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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Germany's Humboldt Forum opens to chorus of disapproval over colonial artefacts

Berlin museum on site of former imperial palace is accused of 'cultural amnesia'

The Benin Bronzes are the most controversial of the artefacts in the Humboldt Forum collection. Getty
The Benin Bronzes are the most controversial of the artefacts in the Humboldt Forum collection. Getty

A controversial exhibition of colonial artefacts, including those from the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, opened at the Humboldt Forum in Germany on Wednesday.

It marks the culmination of one of Europe's most lavish and divisive cultural projects.

The Humboldt Forum's founders see it as a celebration of Germany's enlightenment, whereas academics and activists perceive it as a whitewashing of German history and an erasing of the destructive legacy of the First World War.

The museum is a replica of the Berliner Schloss, or Berlin Palace, which was built by the Hohenzollern dynasty and demolished in 1950 by the East German government.

The ruling communist party replaced the palace with its own parliament, which was razed after German unification in 1990.

The Humboldt Forum is a reconstructed Prussian palace built on the site of the former East German Parliament. AFP
The Humboldt Forum is a reconstructed Prussian palace built on the site of the former East German Parliament. AFP

Criticism has not only been limited to the building; the colonial artefacts it contains have also brought opprobrium.

Museum curators have faced accusations that efforts to determine provenance have been insufficient and that they failed to prove the ethical case for displaying the objects at all.

The most controversial items in the range are the Benin Bronzes, which were looted by the British in 1897 from an area now part of Nigeria.

It is difficult to get historical justice. So this is more a moral question

Prof Juergen Zimmerer

Germany has 580 of them but in November Nigeria revealed plans to build a museum over the next four years to exhibit the stolen treasures.

Professor Juergen Zimmerer, an imperial specialist at the University of Hamburg, believes the controversy will endure.

"It is an ongoing discussion because the people in charge of politics and the museum failed to present a satisfactory concept," he said.

"The world will watch Germany and the Humboldt Forum closely."

The Forum has been called on by Berlin anti-colonial activist Mnyaka Sururu Mboro and others to return the artefacts to their native lands.

But they will be hard-pressed to prosecute their case through the courts.

"International law is in large part a creation of former colonial powers," said Zimmerer. "It is difficult to get historical justice. So this is more a moral question."

The project has become a lightning rod for unresolved issues around Germany's colonial legacy.

Zimmerer said it showed "there is still a lot of colonial amnesia".

"The question of looted art is just one of those controversial topics," he said.

Cultural objections were not the only problems faced by the restoration team.

The palace was originally scheduled to be opened in 2019, but building problems and the Covid-19 pandemic caused a year-long delay.

Berlin's mayor Michael Mueller opened the Humboldt Forum in a socially distanced ceremony on Wednesday.

The museum will only be open digitally until coronavirus restrictions allow for visits.

Updated: December 17, 2020 05:59 PM

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