The Humboldt Forum: A Controversial New Museum Project Opens in Berlin

Pablo Larios interviews the director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, about its evolution and intentions

BY Pablo Larios AND Hartmut Dorgerloh in Frieze Masters | 20 JUL 21

As the Humboldt Forum in Berlin finally opens to the public, we revisit an interview with its Director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, on the controversial museum project.

Art is global; art history, the discipline, less so. As calls for social justice attain a fever pitch worldwide, they dovetail with current debates within museums that have seen a shift away from European and North American cultural dominance. There is a growing awareness that much of what is on display – from the Parthenon Marbles in London’s British Museum to the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum – carries a tarnished history of violence and colonialism.

This is the setting in which a new, globally minded institution, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, will open at the end of 2020. Housed in the city’s reconstructed Royal Palace, the project has been subject to construction delays, escalating production costs and public scepticism around its very raison d’être, with many arguing that it shouldn’t exist at all. Its director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, defends the Humboldt Forum as just that: a forum for debate. Is he right?

Pablo Larios: Let’s start with the Humboldt Forum’s namesakes: the brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt. What is their connection to the new institution’s mission?

Humoldt Forum, Berlin. Courtesy: Humoldt Forum, Berlin; photograph: © SHF/ Giuliani von Giese

Hartmut Dorgerloh: Wilhelm and Alexander lived in Berlin from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. Wilhelm was a diplomat and linguist who invented comparative linguistics. He was integral to the establishment of Berlin’s museums and our partner at the Forum, the Humboldt University of Berlin. Alexander was an explorer and traveller. On his great trip to Central and South America (1799–1804), he learned that you cannot separate social phenomena from natural science. For instance, he noticed that slavery and plantations caused both human and environmental devastation, giving him two reasons to support abolition.

A phrase that’s essential to understanding the Humboldt Forum and its lodestars is: ‘Everything is interconnected.’ Nature and culture, ecology and economy. You cannot find isolated solutions for global problems; you have to operate in terms of networks. And you must see the world as a whole and be open to it. As a centre for culture and science in the heart of Berlin, we want to contribute to the discussions surrounding these disciplines in the way the Humboldt brothers did two centuries ago.

PL: How did the idea arise and how will the Humboldt Forum realize these ambitious aims?

HD: The Forum sprang from the idea of reconstructing an important part of the German history: the Royal Palace, which, having suffered significant bomb damage during World War II, was demolished by the East German government in 1950. When it opens at the end of 2020, however, the Humboldt Forum will focus less on architecture and the urban environment and more on the process of collecting in the arts and sciences in a global world.

In the new building, which is designed by the Italian architect Franco Stella, there will be various collections on display: two from the Berlin State Museum, as well as those of the Ethnological Museum, the Museum of Asian Art, the Berlin City Museum and the Humboldt University. Some of these are based on items from the Berlin Palace’s original Kunstkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities, established by the building’s former owners, the Dukes of Brandenburg, in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In addition to this, our cultural programme will span music, dance and performance. We have been in contact with artists and partners worldwide for a long time. One result of this was a programme for Alexander von Humboldt’s 250th birthday in September 2019, which we celebrated with sixty artists and researchers from across the globe. And we’re in discussions now to host a film festival that brings together filmmakers from across sub-Saharan Africa. We also want to collaborate with diasporic communities within Germany, for example descendants of Vietnamese migrants who arrived as guest workers in communist East Berlin, and the Turkish communities who arrived in former West Berlin from the 1970s onwards.

Humoldt Forum, Berlin. Courtesy: Humoldt Forum, Berlin; photograph: © SHF / Photo: David von Becker

PL: Will the Humboldt Forum be a collecting institution?

HD: The Humboldt Forum Foundation has a small collection of objects pertaining to the history of the site but our focus is on bringing art and science to the public, not expanding the collection.

PL: With regard to the ethnological collections, where do these objects come from?

HD: Berlin’s Ethnological Museum was established in the mid-19th century but reached its collecting peak around 1900. German ethnologists amassed a great number of objects from communities around the world that they considered to be ‘untouched’, following an idea of ‘pure natural’ cultures. This is a concept that sounds highly problematic to us today. It’s also important to understand what they did not collect. For instance, there are very few objects from the Caribbean because German ethnologists believed that the region had been irrevocably altered by both the Spanish colonists and enslaved peoples.

PL: One of your upcoming exhibitions centres on the work of a 19th-century scientist from Nebraska named Francis La Flesche. How did his collection end up in Germany?

HD: La Flesche was the first professional indigenous ethnologist in North America. Around 1890, the Berlin Ethnological Museum commissioned him to gather a collection that represented the traditions of his own Omaha culture. He sold a collection of more than 60 objects to the Berlin museum: games, pipes, moccasins, a feather crown and more. Fascinatingly, it is the earliest example of self-representation on the part of an indigenous North American culture in the collection. La Flesche decided what was relevant, which is very different from having a Berliner make the selection. These objects were never displayed together, so this collection is the focus of one of our special exhibitions. This sums up what we want to do at the Humboldt Forum: work closely with source communities to create informed exhibits.

Humoldt Forum, Berlin. Courtesy: Humoldt Forum, Berlin; photograph: Stefan Falk

PL: What do the Omaha today say to this?

HD: On the occasion of their visit in Berlin in November 2018, representatives of the Omaha and the Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC) were very moved when they saw these objects, which they only knew from photographs and literature. It was a time-capsule, on view for the first time in a century. The objects are in very good condition. They told me that, for them, it was an opportunity to reconnect with their ancestors and their traditional way of life as well as to present their history.

Our collaborators in Nebraska are very much in our minds at present because the situation for Native Americans during the pandemic is extremely difficult: we pray for them. The same goes for our partners in Brazil, Tanzania and India, with whom we are preparing projects.

PL: Are you working to display La Flesche’s collection in Omaha?

HD: Yes. Together with the Berlin State Museum, we’re making every effort to present the exhibition in Nebraska.

PL: How has the Restitution Report (2018) by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy affected the practices of the Humboldt Forum?

HD: That report shed light on discussions that have been ongoing for many years, though mainly among specialists. The debate following the report led to more public awareness and, as a result, to more financial and human resources for provenance research. For our colleagues at the Berlin State Museum, this is an important requirement for restitution.

What I want to stress is the importance of involving communities in these discussions. This is one point on which I would criticize the Restitution Report. We have to discuss, but we also have to listen. We cannot talk about people without them being present. That’s one of our principles. The global north alone cannot make decisions about how to restitute.

PL: Turning to the Humboldt Forum’s permanent exhibition: why does it include the door to Berlin’s famous techno club, Tresor?

HD: I walked through that door to the club myself in the early 1990s! The permanent exhibition – conceived in tandem with Kulturprojekte Berlin and the Berlin State Museum Foundation – is divided into seven different spaces showing how Berlin interacts with the world. Alongside ‘Revolution’, ‘Free Space’, ‘Boundaries’, ‘War’, ‘Interconnection’ and ‘Fashion’ is ‘Entertainment’. A special relationship developed between the techno scenes in Chicago, Detroit and Berlin that turned this city into an international music hub in the early 1990s. The Tresor door is doubly interesting because it also once secured the safe of Wertheim’s – a large, Jewish-owned department store. You cannot talk about Berlin’s history without mentioning the ‘Roaring ’20s’ and the many Jewish cultural figures and artists who lived here, before fleeing the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s. In turn, the history of Hollywood was profoundly influenced by Jewish emigrants arriving in the US from Nazi Germany. As an object, this door conveys multiple histories of Berlin that continue to resonate today.

Transport of Tresor's Door. Courtesy: Dimitri Hegemann / Kulturprojekte Berlin and Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin; photograph: David von Becker

PL: What object or work, for you, exemplifies the Humboldt Forum’s mission?

HD: Foremost for me, perhaps, is António Ole’s Margem da Zona Limité: Township Wall (2004), which was one of the first works of contemporary African art to be included in the Ethnological Museum collection. Ole made the wall from a variety of materials, including corrugated iron, wood and disparate found objects such as a hoe and a discarded sofa. The work’s title might evoke the context of townships and racial segregation in South Africa or Zimbabwe, but all of its components come from Berlin. First exhibited at Martin Gropius Bau, then at the Ethnology Museum and, most recently, at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Township Wall will be installed at the entrance to the ethnological collections. It is a key object, in my eyes, because it forces you to question your own assumptions about place and to reflect more deeply on what you see. Only after careful consideration do you realize that the work speaks not only to our globalized world but to the very place in which you’re standing.

Main Image: Humoldt Forum, Berlin. Courtesy: Humoldt Forum, Berlin; photograph: © SHF/ Giuliani von Giese

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

Prof. Dr. Hartmut Dorgerloh is General Director of the Humboldt Forum and Chairman of the Board of the Humboldt Forum Foundation in the Berlin Palace.