Humboldt Forum: Berlin's ambitious cultural centre opens after years of delay

Costing $802 million, the centre will include collections of non-European art in a palace replica

The Humboldt Forum, one of Germany’s most ambitious cultural projects, housed in a partial replica of a Prussian palace that was demolished by East Germany’s communist government after the Second World War, is opening to the public on Tuesday. The forum will feature collections of African, Asian and other non-European art.

The project had faced numerous delays in construction and also owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Located in the centre of Berlin, the Humboldt Forum was designed by Italian architect Franco Stella and features three replica facades, one modern one and a modern interior.

In 2002, the German parliament voted to reconstruct the 18th-century palace. The original structure was demolished in 1950 and later replaced by East Germany’s parliament building, which has also been knocked down. The project cost a total of $802 million.

As part of its programming, the Humboldt Forum will feature exhibits from two of Berlin’s state museums, the Ethnological Museum and the Museum for Asian Art. Its initial round of shows, opening on Tuesday, will feature six exhibitions. It includes one on Berlin’s history, another on ivory, and one on brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, the explorer and educator for whom the building is named after.

“The exhibitions are very varied, from very different institutions,” director Hartmut Dorgerloh told German news agency dpa. “I think that is very good because it shows the bandwidth of subjects but also the various ways in which exhibitions can be done today.”

One of the shows, titled Terrible Beauty: Elephant – Human – Ivory examines the history of the global ivory trade and addresses colonial exploitation. Among the historical objects on view is a mammoth tooth ivory that is around 40,000 years old, as well as carved jewellery boxes from 16th-century Sri Lanka.

Recently, the cultural centre faced its own issues about colonisation, particularly centred on the provenance of the Humboldt’s collections. A number of Benin Bronzes, which were looted from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin by a British colonial expedition in 1897, for example, may be shown at the Humboldt Forum in line with the hopes of Berlin’s museums authority.

German authorities have been in negotiations with Nigeria regarding the return of the artefacts, but are also discussing future showings of the historical objects in Germany as part of the agreement.

The Humboldt Forum will continue to be built in the coming years, with its second and third floors to open in September, and the second and third floors of the east wing, with the rest of the ethnological and Asian displays, to open in the first half of 2022.

Dance performances, film screenings, concerts and lectures have been scheduled for the summer.

– Additional reporting by AP

Updated: July 20th 2021, 11:41 AM