates the constitutive separation between viewing and viewed-upon subject. Hoskoté’s warning can therefore also be read as a critique of the present discourse about the Humboldt-Forum: It is here where Berlin presents itself as host to the ‘world cultures’, yet without more closely reflecting upon the complex historical relationships with these cultures. The project of an encyclopaedic knowledge, which served as epistemic foundation for amassing the enormous collections that are going to move to the Palace Square, is not submitted to much historical interrogation. Contained by the Prussian palace, the exhibited objects remain to be the artifacts of the ‘Others’ without much irritation to the passed on taxonomy of ‘West’ and ‘Rest’. In this institutional assemblage of on the one hand the high cultures of European civilization (Museum Island) and on the other hand the arts and cultures of all the other continents (Humboldt-Forum), the much-critiqued dichotomy is left more or less intact.[70] Even if, in the words of the planners in their 2009 catalogue, the cultures represented on Museum Island and those in the Humboldt-Forum “form a unity of content in which each continent has its place and dialogue between the cultures is made manifest”[71], the ‘West’ remains to be in the privileged position of the host, of the listener to the ‘voices of cultures’ who gets to decide how far a shift in perspective will go and what exactly it will entail. Until now it looks as if the ‘Western’ perspective will keep on functioning, to quote Stuart Hall’s classical text, as “unified and homogeneous viewpoint”.[72] It will once again be re-constituted as structuring concept in the representational taxonomy of territorially defined, well-separated cultures.

Fig. 4: Inside the Humboldt-Box, a true to scale mode of the future Humboldt-Forum with the Box beside it © Bose.

Concerning the notions of ‘dialogue’ and ‘multiperspectivity’, then, it would be worthwhile to more strongly consider their discussion in the field of museum studies. The most fruitful debates in this respect have probably centred around the ‘contact zone’: 15 years ago, James Clifford transferred Mary-Louise Pratt’s term, which she had introduced in her book “Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation” (1992), into the field of museums. Pratt defined the contact zone as “the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict”.[73] For Clifford, Pratt’s notion of “contact” as a perspective that “emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other” described very well the unequal power relations, as they are constitutive to Western museums holding “non-Western” collections. Museums can be seen as spaces that are, equally as Pratt’s contact zone, conditioned by “copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power”.[74] In his critical review of (also ethnographic) exhibition contexts, Clifford argued for acknowledging the fundamentally conflictive character of the work of museum representation and pleaded for a “decentralization and circulation of collections in a multiplex public sphere, an expansion of the range of things that can happen in museums and museum-like settings.”[75] Since this important intervention in the fields of museums and museum studies, the term ‘contact zone’ has been subject to numerous texts and conferences, and museum practitioners have also increasingly attempted to make it fruitful for their exhibition work. However, on this path it has often lost much of its character of advocating a fundamentally conflictual and often confrontational encounter between various social agents and respective epistemologies. In a critical review of the various appropriations of the ‘contact zone’ in museum practice since Clifford’s important intervention, anthropologist Robin Boast sketches the problematics of the trend towards the dialogical, critiquing the increased implementation of the ‘contact zone’ as “neocolonial genre”[76]: “Dialogue and collaboration is the name of the game these days and there are few museums with anthropological, or even archaeological, collections that would consider an exhibition that did not include some form of consultation.”[77] Despite Clifford’s emphasis that the notion of contact in the museum must go far beyond consultation and sensitivity, museums, in Boast’s words, can still be regarded as “asymmetric spaces of appropriation” in which, “[n]o matter how much we try to make the spaces accommodating, they remain sites where the Others come to perform for us, not with us”.[78]

The discourse about the Humboldt-Forum so far reveals exactly this problematics: we can see an engagement with the notions of dialogue and multiperspectivity while at the same time we do not find much of a critical and foundational view upon the histories of epistemic disclosure of the ‘Other’, of (colonial) exchange and entanglement – histories, which lie at the heart of the modern project of ethnological collecting and exhibiting. As a result, the notion of multiperspectivity becomes devoid of much of its possibly critical potential. The chances of addressing those histories, however, are manifold, yet with their very own methodological implications and difficulties. They certainly bring with them the necessity to further the debate about what role institutions hosting ethnographic collections could and should play in the present context; a context, in which colonial history is just slowly becoming an issue of public debate and a matter of reflection regarding a postcolonial politics of remembrance within and outside the museum. A history, which has to also be understood in much broader terms than the years of factual colonial rule: a history of epistemic violence against the various ‘Others’ whose images, material artifacts and last, but not least, racialized bodies entered a collective imaginary that became the very basis for the constitution of the ‘Self’. It would be crucial to attend here to the many historical accounts, according to which is was the comparatively long restraint from entering into the realm of European colonial powers, which lead to a compensation through colonial fantasies, through a sort of ‘colonialism without colonies’. These fantasies have been regarded as constitutive for the development of a German national identity long before the foundation of the German Empire in 1871 and they pervaded all sectors of society, as Susanne Zantop among others has prominently argued.[79]

At least as important as the question of ‘who’, which always carries the danger of falling prey to an essentialized notion of ‘voice’ and perspective, should be the question of ‘how’: how are histories imagined and what political interests and motivations are, or should be, at the basis of collectively thinking about a new politics of history in museums? The backdrop for such reflection should certainly be the location of such a historically saturated space as the Palace Square in Germany’s capital. And it is last, but not least, the perspectives of the present, from which such histories are negotiated and fought over.

Fig. 5: View from the terrace of the Humboldt-Box on the palace‘s construction site, © Artefakte//anti-humboldt.

For the debates about the future of European metropolitan museums holding ethnographic collections, the Humboldt-Forum’s planning process plays a significant role and will increasingly do so in the course of the near future. And this is not despite of, but because of its combining of the historical particularities of Berlin’s Palace Square debates, the broader institutional logics at play and more general trends in the institutional handling of the vast ethnographic collections of Western museums. The Humboldt-Forum’s planning process therefore serves as an interesting and important site for the analysis of both the local specificities of Berlin as well as the more general trends in the cultural politics at Western museums at play; a politics that is saturated with collective memories and cultural imaginaries however divergent they may be. Before the planning is finished and its results assessed in the broader context of recent openings, there will hopefully be more critical engagement with the very specific, and often problematically selective, ways of framing Berlin’s relationship with the world, past and present.


This article was completed in October 2012, any subsequent developments in the planning of the Humboldt-Forum could therefore not be considered here. I thank this issue’s editors for their insightful comments on earlier versions of the text.


1. Among the many documents and analyses of the debates about the usage of the square see Alexander Schug, ed. Palast der Republik. Politischer Diskurs und private Erinnerung, (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschaftsverlag, 2007) (including a service section with an extended bibliography, a list of links and a chronology of events up until the Palace’s dismantling); Philipp Misselwitz, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philipp Oswalt, eds. Fun Palace 200X. Der Berliner Schlossplatz. Abriss, Neubau oder grüne Wiese?, (Berlin: Martin Schmitz Verlag, 2005). The “Volkspalast”, a project of temporary use between 2002 and 2005 that attracted more than 300.000 people, is documented in Amelie Deuflhard et al., eds. Volkspalast. Zwischen Aktivismus und Kunst, (Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2006). English information about the project can be found at (accessed Sept. 2012, as in the following unless otherwise noted). In her ethnographic study about the conflict about the Palace Square, Beate Binder has approached city planning as cultural practice in which Berlin is constituted both as German capital and as cultural metropolis. Beate Binder, Streitfall Stadtmitte. Der Berliner Schlossplatz, (Köln: Böhlau, 2009). [↑]

2. Alexander Schug “Einleitung. Der Palast ist tot. Viel ist über ihn geschrieben worden. Was soll dieses Buch?” in Schug, 7-17, 7. [↑]

3. Binder, 212. [↑]

4. “Die Geschichte der historischen Mitte ‘endet’ mit dem Bombenkrieg, und die DDR-Regierung hat den Fehler begangen, Geschichte zu ignorieren.” Ibid., 213, transl. FvB (as in the following unless otherwise noted). [↑]

5. “Wer behauptet, mit der Rekonstruktion des Stadtschlosses werde die Stadtgestalt wiederhergestellt, ignoriert entweder die gegenwärtige Bebauung ganz – sieht nur einen ‘leeren Platz’ – oder deklassiert diese als minderwertig, genauer als historisch unbedeutend, und stellt sie der freien Verfügung anheim.” Ibid. The quote refers to the situation when the Palace was not yet dismantled. [↑]

6. For information about the commission and its members as well as for access to the final report (in German) see:[↑]

7. A joint committee of the national government and the federal state of Berlin had earlier advised a mixture of public and commercial usage. This included a library, an exhibition hall, a conference centre with hotel, restaurants, shops, offices as well as an underground car park. The expert commission distanced itself critically from the idea of a commercial venue, however, due to the insight that public accessibility should not be sacrificed for the interests of private investors. Bundesministerium für Verkehr-, Bau- und Wohnungswesen and Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung, eds. Internationale Expertenkommission Historische Mitte Berlin: Abschlussbericht, (Berlin, 2002), 22-23. [↑]

8. The SPK combines amongst other institutions the State Museums of Berlin and the State Library of Berlin. Financed by both the German federal government and the 16 states, it is one of the largest cultural institutions worldwide. See[↑]

9. Abschlussbericht, 22-23. Dahlem is a district in Berlin’s southwestern periphery. Having served as a storage site for the Museum of Ethnology (Museum für Völkerkunde) already since shortly after the first World War, it became a refuge for both the ethnographic collections as well as the European arts galleries and archeological collections on Museum Island after World War II and the subsequent division of the city into East and West. While the latter collections have slowly been moved back onto the Museum Island after 1989, Dahlem remains to be the site for the “non-European” collections of the State Museums of Berlin, namely those of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art, yet also for the Museum of European Cultures. In the course of the debates about the Humboldt-Forum, the argument is often invoked that the Dahlem location is suffering from a severe decrease in visitor numbers. As Viola König, director of the Ethnological Museum, has stated, “the museums housing the non-European collections were the ‘winners’ of the Cold War, but became the ‘losers’ of Germany’s reunification”. Viola König, “Zeitgeist and early ethnographic collecting in Berlin. Implications and perspectives for the future”, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 52 (2007): 51-58, 53. Due to the poor visitor numbers at the Dahlem site, the rationale behind moving parts of the Dahlem museums into the centre of the city, therefore, has also been the promise of higher numbers. Another important reason in Lehmann’s original proposal was financial aspects, since a highly necessary renovation of the Dahlem museum could be avoided with a move of its exhibition spaces to the centre. See Klaus-Dieter Lehmann “Kunst und Kulturen der Welt in der Mitte Berlins (16. März 2001)”, in Internationale Expertenkommission Historische Mitte Berlin: Materialien, ed. Bundesministerium für Verkehr-, Bau- und Wohnungswesen and Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung, (Berlin: 2002), 16-19, 17. [↑]

10. Abschlussbericht, 27. [↑]

11. In German “außereuropäische Sammlungen”. As a simple negation of “European”, the collections’ attribution of “non-European” is especially problematic in light of the binary construction between (territorially defined) cultures of “the West” and “the Rest” (S. Hall), for which the practices of collecting and exhibiting have historically played quite a critical role. [↑]

12. Abschlussbericht, 25. [↑]

13. See e.g. Nikolaus Bernau, “Von der Kunstkammer zum Musenarchipel. Die Berliner Museumslandschaft 1830-1994”, in Museumsinszenierungen. Zur Geschichte der Institution des Kunstmuseums. Die Berliner Museumslandschaft 1830-1990, ed. Alexis Joachimides et al., (Dresden and Basel: Verlag der Kunst, 1995), 15-35, 21f. Tilman von Stockhausen explains this competition with London and Paris with the only recent foundation of the empire in 1871 and the corresponding quest for power, which also lead to an expansive course in the museums’ politics of acquisition. Following his argument, a marketing strategical dealing with Museum Island’s geographic location goes back to the 19th century, where it went along with the development of a corporate design. Tilman von Stockhausen, “Markenpolitik im 19. Jahrhundert: Die Berliner Museumsinsel als Public Relation-Idee”, in Selling Berlin. Imagebildung und Stadtmarketing von der preußischen Residenz bis zur Bundeshauptstadt, ed. Thomas Biskup and Marc Schalenberg, (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2008), 107-115. [↑]

14. “Freistätte für Kunst und Wissenschaft”. The phrase is associated with Wilhelm von Humboldt, who is said to have encouraged the political leaders at the time to establish Museum Island into a place combining museum, university and academy. Friedrich Wilhelm the IV. used the phrase in 1840 when he ordered to build further museums behind Altes Museum, which then became the basis for the name Museum Island. See von Stockhausen, 109. [↑]

15. In the public statements, the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London have been important references. As the above described areas of expertise especially between Museum Island and Humboldt-Forum already suggest, the segmentation into “European” and “non-European” is highly contingent, and much contested accordingly. I will come to that at a later point. [↑]

16. Abschlussbericht, 24. [↑]

17. Ibid. Interestingly, in the commission’s final report the Palace of the Republic was repeatedly invoked to have had important public functions that should be taken into serious consideration for the further planning process of the new building. In the course of the developments, however, those reference increasingly diminished. [↑]

18. Hermann Parzinger, Claudia Lux and Christoph Markschies, “Humboldt-Forum – The Integrative Concept”, in Die kulturelle Mitte der Hauptstadt. Humboldt-Forum Berlin. Das Projekt/The Project, ed. Thomas Flierl and Hermann Parzinger, (Berlin: Verlag Theater der Zeit, 2009), 23-25, 23. [↑]

19. In December 2011, Martin Heller presented his concept for the Humboldt-Forum in a public hearing at the culture committee of the German Bundestag. The presentation can be viewed (in German) on[↑]

20. Among the most outspoken ones are “Alexandertechnik”, a group of academics, artists and activists, the editors of this issue have been part of. At an event called, The Anti-Humboldt. An event for the selective dismantling of the Humboldt-Forum (Der Anti-Humboldt. Eine Veranstaltung zum selektiven Rückbau des Humboldt-Forums), the group took the public on a critical journey through the last 20 or so years of the debate, situating the most recent decisions about the Humboldt-Forum within the history of post-reunification urban planning in Berlin. The group explicitly critiques the Humboldt-Forum as a “restorative project” that aims at re-establishing a pre-World War II version of Museum Island, using the ethnological collections as asset for establishing a 19th century idea of the Universal Museum. The text of their public presentation on 11 July 2009 can be found on (in German). In the past 2-3 years, other members and representatives of Berlin cultural and art institutions as well as of the university have repeatedly critiqued the scope of the project along similar lines at public discussion events hosted by the “AG Humboldt-Forum”, a subgroup of “Stiftung Zukunft Berlin” (Foundation Future Berlin) that is in favour of the Humboldt-Forum. [↑]

21. “Mit dem 21. Jahrhundert unmittelbar ans 19. anknüpfen und dabei die Spuren des 20. Jahrhunderts auslöschen; eine angesichts der Deutschen Geschichte verständliche, wenn auch äußerst problematische Sehnsucht.” Philipp Oswalt, “Identitätskonstruktionen im digitalen Zeitalter”, in Misselwitz, Obrist and Oswalt, 39-44, 41. [↑]

22. “Der Nachbau des ehemaligen preußischen Schlosses wäre überdies eine politisch und geschichtlich falsche Botschaft.” Abschlussbericht, 43. [↑]

23. Khadija Caroll La, “The Very Mark of Repression. The Demolition Theatre of the Palast der Republik and the New Schloss Berlin”, Architectural Design 80.5 (2010): 116-123, 117 (Special Issue: Post-Traumatic Urbanism). [↑]

24. This is the wording of Berlin State Secretary of culture, André Schmitz. Id., “Das Humboldt-Forum als Deutschlands Grand Projet des 21. Jahrhunderts”, in Schloss Berlin/Humboldt-Forum. Realisierungswettbewerb 2008, ed. Bundesministerium für Verkehr, Bau- und Wohnungswesen, (Berlin: Bundesamt für Bauwesen und Raumordnung, Selbstverlag, 2009), 8-9. [↑]

25. As the planning of the exhibition spaces is in full process, the result of the negotiations about the ethnological collections cannot be foreseen for now. However, the newly installed “Humboldt Lab Dahlem” under the direction of Martin Heller and funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation with 4,125 Million Euro for a three-year period will soon “open a rehearsal stage on which participants can explore the thematic boundaries of a possible program for future ethnological collections”. See Regarding the mentioned discussions about ethnological collections, the Humboldt-Forum’s Advisory Board combines a great amount of expertise from both museums and universities worldwide. For an overview of its members see For an overview of the consultative group for the Agora under the project leadership of Martin Heller see[↑]

26. Parzinger, Lux and Markschies, 23. [↑]

27. Anthropologist and present director of the Museum of Anthropology and Archeology at the University of Cambridge, Nicholas Thomas, who is also member of the Humboldt-Forum’s Advisory Board, has once critically remarked that, in the history of ethnology, “[t]he fact of difference is thus anterior to any contingent similarities between ourselves and other peoples, as is our mutual entanglement.” Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects. Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 3. [↑]

28. Peter-Klaus Schuster, former president of the State Museums of Berlin, has explained the separation between European and non-European collections in an interestingly frank way when he referred to the reconstructed city palace as antithetical point of orientation for Museum Island, because it was the palace where the ethnological collections were once located. Peter-Klaus Schuster, “Das Berliner Museumsschloss – eine Freistätte für Kunst und Wissenschaft (12. Juli 2001)”, in Materialien, 46-51. [↑]

29. Only doublets were supposed to be redistributed to other German museums. For a discussion of the resolution see Cornelia Essner, “Berlins Völkerkundemuseum in der Kolonialära. Anmerkungen zum Verhältnis von Ethnologie und Kolonialismus in Deutschland”, in Berlin in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Jahrbuch des Landesarchivs Berlin, ed. Hans J. Reichhardt (Berlin: Mann, 1986), 65-94, 76-7. See also H. Glenn Penny, Objects of Culture. Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 113. [↑]

30. Königliche Museen zu Berlin, ed. Anleitung zum ethnologischen Beobachten und Sammeln, (Berlin: Verlag von Georg Reimer, 1914), 7 (transl. FvB). [↑]

31. Quoted in Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 154. [↑]

32. As historian Andrew Zimmerman among others has noted, the Berlin museum maintained the largest ethnological collection worldwide at the turn of the 20th century (ibid.). Zimmerman’s comprehensive study gives a rich insight into the entanglements between German ethnology and larger colonial political economic networks. For a critical contextualization of German anthropology in the history of colonialism, see also H. Glenn Penny and Matti Bunzl, eds. Worldly Provincialism. German Anthropology in the Age of Empire, (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 2003). [↑]

33. See Andrew Zimmerman, “Science and Schaulust in the Berlin Museum of Ethnology”, in Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit in Berlin, 1870-1930, ed. Constantin Goschler (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000), 65-88, 65. Zimmerman points out that even though the ethnologists “reviled these shows, dismissing them as misleading and even anti-scientific“ (ibid.), they used the colonial spectacles and so-called “panopticons“ for gaining much of their insights, especially before the founding of the Royal Museum of Ethnology and the beginnings of German colonialism on the African continent (67). One such important fair was the colonial exhibition on the 1896 industrial fair in the Park of Treptow: with live displays of people brought from the African colonies it was among the most popular sites of interest of the whole fair. The Royal Museum of Ethnology also contributed to the exhibitions, and museum anthropologist Felix von Luschan used the exhibition to extensively and often forcefully measure and photograph the performers. See Christine Stelzig, Afrika am Museum für Völkerkunde zu Berlin 1873-1919. Aneignung, Darstellung und Konstruktion eines Kontinents, (Herbholzheim: Centaurus, 2004), 342-353. [↑]

34. Historian H. Glenn Penny has provided a detailed analysis of the Berlin museum in his comparative study of the ethnographic museums of Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig and Munich at the turn of the 20th century. Penny, Objects of Culture[↑]

35. Stelzig, 388. [↑]

36. “wissenschaftliche Neugier auf das Fremde und das Andere in der Welt.” Hermann Parzinger, “Das Humboldt-Forum. ‘So viel Welt mit sich verbinden als möglich.’ Aufgabe und Bedeutung des wichtigsten Kulturprojekts in Deutschland zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts”, ed. Stiftung Berliner Schloss – Humboldt-Forum, (Berlin, 2011), 9. [↑]

37. According to art historian Christian Theuerkauff, the earliest preserved inventory of the “Churfürstliche Kunstkammer” dates back to 1603, to the time of the reign of Elector Joachim Friedrich. Christan Theuerkauff, “The Brandenburg Kunstkammer in Berlin”, in The Origins of Museums. The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe, ed. Oliver Impey, (London: House of Stratus Ltd, 2001), 149-155, 150. [↑]

38. Arthur MacGregor, “Die besondere Eigenschaft der ‘Kunstkammer’”, in Macrocosmo in Microcosmo. Die Welt in der Stube. Zur Geschichte des Sammelns 1450 bis 1800, ed. Andreas Grote, (Opladen: Leske+Budrich, 1994), 61-106, 61. [↑]

39. As in the recently opened exhibition of the Antiquity and Renaissance collections at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. [↑]

40. Here, the most prominent example in Berlin is the exhibition “Theatrum naturae et artis  – Wunderkammern des Wissens” at Martin Gropius Bau in 2000/2001, a show of objects from the more than 100 collections of Humboldt University, which received much media attention. One commentator wrote that, by centering on the objects and avoiding a multimedia staging, the exhibition “heralds the end of staged major exhibitions”. Matthias Kamann, “Zurück zum Erbe der Wissenschaft”, in DIE WELT, December 9, 2000. An earlier German example is the large-scale exhibition “Wunderkammern des Abendlandes. Museum und Sammlung im Spiegel der Zeit” in Bonn, which was designed to focus on cultural practices of collecting and exhibiting at the museum: “Wunderkammer des Abendlandes is an exhibition about the European museum both as notion and as historical reality, and therefore it is also an exhibition about the exhibition.” Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH, ed. Wunderkammer des Abendlandes. Museum und Sammlung im Spiegel der Zeit, (Bonn: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle, 1994), 110 (trans. FvB). [↑]

41. See e.g. Die Kunstkammer im Georg-Kolbe-Museum, Berlin. [↑]

42. Robert Felfe, “Umgebender Raum – Schauraum. Theatralisierung als Medialisierung musealer Räume”, in Kunstkammer, Laboratorium, Bühne. Schauplätze des Wissens im 17. Jahrhundert, ed. Helmar Schramm, Ludger Schwarte and Jan Lazardzig, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), 226-264, 227. [↑]

43. This phrase by Leibniz also inspired the title of the Theatrum exhibition of 2000/2001, for which the future Humboldt-Forum was already a prime point of reference. See Horst Bredekamp, Jochen Brüning, “Vom Berliner Schloss zur Humboldt-Universität – und zurück?”, in Theater der Natur und Kunst – Theatrum Naturae et Artis. Dokumentation,  ed. id. and Cornelia Weber, (Berlin: Henschel, 2001), 138-142. The Kunstkammer was also an important genealogical reference in the major exhibition “Anders zur Welt kommen. Das Humboldt-Forum im Schloss. Ein Werkstattblick” at Altes Museum in 2009/10, which gave insights into the basic ideas of the Humboldt-Forum project. In an exhibition review, Larissa Förster has critiqued the show for its lack of a critical accounting of the colonial contexts, in which not only ethnology but also the earlier European voyagers and collectors were implicated. Larissa Förster, “Nichts gewagt, nichts gewonnen. Die Ausstellung ‘Anders zur Welt kommen. Das Humboldt-Forum im Schloß. Ein Werkstattblick’”, in Paideuma 56 (2010): 241-261. [↑]

44. Horst Bredekamp, Das Projekt “Humboldt-Forum”. Public talk given by invitation of Stiftung Zukunft Berlin, September 26, 2011 (in German, transl. FvB). [↑]

45. The most important institution for collecting private donations is Wilhelm von Boddien’s Association Berliner Schloss e.V. (, which has committed itself to gather 80 million Euros for the reconstruction, especially that of the facades. For this purpose the association’s members travel throughout Germany to hold lectures and gather new supporters, but also lobby abroad. The most popular public figures of recent months who have publicly endorsed the palace’s reconstruction are Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Henry Kissinger and ex-U.S. president George H. W. Bush. Visitors to the Humboldt-Box (, a privately financed exhibition space and event location on Palace Square that is meant to advertise the future Humboldt-Forum, can donate directly at a ‘donation vendor’ inside the Box, using anything from coins to credit cards. [↑]

46. Dominik Collet, “The Museum Predicament. Representing Cultural Encounter in Historical and Contemporary Collections”, in The Fuzzy Logic of Encounter. New Perspectives on Cultural Contact, ed. Sünne Juterczenk and Gesa Mackenthun, (Münster: Waxmann, 2009), 53-74, 53. [↑]

47. Ibid., 66. For Collet’s detailed historical study about “exotica” in the early modern Kunstkammer see id., Die Welt in der Stube. Begegnungen mit Außereuropa in Kunstkammern der Frühen Neuzeit, (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2007). [↑]

48. Ulrich van der Heyden, Joachim Zeller, Kolonialmetropole Berlin. Eine Spurensuche, (Berlin: Berlin Edition, 2002). [↑]

49. See Joshua Kwesi Aikins and Rosa Hoppe, “Straßennamen als Wegweiser für eine postkoloniale Erinnerung in Deutschland”, in Wie Rassismus aus Wörtern spricht. (K)Erben des Kolonialismus im Wissensarchiv deutsche Sprache. Ein kritisches Nachschlagewerk, ed. Susan Arndt and Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard, (Münster: Unrast, 2011), 521–538. See also Joshua Kwesi Aikins, “Die alltägliche Gegenwart der kolonialen Vergangenheit – Entinnerung, Erinnerung und Verantwortung in der Kolonialmetropole Berlin”, in Afrika. Europas verkannter Nachbar, Bd. 2: Ansichten und Einsichten aus Theorie und Praxis, ed. Herta Däubler-Gmelin et al. (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 2008), 47-68. The registered association Berlin Postkolonial (, established in 2007, works on the critical accounting of the regional colonial history in a global context. [↑]

50. E.g., the “Antiracist Initiative” (Antirassistische Initiative) organized a “counter-exhibition” in front of the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem in 2006, calling for a questioning of the colonial foundations for collecting and exhibiting in the museum’s history. A project seminar at the Department of European Ethnology at Humboldt University in 2006/2007 enquired into the present politics of display of the museum’s exhibition Art from Africa. The two-semester collaborative project resulted in an exhibition in 2007 titled “The Musealization of the ‘Other’. An Exhibition about Exhibiting”. For a reflection about the project see Friedrich von Bose, “Die Musealisierung des ‘Anderen’. Gedanken zu ethnologischem Ausstellen als kultureller Praxis”, in Kunst und Ethnographie. Zum Verhältnis von visueller Kultur und ethnographischem Arbeiten, ed. Beate Binder, Dagmar Neuland-Kitzerow, Karoline Noack (Münster: Lit, 2008), 187-198. [↑]

51. For interesting insights into the “making of” the Quai Branly, see Sally Price, Paris Primitive. Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly, (London/Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) as well as the interesting contributions in Die Schau des Fremden. Ausstellungskonzepte zwischen Kunst, Kommerz und Wissenschaft, ed. Cordula Grewe, (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2006). [↑]

52. Nora Sternfeld, “Erinnerung als Entledigung. Transformismus im Musèe du Quai Branly in Paris”, in Das Unbehagen im Museum. Postkoloniale Museologien, ed. Belinda Kazeem, Charlotte Martinz-Turek and Nora Sternfeld, (Wien: Turia+Kant, 2009), 61-75. Among the further and prominent critical reflections are: James Clifford, “Quai Branly in Process”, October 120 (2007): 3-23; Anthony Shelton, “The Public Sphere as Wilderness. Le Musée du quai Branly”, Museum Anthropology 32.1 (2009): 1-16; Hermann Lebovics “Will the Musée du Quai Branly show France the way to postcoloniality?”, African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal 2.2 (2009): 231-244. [↑]

53. Binder, 298. [↑]

54. Karen E. Till, The New Berlin. Memory, Politics, Place, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 8. [↑]

55. Ibid. [↑]

56. Gottfried Korff, Martin Roth, eds. Das historische Museum: Labor, Schaubühne, Identitätsfabrik, (Frankfurt/Main, New York: Campus, 1990). [↑]

57. This was the title of an edited collection in 1989 that has come to be a landmark intervention in the field of museum studies and debates and, inspired by the representational critiques in the context of poststructuralist theory of the time, led to a shift in perspective especially upon ethnographic museum practice. Peter Vergo, The New Museology, (London: Reaction Books, 1989). For a discussion of these paradigmatic shifts and controversies see Sharon Macdonald, “Expanding Museum Studies: An Introduction”, in A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. Sharon Macdonald, (Malden, MA, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 1-12. For a critical overview of the different trends following these debates in the field of ethnographic museum practice see Anthony Alan Shelton, “Museums and Anthropologies: Practices and Narratives”, in ibid., 64-80. [↑]

58. For example, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (, explicitly acknowledges Canada’s colonial history as constitutive part to the history of anthropology and gears much attention to the reflection of the historical legacies for a present museum politics. When I visited the museum in March 2010, I was quite astonished about the museum’s perspective on contemporaneity and its inclusiveness of artists from very different backgrounds, which often lead to a disruption of the traditionally authoritative voice of the museum. This became apparent especially through the juxtaposition of the main exhibition hall, the visible storage area (Multiversity Galleries) and the contemporary art gallery, which at the time featured the exhibition Border Zones ( and in which some installations interrogated the displays in the other halls. MOA’s director Anthony Shelton has recently formulated a utopian and compelling version of what an (anthropological) museum of the future could look like: Anthony Shelton, “Multiplex Babel”, in MuseumX. Zur Neuvermessung eines mehrdimensionalen Raumes, ed. Friedrich von Bose et al., (Berlin: Panama Verlag, 2011), 143-153. [↑]

59. See e.g. Viola König, “Die Idee des Humboldt-Forums auf dem Schlossplatz in Berlin”, Paideuma 54 (2008): 245-251, 247. [↑]

60. Hans Belting “Exhibiting Cultures”, in Contemporary Art and the Museum, ed. Peter Weibel and Andrea Buddensieg (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2007), 164-173, 170. The text is a translated version of id., “Die Ausstellung von Kulturen” in Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin/ Institute for Advanced Study Berlin. Jahrbuch 1994-95, (Berlin: Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhandlung), 214-225. [↑]

61. Hermann Parzinger et al., “The Non-European Collections of the Berlin State Museums – The Prussian Cultural Heritage in the Humboldt-Forum”, in Flierl and Parzinger, 32-37, 35. Since 2010, Klaas Ruitenbeek is director of the Asian Art Museum. [↑]

62. Berlin-based North America anthropologist Rainer Hatoum has shown what potential for conflict lies in the endeavour of establishing joint programs between Western academics and members of “source communities” for preserving and working with collections at the Berlin Ethnological Museum. He developed the idea “to search for new ways to manage the collection [of Navajo ceremonial songs] on a partnership basis, in accordance with the vision of a jointly developed cultural heritage concept.” However, he came to find out that his notion of “dialogue” did not resemble the interests of the Navajo representatives: “I had to accept the fact that the Navajo dialogue partners (…) were following their own goals and lines of rationale. While I perceived my initiative to be an attempt of good will and a step forward towards a fundamental change in relations, they rather saw it as yet another chapter in the strained relations between ‘Navajo’ and ‘non-Navajo’: Wasn’t I ‘just’ offering to make a digital copy of the Klah collection available, instead of returning the original? And didn’t this basically mean a continuation of the colonial appropriation of Navajo knowledge?” Rainer Hatoum, “Musealizing Dialogue”, in From Imperial Museum to Communcication Centre? On the New Role of Museums as Mediators between Science and Non-Western Societies, ed. Rainer Hatoum, Lidia Guzy and Susan Kamel (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2010), 121-136, 122-3. [↑]

63. “Der abendländische Blick auf die Welt wird um zusätzliche Sichtweisen ergänzt und provoziert damit einen Perspektivwechsel.” Parzinger, Humboldt-Forum, 20. [↑]

64. This role allocation seems to be quite in line with the German discourse on “integration”, which is primarily negotiated along culturalistic lines. As Manuela Bojadžijev points out, the “dispositif of integration” has in the past 40 years continuously disarticulated migrants’ collective demands for social and political participation and has shifted them to the domain of individual conformation. Manuela Bojadžijev, Die windige Internationale. Rassismus und Kämpfe der Migration, (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2008), 244. In this way, invocations of ‘cultural diversity’ on the one hand do not stand in contradiction to restrictive policies on the other. Key to these invocations is an essentialist concept of culture that ultimately prohibits the breakup of the dividing line between margin and centre. It seems like it could be a fruitful endeavour to further investigate possible connections between this broader socio-political context and the cultural politics of the Humboldt-Forum. [↑]

65. The Initiative Humboldt-Forum is part of the Foundation Future Berlin (Stiftung Zukunft Berlin) and has hosted a number of public events under the title “Voices of Cultures” to discuss the Humboldt-Forum project. Chairperson Christine von Heinz is a direct descendant of the brothers Humboldt. An overview of the foundation and a list of so far invited speakers for the lecture series can be found at[↑]

66. Ranjit Hoskoté, “Notes towards the Possibility of Transformative Listening”, Lecture on 27th of April, 2010, at the House of World Cultures, Berlin (, 1-4, 2. [↑]

67. Ibid. [↑]

68. Ibid. [↑]

69. Ibid. [↑]

70. Wolfgang Kaschuba, director at the Department of European Ethnology at Humboldt -University, has criticized the repeated construction of “Europe and the rest of the world” on a public discussion event about the Humboldt-Forum in May 2011 as well as in a contribution to the Humboldt-Forum project catalogue: Id, “Humboldt-Forum: Europe and the Rest of the World?”, in Flierl and Parzinger, 145-146. [↑]

71. Parzinger, Lux and Markschies, 25. [↑]

72. Stuart Hall, “The West and the rest: discourse and power” in Formations of Modernity, ed. Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), 276- 320, 279. The one collection that could have contributed to blurring the line of this clear geographical distinction, the collection of the Museum of European Cultures that was only formed in 1999 out of the European collection of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum für Volkskunde, will not move into the palace despite many public pleas for its inclusion. [↑]

73.  Mary Louise Pratt, quoted in James Clifford, Routes. Travel and translation in the late twentieth century, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 192. [↑]

74. Ibid. [↑]

75. Ibid, 214. [↑]

76. Robin Boast, “Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited”, Museum Anthropology 34.1 (2011): 56-70, 62. [↑]

77. Ibid., 56. [↑]

78. Ibid., 63. [↑]

79. Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies. Conquest, Family and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870, (Durham, NH: Duke University Press, 1997). With an emphasis on the importance of visual images, Silvy Chakkalakal has recently analyzed the German obsession with India around 1800. Silvy Chakkalakal, “Die deutsche Entdeckung Indiens um 1800 – Bilder des Wissens in F. J. Bertuchs ‘Bilderbuch für Kinder’ (1790-1830)”, in Orte – Situationen – Atmosphären: Kulturanalytische Skizzen, ed. Beate Binder et al., (Frankfurt/M: Campus, 2010), 199-221. For a recent collection of contributions about the pervasiveness of colonial imagery before, during and after German colonial rule see Michael Perraudin and Jürgen Zimmerer with Katy Heady, eds. German Colonialism and National Identity, (London/New York: Routledge, 2011). [↑]

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Friedrich von Bose is lecturer and research associate at the Department of European Ethnology and the Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin. His involvement with questions of (post-)coloniality, of racialized and gendered knowledge production in both past and present contexts is driven by the search for possibilities of disrupting the established regimes knowledge and visuality. These questions also inform his PhD project, in which he enquires into the culture political logics behind the “making of” the Humboldt-Forum on Berlin’s historical palace square.
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