By Graham Bowley
The courtyard of the rebuilt palace that will house the Humboldt Forum when it opens next year in Berlin. (Felix Brüggemann for The New York Times)
BERLIN — One Saturday morning in February, about 100 protesters marched to the Humboldt Forum, a new museum rising beside the River Spree.
One protester bellowed into a microphone, saying that the museum would forever be associated with the blood of empire. “This,” he said, pointing to the grand stone facade of the Humboldt Forum, “will be a memorial to the colonial era!”
The Forum, which cost 595 million euros (almost $700 million) and will be finished soon, is being housed in a rebuilt palace, a fixture of the German and Prussian imperial past that was bombed during World War II. The prospect of objects gathered during the colonial era moving into Kaiser Wilhelm II’s domain has focused further attention on the period. Many of the ethnological materials that will be in the museum were amassed under circumstances that aren’t clear.
A new museum crammed with jewels of non-Western art and culture in the center of the reunified capital seemed a good idea: It would show Germany as confident and open to the world. It would also give the country another world-class institution it could be proud of, comparable to the British Museum or the Louvre. The Forum will unite the collections of Berlin’s Asian Art Museum and Ethnological Museum, bringing together one of the world’s richest holdings of non-European art and artifacts.
But just as impressive as the museum itself is, so is the vitriolic debate that has arisen.
The disagreements provoked the resignation of a well regarded advisory board member, Bénédicte Savoy. “The baby is dead on arrival,” she said, denouncing the museum as a conservative project that does not reflect a modern Germany changed by immigration and crying out for new thinking.
Nearly 30 years after East and West Germany were reunited, there is a longing here for an identity that goes beyond the Holocaust and World War II, postwar division, reconstruction and reunification. As modern Germany seeks to define itself in a more complex way, the urge is surfacing to discuss past glories of scientific achievement, history, art and exploration as well as to confront an uncomfortable part of its past.
At the center of these convulsions, the Forum has pitted those who want to move on and celebrate national accomplishments against those who caution that Germany risks forgetting what it was. Germany has addressed Nazi atrocities, but it still has not even begun re-examining its colonial era properly, critics say.
The centuries-old Schloss, the original building at the heart of the debate, is seen as a link to an era of philosophers by its supporters; to its critics, it symbolizes a seat of imperial power from a time of militarism and national expansionism — traits that ultimately brought down the Allied bombs on the castle in 1945.
Then there was a worry, made more sensitive by the far-right’s recent inroads into German politics, that recreating the Schloss signaled a concerning nostalgia for an age when Germany was great, a view of the past that skimmed over the horrors of the 20th century.
Historically, Germany came to empire building later than other European countries like France or Britain.
But its colonial activities involved atrocities such as the genocide of ethnic groups in what was then German South West Africa, and is now part of Namibia, and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Maji Maji revolt in German East Africa, in what is now Tanzania.
Many of the objects in the Prussian heritage foundation’s collection were gathered in a spirit of scientific inquiry as explorers brought objects back from around the globe to preserve them and learn from them, said the art historian Horst Bredekamp, one of the Forum’s three founding directors. But countless others, according to the critics, were seized by force, or given by people who had no choice.
The debate has prompted some action. There are plans to introduce expert curators from countries where the objects originated.
The German Lost Art Foundation, which traditionally investigates Nazi-looted art, announced it would widen its work and give grants to museums for colonial provenance research.
The heritage foundation and its president, Hermann Parzinger, agree that the provenance of objects in the forum’s collections needs to be more fully researched, and some things should eventually be returned.
But he proposes a gradualist approach that requires first a broader European rethinking of the principles of restitution.