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'

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22: Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes are displayed at The British Museum on November 22, 2018 in London, England. The British Museum has agreed to loan the plaques back to a new museum in Benin City in Nigeria. The Benin Bronzes were taken from Africa by British troops in 1897. The return of a basalt Easter Island Head figure has also been requested this week by The Governor of the Easter Islands, Tarita Alarcón Rapu amid a broader call for artefacts taken during colonial rule to be restituted. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

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 new Berlin Castle (Humboldt Forum) is seen on the sidelines of the opening press conference on December 16, 2020 in Berlin.  A reconstructed Prussian palace opens in Berlin on Wednesday December 16, 2020 as a museum complex housing colonial artifacts, just as debate is gathering pace around the return of treasures plundered from abroad.
The opening ceremony for the Humboldt Forum, which will house attractions including the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, will take place virtually due to restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
 / AFP / Tobias Schwarz

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.

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

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.

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