This Museum in Berlin Has a New Approach to Narrative

From left: Stephan Falk; David von Becker

Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum is setting itself apart by asking who gets to tell the story behind the art.

For hundreds of years, the Berlin Palace, on an island in the river Spree in the center of the city, was the home of rulers—from the electors of Brandenburg to the emperors of Germany—and a showplace of art and style. The Ancient Prussian Art Chamber was established there in the 16th century. Bombed in World War II, then demolished in 1950 by the East German government, the palace and its collections went the way of the old world. The site served as a Communist parade ground in the 1970s, when the Palace of the Republic was installed. That building, in turn, was razed a decade and a half after the Berlin Wall came down. Since then the ideologically charged site has been a blank space at the city’s heart. But now the Humboldt Forum, a cultural institution with ambitions as complex and vast as the history of the ground it occupies, has been erected.

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Named after the post-Enlightenment polymaths Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, the Forum will begin a phased opening in late 2020. The building, designed by Italian architect Franco Stella, was constructed in six years at a cost of more than $700 million Externally—at least on three of its four façades—it appears to be a replica of the original Berlin Palace, but the interior is filled with modern spaces, including venues for dance, music, theater, cinema, lectures, and debates, as well as galleries, cafés, and a rooftop restaurant. Officials of the Forum emphasize that this is much more than a museum. It is more like an amalgamation of the facilities of Lincoln Center, the British Museum, and the Council on Foreign Relations, offering a breadth of multicultural programming.

Since exhibitions will draw from the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art (both now under the Forum’s aegis), the Forum seeks to address the critics of such institutions, who see the problem of exploitation as inherent in European exhibitions of non-European cultural material. Its general director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, believes the Forum can perform a problem-solving mission: It seeks to shift the tone of the conversation away from thorny questions of ownership and restitution of art toward a respectful collaboration with the communities whose ancestral art is shown.

One early exhibition, Dorgerloh says, will be “Against the Current: Francis La Flesche and the ‘Umónhon’ [Omaha],” opening in late 2021. In 2018, after Humboldt curators found a collection of objects from the Omaha Native American nation in a Berlin storage facility, they flew to Nebraska to meet with representatives of the Omaha about how to contextualize the objects.

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Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska who teaches tribal history and tradition at Nebraska Indian Community College, explains that the collection was assembled in the 1890s by the anthropologist Francis La Flesche, the son of one of the last chiefs of the Omaha, who researched and wrote about the culture of his people for the Bureau of American Ethnology. Since the items had been purchased from the Omaha nation and sold to the original museum, fair and square, ownership was clear. At issue was stewardship: the question of how the items should be displayed.

Together, the Omaha and the Germans designed an exhibition as part of a constellation of events including discussions and film screenings that will take place over a period of months. “The bottom line is, this is not the Humboldt trying to tell our story, to reconstruct it,” Morris says. “We provide the narrative.”