• Art
  • “First you brought us colonialism. Now you are bringing us post-colonialism”


“First you brought us colonialism. Now you are bringing us post-colonialism”

After the opening of the East Wing last September, we spoke with Humboldt Forum director Hartmut Dorgeloh about the future of Berlin's controversial restored palace.

Visitors in the multimedia dome room of the special exhibition Songlines.
NMA / Stiftung Humboldt Forum in the Berliner Schloss, Photo: Stefanie Loos

Years of polemics have plagued the Humboldt Forum, from the controversial destruction of the East German Palace of the Republic to the restitution debates surrounding the ethnographic collections it now houses. Director Hartmut Dorgeloh discusses the future of the Forum in light of the opening of the new East Wing last September.

It’s been a year since the opening of the Humboldt Forum. As Director, what have you taken away from your experiences?

That things are far more complex and difficult. There are no simple solutions and no simple answers anymore. The Humboldt Forum is not a museum, it is more of a cultural hotspot, and it was a fantastic idea to name it the Humboldt Forum because it is about encounters, gatherings, bringing people together and changing perspectives. I was recently talking with the Omaha people, they asked me: “How can you live with only four directions? North, South, East, West? How can you find your place in the world?” They also have up, down and myself. And I have the same questions that they do: “How can you live like that?” In many ways that’s the idea behind the Humboldt Forum: How can we communicate and present these different experiences?

In recent years there has been a tremendous sense of loss for the Palace of the Republic, the former DDR parliament which was torn down to make way for the Humboldt Forum, a reconstruction of a Hohenzollern Prussian Palace. Has the strength of the public reaction surprised you?

The Palace of the Republic is still very much in people’s memory, but we are facing a number of mourning groups. Some of them are happy with the reconstruction. Some of them are not satisfied, because the reconstruction was not complete – only three parts of the façades were done and the interiors are a completely different architectural taste and style. Many people from both the East and the West are happy that the Palace of the Republic is gone, but there’s another group of people who are missing it. I can’t imagine that the same decision would be made today.

“They said: ‘First you brought us colonialism. Now you are bringing us post-colonialism. Stop bringing us anything without asking us!’

That decision to tear down and rebuild the Prussian palace was made in 2002. What has changed?

It’s important to recognise under which circumstances these decisions were made, because it was shortly after the federal government moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999. And what remained from the Palace of the Republic at the time was an ugly skeleton due to the removal of asbestos. It had lost its former splendour. It was even closed during the last days of the DDR because the employees were suffering from the asbestos and it was dangerous working there. In fact, it was their demand to close it – not to knock it down – but to close it.

The Palace of the Republic has become highly symbolic in a way that no one could have imagined…

Absolutely. It has become the symbol of how the Westerners dealt with the East. I grew up in the East and my father was a Lutheran pastor. So I grew up in opposition to the state and I never identified with the building. But for many, the destruction of the Palace of the Republic erased DDR history. It ignored the fact that even in a wrong system there could be a ‘right’ life. It failed to acknowledge the many biographies of ordinary people like nurses and gardeners living in the East under difficult circumstances who were trying to do their best. So even today it is read like a victory over the East.

Video projection in the special exhibition Songlines. Photo: Stefanie Loos

Some critics have claimed that the act of rebuilding the Kaiser’s former palace harks back to a time before the horrors of National Socialism, looking back to a time when Germany was a strong colonial power…

After unification in 1990, the perspective was different from what it is now. Back then it was about repairing the city. It was also the reason why Franko Stella was chosen as an architect. Stella wanted to create a new urban and public space and after the failures of the war and the post war division of the city, I believe the majority of the donors were interested in repair. This was not political, this was about repairing aesthetically and environmentally. Even amongst the strongest of supporters, you’re not going to find someone who wants to reinstall the monarchy. Many buildings were in a bad shape in East Germany and this was about glorifying this former urban setting, to give Unter den Linden a focal point once again.

Does this continued controversy detract from the function of the Humboldt Forum?

What’s done is done. What we can learn is that tearing down historic buildings is not a solution. It’s happened twice now. First in 1948-50, when they demolished the impressive ruins of the original baroque palace. Then when the sovereign Federal Parliament decided in 2002, after 10 years of public debate, to reconstruct the original palace (voted through with a two thirds majority). It should be remembered that the majorities came from all parties of the Federal Parliament. There was strong political and private support for the Humboldt Forum. And now, I really want to focus on the Forum, our programme, not on the architecture.

I’ve just seen the current Songlines, a new exhibition leading you through one of the great legends of Aborigine culture. The exhibition plunges you through a multimedia tour that is interactive and at points immersive, encapsulating the Humboldt Forum’s ability to show different cultures from around the world from the inside instead of hidden behind vitrines.

Exactly, and that’s why I was so interested in bringing it here. Because I’ve found it to be a very convincing example of how we should create exhibitions and future events in the Humboldt Forum. The exhibition was conceived and curated exclusively by a team of representatives from Indigenous Australian communities. With its multimedia exhibition design, contemporary art and performance, the exhibition presents an extraordinary encounter with the art and cultures of Indigenous communities.

On September 17, the East Wing opened, finally completing the building. It also holds the controversial Ethnographic Collections that up until now have been storage. The Humboldt Forum has come under a lot of criticism, with critics and former employees claiming that it was not doing enough research to reconstitute artefacts…

The objects belong to the state museums of Berlin as part of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK). Therefore, as General Director of the Humboldt Forum, I cannot decide about restitution but our programme tries to reflect important new forms of international collaboration.

The North American Collection will be shown with many of the artefacts originating from an expedition along the north coast of America by the controversial ethnographer Johan Adrian Jacobsen. As well as buying artefacts, he was also known to rob grave sites. Is it possible to identify or is there existing documentation to indicate those items that have a questionable provenance?

The SPK are working on this in partnership with colleagues from Canada. A couple of years ago some artefacts were reconstituted that were taken by Jacobson without permission from a graveyard, and as far as I know there are no current claims from the Canadian side.

It was recently announced that all the Benin Bronzes in possession of the SPK will be reconstituted to Nigeria. It shows how quickly opinion is changing.

Yes, they will all be given back, even though there is no legal but a moral reason for restitution from a German point of view – because it was looted by the British during a campaign in 1887. Right now there are ongoing negotiations with our partners from Nigeria as to what can be shown in our upcoming exhibition that displays bronzes from Benin as loans from Nigeria. They actually want to add contemporary objects from Nigeria, to show that Nigeria wasn’t just the historic Kingdom of Benin.

Stiftung Humboldt Forum in the Berliner Schloss Photo: David von Becker

What do you say to the allegation that the very existence of ethnographic collections, like that of the British Museum in London, emphasises that sense of otherness between cultures and even reinforces racist attitudes?

I can understand this argument, but listening to people from the Amazon, for instance, you get a different perspective. They are deeply proud of what we have presented from their culture. Because they are singular and they see themselves as a distinct group that shouldn’t be mixed up. It’s important not just to talk to these people but to listen to them. Otherwise it prolongs our European view, as if we know what to do without listening and asking.

I was in Tanzania a couple of weeks ago, we are doing several projects with partners there, and they are also a former colonised nation. We had a meeting with the descendants of a leader of the Maji Maji uprising in 1906. And they said: “First you brought us colonialism. Now you are bringing us post-colonialism. Stop bringing us anything without asking us! If German colonial history is so important for you, it’s fine. It’s up to you to do your business. But why should we become an object of your interest?” I think we can learn a lot from this.

You have been vocal in saying that restitution is far more complicated than simply returning items…

I believe that the Humboldt Forum will become the place for discussions that are far more complex than activists and initiatives would sometimes believe. This is down to the complexity of the social situation and the structures in place in these countries of origin. What I’ve learned is that it needs more time, it needs more talks, and it needs more trust. The Humboldt Forum is open for discussion and to discuss any possibility. And I think the Humboldt Forum has become a catalyst or this new openness in German museums – perhaps not only in Germany, but increasingly in discussions about how to live together in a globalised world. Such as the discussions about the future of ethnological collections, and the need to decolonize knowledge and practices.