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On the reconstruction of colonial legacy and the safeguarding of living cultures in the Humboldt Forum, Berlin.

Since 2011, the old allied car repair shop located in the Askanierring in Berlin-Spandau has hosted a changing line-up of manual workers. Piece by piece, a diverse group of sculptors and stonecutters of the Schlossbauhütte replicate every tiny detail of the 500 meter long by 30 meter high baroque facade of the Berliner Schloss. The original building, having been severely damaged during World War II, was demolished in 1950 by the DDR government. Its reconstruction will host the Humboldt Forum, a large-scale museum of world cultures that will complement the cultural offerings of the Museumsinsel with the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The Humboldt Forum has been criticized for re-assembling a German colonial symbol, for perpetuating expensive nostalgia of an imperial past and for hosting one of Europe’s biggest and most “provenance-problematic” collections: the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem. 

Since the decision to rebuild the Prussian palace, 2,800 figures and around 23,000 sandstone elements have been delivered to their final location on the facade of the replicated palace of the Hohenzollern dynasty, in the heart of the Museumsinsel.

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Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum

The House of Hohenzollern participated actively in the colonial division of Africa and boosted the German colonial oppression leading to the genocide of the Herero and Nama people.
 (1) Successors of the Hohenzollern family and other aristocratic families have actively engaged in the detailed reconstruction of the building, which includes a 34 centimeter tall gold inscription on the tambour of its dome claiming “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow”. (2) 

Such a statement acquires further connotations when contrasted with the holdings of the building: one of Europe’s biggest  ethnological collections of non-European, and therefore also mainly non-Catholic, cultures. Derived from private donations in the  19th century, the provenance of the majority of the collection’s pieces cannot be officially proved, while the original owners of the items claim for their return. (3) 

While the illegitimate accumulation of tangible heritage from colonized territories produces controversy, the handcrafted reconstruction of Humboldt Forum is for its defenders the definitive stake in safeguarding genuine classical European values. They are embodied by the intangible heritage of ancient stone carving, the technique with which the cornerstones of European nation-states were built and from which the representation of major European symbols were sculpted, including those of colonizers, slavers and dictators. 


"While the illegitimate accumulation of tangible heritage from colonized territories produces controversy, the handcrafted reconstruction of Humboldt Forum is for its defenders the definitive stake in safeguarding genuine classical European values."


By its definition as intangible heritage, stone carving represents a skill handed down from generation to generation, the existence and recognition of which depends mainly on human will, which is immaterial, and its transmission by imitation and living experience. Such expressions refer more generally to the practices, representations and knowledge that provide communities with a sense of identity and that are commonly endangered by western globalization. Traditional stonemasonry has been conserved  from classical antiquity until industrial processes replaced manual work and endangered its survival, making the construction of Humboldt Forum an exception on its own.

The reconstruction of the facade was approved by the German government in 2002. The designs, selected by architect Franco Stella, included the hand-made reconstruction of the Baroque facade created by architect Andreas Schlüter. The extremely expensive plan failed to get funding from the government, so the descendants of the Hohenzollern family started a crowdfunding campaign in 2015 to raise the €100 million necessary for the facade.

Georg Friedrich, current Prince of Prussia, whose interest in the perpetuation of the Prussian legacy and the maintenance of its privilege is validated by his social value as cultural patron, became the main public supporter of the crowdfunding campaign. (6) Despite coming up short by €9 million, the campaign turned out to be successful: private donors contributed over €103 million, over a quarter of Germany’s cultural budget for the year. (4) 

Framing the rebuilt Berliner Schloss within postwar reconstructions could serve to understand it better, either by comparing the amount of money it demands or the controversial symbols it publicly represents. Ten years prior to the beginning of the Humboldt Forum project, the government of Dresden decided to start rebuilding its main church: the Frauenkirche. The project raised almost €100 million in private donations, including a tower cross donated by the British government and crafted by the son of a British pilot who bombarded the city. (5) 

Destroyed in World War II, Potsdam’s Garnisonkirche raised over €22 million for its reconstruction. In that case, the controversy was posed in an open letter signed by academics and artists including Hans Haacke, Thomas Demand and Kasper König, problematizing the identification of the church with the colonial and Nazi eras as well as and the presence of right-wing extremist donors in the crowdfunding campaign. (6) Once again, the patronization of collective memory came from conservative elites interested in the preservation of their privilege built upon social and cultural asymmetries.

The reconstructed Dom-Römer in Frankfurt am Main received similar accusations. Another open letter, this time from the field of architecture, pointed out the connections between right wing politics and urban reconstruction. (7) The criticism posed by Stuttgart  University professor Stephan Trüby denied any positive contribution of reconstructivist populism. Among all this assembling of the past, the Humboldt Forum represents the clearest (and most expensive) example of the resettlement of symbols of oppression and the resignification of the aristocratic upper-class as social benefactors.


Mariana Castillo Deball Media Grafica 2018

Mariana Castillo Deball, Media Grafica, 2018


Different arguments have been used to justify all these decisions. In the case of the Berliner Schloss, the Humboldt Forum has made special efforts to revalue itself not only as a depot of physical items but also as a defender of "living culture", underlining the social and cultural values promoted by supporting stone masonry as building technique in 2020. Books, exhibitions, documentaries and guided tours to the Schlossbauhütte mark the Humboldt Forum as a patron of stone carving, Europe’s ancient intangible heritage.

European reconstructionist populism, when understood as living culture, recalls the Japanese cultural tradition of rebuilding temples at particular time intervals. Every 20 years, the Ise community rebuilds their Shinto shrine as a way of passing building techniques from one generation to the next. (8) The practice follows a belief in the constant renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things, and is framed by the necessity of learning how to rebuild temples located in a seismic hazard zone. While European constructivism responds to its internal violence, this example of Japanese living culture has grown out of a resistance to the force of earthquakes. Switching its focus to the immaterial, Ise stands as the canonical example of the turn from a focus on tangible to intangible heritage which many are reclaiming as a way of dewesternising our cultural understanding. (9)

For the Humboldt Forum, which will host one of the biggest accumulations of non-Western tangible heritage (the Ethnologisches Museum alone has accumulated over 500,000 items, a majority of which were unlawfully looted) approaching this narrative represents an actualization of their institutional image: a rebranding of the museum as a space for lost knowledge. Since stone carving had faced disappearing by its replacement with machine techniques and standardization, it is problematic to compare it to other cultural practices that were (or are still) explicitly repressed. 

The accumulation of wealth by European museums was facilitated by the devaluation of the cultures to whom those items and collections originally belonged — namely First Nations and Indigenous peoples. Through the prohibition of cultural practices, the looting of tombs and holy sites and the killing of community representatives and knowledge carriers, such cultures were regularly erased. When scientists and archaeologists reevaluated those practices as ethnological items, they proclaimed themselves as the solution to the disappearance of such knowledge.

Anti-indigenous oppression continues today. Avoiding the isolation of indigenous territories, governments worldwide have allowed corona virus to infect regions and communities where access to health care has proved insufficient. On August 6th 2020, José de los Santos Sauna, Governor of the indigenous community of the Kogi people in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, died from COVID-19. Santos Sauna’s last public speech referred to a restitution case against the Ethnologisches Museum that will be hosted by the Humboldt Forum. In 1915 the museum’s founder, ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss, looted two holy masks from Santa Marta after getting the Kogis drunk and trading their masks for a bottle of whiskey. Since 2013, on a visit to the museum archives where the masks are still stored, Santos Sauna has fought for the restitution of the masks. 

His speech, streamed during the online event devuelve, pe!, expressed the need to return the masks to Santa Marta to activate them as medium with mother nature to fight corona. (10) While visiting the masks in Berlin, they spoke to him: “I am here in silence, they have me as a prisoner, I need to work with water, with earth and with fire.”

Santos Sauna demanded restitution not only as a way to repair colonial violence, but to reactivate the masks as ritual subjects and to maintain Kogi knowledge, making a clear link between heritage restitution, living culture and indigenous resistance.


"Compared to other European institutions that are reframing their collections, the Humboldt Forum’s most serious problem is the missed opportunity for Europe to generate a new cultural container to overcome colonial inertia."


Kogi's visit to the museum’s archive was a move on the part of both institutions (the Humboldt Forum and the Ethnologisches Museum) to show the inclusion of indigenous voices within the museum’s discourse. The Humboldt Forum’s approach to living culture is part of a bigger agenda of the Staatliche Mussen zu Berlin to rebrand their colonial heritage as a decolonial product. As stated by academic Emi Finkelstein: “the renovation of the Humboldt Forum exposes the trend of re-configuring institutional content in order to produce a new societal narrative and a new way of memorializing the past through exhibition”. (11) 

Compared to other European institutions that are reframing their collections (the Musée de l'homme in Paris, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and the Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika near Brussels), the Humboldt Forum’s most serious problem is the missed opportunity for Europe to generate a new cultural container to overcome colonial inertia.

The Ethnological Museum excuses itself with bureaucratic mechanisms and diplomatic formalisms to justify the lack of reaction to claims for restitution such as the one defended by Kogi leader, Santos Sauna. Indeed, even if the Kogi people draw considerable international attention, the Colombian government has not yet contributed to their request for restitution. (12) Their claims also include territorial demands to the Colombian government, an issue that goes beyond representational politics. 

Despite a lack of governmental support, in 2016 Santos Sauna managed to reclaim some looted material from a private collection in Belgium. After over nine years of negotiations and many visits to Europe, 17 golden statues were returned to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta from the private collection of Belgian baroness Dora Jannsen. The dispute arose after the baroness donated some pieces to the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels as part of a payment of her husband’s inheritance rights, guaranteed by €5 million. (13) 

In this case, even if the Colombian government suggested the inclusion of the golden statues in the Museo Arqueológico de Colombia in Bogotá, Kogis were responsible for the whole process, and their statement was clear: statues need to go back to nature. “We are not going to sell them, nor crush them; it is the spiritual authorities who decide whether to leave them at the top or bottom of the mountain, or perhaps on the beach” stated Santos Sauna.

The process ended successfully, in a recurrent paradox where restitution claims against private collectors are stronger than the ones against public institutions. In fact, on rare occasions indigenous claims for restitution receive public protection and support in their own countries, where governments are ruled by descendants of settlers and Western elites. Even more uncommon is that such claims, when supported by local authorities, finally benefit those communities and do not end up in tourist-targeted exhibitions where the representation of “the other” is perpetuated in reference to those communities, even in their own land. (14)

Shipping looted goods back to parallel Western exhibiting dispositives of the Global South replicates the logics in which the museums are understood as ‘contact zones’. (15) Contact zones reveal the radically asymmetrical relations of power between the oppressed minorities represented in museum narration and the oppressive structures representing them. 

Restitution remains a Western procedure in which the reversal of the colonial order could in few cases effectively happen, but the problematization of the social, cultural and legal frameworks in which colonial discourse is perpetuated must be addressed.                                                                         

As pointed out by Malte Jaguttis in the catalogue of artist Dierk Schmidt’s exhibition at Reina Sofia Museum last summer, “only a small number of legal instruments explicitly deal with the restitution and repatriation of cultural property.” (16) 

“In the hands of certain people, pens, rulers and showcases are as dangerous as armies.” (17)

In the introduction to another exhibition from the same artist at KOW Berlin in 2016, curator Alexander Koch referred to the power of museographic devices as forms of instruction and indoctrination of the gaze and, by extension, as modes of production of subjectivities aligned with certain historical accounts and national identities. Schmidt’s work relates explicitly to the omissions and violence of colonial stories, again, taking Humboldt Forum as a canonical example. In Berlin Castle Ghosts (2002–2004), the artist reenacted the scaffolding structure that displayed the mock-up of the baroque facade in early 2003 to call out the contradiction implicit in the German authorities’ reconstruction of an 18th-century imperial palace to be used as a museum of world cultures. (18) The beginning of the reconstruction of the facade was the first physical print of the resettlement of the Berliner Schloss as a contemporary imperial symbol. Schmidt’s discourse developed from the materialization of neocolonial discourses carved in the sandstone.

For many castle supporters, the technical majesty of the reconstruction will drown out such criticisms. Bertold Just, director of the Schlossbauhütte recently stated that “The level of detail, the struggle for the baroque style and the thickness of the new reconstructed facade (.. ) Guests who are critical of the project can be convinced very quickly”. (19) Sven Schuber, responsible for the majority of the reconstructed sculptures, stated: “As the construction progresses and the more scaffolding gives way, the more the opponents melt together.” (20)

As the building approaches its final opening in December, and taking all of the above into account, doubts emerge over whether visitors to the Humboldt Forum would be indulged or stirred up by the palpable perpetuation of colonial tyranny. Will the hand-made detailment of the balustrades, symbols of the revaluation of European crafts, bring down the Kogi’s restitution claims that would safeguard their weakened living culture? 

Image: Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum



"Privilege carved in stone" was published in print issue 13, "Eurothanasia" 

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  • Peter 26 Nov 2020, 10:15 (3 years ago)

    As a young man I met with friends in the Plastic der Republik which was razed because of Asbestos. The ICC in the west is closed for asbestos removal now, which was an option dismissed in the case of the East German building.

    I feel dismissed as East German, instead of the place of my youth I have this symbol of the Prussian imperial past.

    I simply hate it.

    * will not be published
  • Peter 26 Nov 2020, 10:15 (3 years ago)

    As a young man I met with friends in the Plastic der Republik which was razed because of Asbestos. The ICC in the west is closed for asbestos removal now, which was an option dismissed in the case of the East German building.

    I feel dismissed as East German, instead of the place of my youth I have this symbol of the Prussian imperial past.

    I simply hate it.

    * will not be published



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