Black men fighting in a tunnel. On Humboldt Forum’s new ethnographic exhibition

Well, this has come, too. After eight years of jackhammering and towering cranes, construction blinds and traffic diversions, pink pipes (for the debris) and blue pipes (for the water) winding through the heart of the city, the baroque royal palace finally rises in the middle of Berlin for the second time. Not as beautifully carried out, with the meticulous care of the old masters, as the first one, but rather roughened up a bit, like “so umgefähr, on the basis of this you can already imagine what the original might have been like”. And of course this all just the exterior facades, because inside it’s all modern, like a mediocre mall. The master apparently came from this scene, he had a feel for it. Franco Stella, of Venice, is almost eighty years old, but he has not had a really significant building yet. Maybe he accepted this job in 2008 because it was a real wasp nest, poked by only a few. Rebuilding a completely destroyed historic building out of nothing (the palace was bombed in WWII, and rather than restore it, the remains were instead cleared away by the new East German leadership, who built the GDR’s asbestos concrete parliament in its place), moreover in a place historically and ideologically so sensitive: the whole process of design and construction was accompanied by much debate and criticism. The opening of Europe’s most expensive cultural project was delayed from 2019 to 2021, but that is nothing compared to the fact that Europe’s most expensive airport, in the same city, is almost ten years late, or that no German trains or S-Bahns run on time.

The Humboldt Forum, as the new palace is called, was intended to be a museum of non-European cultures, “the German equivalent of the British Museum”, as touted in the German press. Its collections – the Ethnographic Museum and the Museum of Asian Art – had been housed in the Dahlem Museum up until 2015, when they started the process of moving them. Since then, I have been missing this excellent museum painfully; to it I dedicated one of the first posts of this blog. Now I go to see how the new museum outperforms its predecessor, already world-class, and how the larger space and state-of-the-art museum technology will enrich the exhibition of the objects.

The placement of the collections is still going on. So far, two sections have opened, representing Africa-Oceania and Asia. The latter has been really given a boost by its new home: many more objects are on exhibit now, and the cultures and their contexts are better visualized. I want to write about these separately. But the first impression, the African exhibition, is depressing. It’s as if we were in a completely different museum from the Asian section: everything is more amateurish, from the organization through the exhibition to the labeling.

In the old Dahlem Museum, one of the great master strokes was the lighting. They were among the first museums to adopt individual spot lighting of each object in a dimly lit room, which made the objects stand out in their uniqueness and plasticity, lending them a radiance, an aura, even. In the Humboldt, this form of presentation persists in the Asian section. But in the Africa-Oceania section, the background of the displays is dark (Why, when the vast majority of the objects is also dark?), and harsh spotlights are trained on them from the wrong side of the glass. Thus, the whole display glass reflects the room, the window glare and the reflections of the visitors, and you can hardly see anything of the objects themselves in the midst of a laser storm of hundreds of spot lights. The reason you cannot see much of this in the photos below is that I tried to shoot the less exposed pieces and retouched the photos in many places. The overall impression is better conveyed by this painting by the Polynesian Greg Semu, Self-portrait with Twelve Disciples or: The last Cannibal Supper, Because Tomorrow We Become Christians, although I have also retouched this photo.

Maybe it is not bad that we se so little of the objects, because otherwise we would start to wonder about the identity of each one. However, the concept of the exhibition is not to fiddle with single objects. In the huge central hall of the African collection, objects are exhibited in bulk in the three wall displays, like in a colonial souvenir shop, without labels, with only a few illegible dog tags linked on the feet of some of them. Unbelievable, but true. I remember that the Bradt Guide Ukraine wrote in the 1990s about the Museum of Atheism in Lemberg/Lviv (which has since been renamed the Museum of Religion, with the actual collection unchanged), that its exhibition – the furnishings of many closed-down churches and synagogues was simply dumped there – is like a provincial junkshop. The Lemberg express has now reached Berlin. I can only hope this is a temporary state; that as most of the rooms in the floor plan of the African section are still closed due to the process of moving in and arranging the pieces, so they will later dedicate some attention and care to those rooms already open, and we will then find out where the otherwise high-quality African artefacts came from, what they mean and what purpose they served.

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However, our hopes wither in the already more attentively arranged smaller rooms, where the objects have their labels. In fact, these rooms seem to be arranged by two separate museologists. One has dealt with the individual objects and mostly provided thorough information about them, while the other was tasked with creating the general concept. Most of the objects originate in the pre-1920 German colonies in Africa and Oceania – their history is now experiencing a renaissance with numerous exhibitions, books, publications of personal photo collections and memoirs –, and so the second museologist considered it his job to focus on the colonial past. And, strangely, he used the same approach as a century ago, but turned it on its head. While the nostalgia exhibitions of the 1920s and 1930s primarily emphasized how much the white – Aryan – man gave to the blacks, the current exhibition focuses on the sins committed by the colonists, in the spirit of overall German guilt. I’m not saying that one should not confront the past, but at the same time, I am not visiting an exhibition about Africa to learn more about the bad German conscience. I am here to learn about the African cultures themselves. Sadly this is not the place for that. And, in the midst of the deeply felt guilt, this only serves as another kick to these already much-kicked cultures.

A mask representing a European man, 1880s, Papua New Guinea, the island of New Ireland (known in the period as Neumecklenburg)

In the Dahlem Museum I did not have this sense of lack. But if I had, I could well have restored my faith in a visit to the museum’s excellent bookstore, which was perhaps the best bookstore of ethnography and anthropology in all of Europe. The Humboldt’s souvenir shop – I would not call it a bookstore – is a deep disappointment in comparison to the Dahlem, or to any other museum. Mugs, puzzles, T-shirts, plush figures. Of books or catalogs, there are maybe a dozen. Whosoever needs such things, let them order them from Amazon. Of course not on the deplorable, third-world German internet, but rather by means of a trusty letter or stone tablet.

Humboldt Shop, or guilt takes off its mask

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