BY Pablo Larios in Interviews | 02 SEP 20

Why Are Activists Kicking Up a Storm Against Berlin’s Humboldt Forum?

Berlin’s new meta-institution was set to open this month; instead, artists and cultural workers are taking to the streets in protest

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BY Pablo Larios in Interviews | 02 SEP 20

Berlin’s Humboldt Forum has not had an easy time of it. The publicly funded, many-roomed arts institution was supposed to open its doors in Berlin’s reconstructed City Palace this month. Yet the Forum – which aggregates several existing state collections of non-Western art – has been beleaguered by construction delays (not directly related to Covid-19) and subject to considerable public outcry against its rationale. Since last month, a group calling itself the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum has been taking to the streets, shouting ‘tear it down and turn it upside down!’ I spoke with the coalition to hear what they’re calling for and why.

Pablo Larios: How did the Coalition start and who are your members? I noticed that Berlin based artists Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who was behind the German pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, and Alice Creischer, designed your logo.

he Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum
The Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum 

CCW: The Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum began as a result of shared outrage at the reconstruction of the colonial-era Berlin Palace to house the Humboldt Forum, and its imperialist messaging. As cultural workers living in Berlin, we feel an urgency and responsibility to publicly reject the regressive model of a cultural institution that the Humboldt Forum embodies. We do not have fixed members, but are an open and growing group, held together by this shared sense of purpose.

PL: Since mid-August, you have been demonstrating against the Humboldt Forum. What do you aim to achieve and why?

CCW: The Humboldt Forum is scheduled to open later this year in the city centre and will become one of Berlin’s most heavily funded institutions. It will house the Ethnological Museum, with its collections from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania, as well as the Asian Art Museum. A considerable portion of the objects it will contain were acquired through colonial looting and their inclusion in the museum must already be read as a document of this violence. Yet rather than working to address these histories, the Humboldt Forum project moves in the exact opposite direction by reviving a 15th-century palace that is charged with the symbolism of the Prussian monarchy, Christian dominance and colonial entitlement.

The Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum
Demonstration organized by the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum, 15 August 2020. Photograph: Jakub Danilewicz 

This is outrageous and becomes even more so at this moment, as monuments to racist, colonial violence are being removed in very visible ways around the world. In contrast, the Humboldt Forum creates further room for rightwing nationalism. We argue that any conversation about repurposing the building isn’t possible until its most offensive symbols, such as the cross-crowned dome at its top, are dismantled. Our slogan ‘Tear it down and turn it upside down’ is a twofold demand – it’s a call that goes beyond the mere closure of the Humboldt Forum to imagining the inversion of its imperial power structures.

PL: What’s the symbolism of the cross and orb replicas that you reportedly built and tossed into the river?

CCW: On 30 May, the Humboldt Forum was adorned with a golden orb and cross, which we copied in papier-mâché for use in our first public rehearsal at the Schinkelplatz, across the river from the building, on 15 August. The structure is not simply a prominent representation of a cross, as both the Humboldt Forum itself and much of the media have so far interpreted it. Appended to a golden orb representing the world, the cross becomes the globus cruciger, or Reichsapfel in German: an explicit symbol of Christian global domination dating from the 11th century, which has been deployed as an emblem of power by various European monarchies, including Prussia’s.

he Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum
Demonstration organized by the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum, 15 August 2020. Photograph: Jakub Danilewicz 

There is no way to misread the symbolism; yet for anyone left in doubt, the Humboldt Forum’s architects have dared to go even further by re-inscribing its base with a band of text originally composed by Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm IV: ‘All in heaven and on earth and beneath the earth should kneel in the name of Jesus.’ This demand completely discredits the Minister of Culture and Media’s recent dubious attempt to justify the cross as representing values of ‘charity, freedom, open-mindedness and tolerance’ and as ‘an invitation to get to know the various cultures that will be at home in the Humboldt Forum,’ as quoted on the Humboldt Forum’s website. (Editorial note: the Humboldt Forum’s website lists views from cultural figures for and against the cross and cupola.)

It would be a mistake to think that the forms of imperial violence reflected in such symbols are sealed in the past when in fact they are constantly manifesting themselves in the present, though often under new guises. In the orb and cross, we see a clear line being drawn from European colonial domination to contemporary corporate entitlement. In fact, the orb and cross were made possible by a large donation from Maren Otto. In exchange, she was permitted to embed a dedication onto the orb itself to her late husband, Werner Otto, the founder of the Otto Group, one of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies which is based in Germany. Similarly, we wonder, who are the dead – those ‘beneath the earth’ – whom the inscription exhorts to kneel before the cross? Is this an address to the people whose bodily remains are stored in the building’s basement as part of its ethnological collections? Victims of racist police violence? Of former German concentration camps? Or the victims of attacks fuelled by rightwing nationalist ideologies that are on the rise in Germany today — such as those killed during the attack in Hanau earlier this year?

Demonstration organized by the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum 
Demonstration organized by the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum, 15 August 2020. Photograph: Jakub Danilewicz 

We want to see the building turned upside down, from its foundations to the tip of its cross. To bury the signs of white European superiority and unbury the memory of Germany’s colonial past which they suppress. The replica of the globus cruciger that we built and tossed in the river was a first rehearsal for the toppling of the building itself.

PL: How has the Humboldt Forum responded to your actions?

CCW: They haven’t responded in any way; the orb and cross have not been removed yet.

Main Image: Demonstration organized by The Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum, 23 August 2020. Photograph: Lucas Odahara 

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

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