Long-Awaited Museum Opens with Pain and Ivory

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BERLIN — Werner Kohl has been following the Humboldt Forum saga for nearly 20 years. Like many Germans, he has been watching and listening since 2002, when the government approved a plan for the massive new cultural attraction in Berlin. That means almost two decades of debate, protest, overspending and delay.

He said he was thrilled when he finally stopped in the dark exhibition spaces of the building on Tuesday evening.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day all along,” Kohl said. “I’m here to see if you meet what you propose.”

located on location of the destroyed East German Parliament and Designed as Germany’s equivalent to the Louvre Museum, Humboldt Forum originally scheduled to open in 2019, but encountered construction delays. It is now gradually opening up over the next two years.

In addition to the ivory exhibition, the Humboldt Forum also offers “Berlin Global” about the city’s relation to the world; a conceptual demonstration exploring human life after climate change; and areas dedicated to the history of the site.

The most controversial part of the forum has yet to open: floors containing a magnificent African throne and thousands of ethnological artifacts from various cultures, including huge wooden boats from the South Pacific, many of which were purchased during Germany’s expansionist imperial era. Anti-colonial activists argued that the Humboldt Forum did not go far enough in investigating the origin of its objects.

In a deal negotiated this spring, most of Berlin’s Benin Bronzes collection, which will be displayed in the building, will be to be extradited to Nigeria next year. However, the process of deciding what the Forum should do about substances with more obscure histories will likely be a more complex endeavor. On Tuesday, a group of anti-colonial protesters gathered outside, chanting slogans such as “Defend the Humboldt Forum.”

This week’s opening is the curators’ first opportunity to present what they argue is a forward-thinking and inclusive way of showing works with colonial associations to a wide audience.

Although the Humboldt Forum held its official opening ceremony online in December., pandemic restrictions have forced it to remain closed to the public so far. Some argued that the long-term closure might be to their advantage, giving managers longer to fix some of the $825 million building’s technical issues.

Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in May received a confidential note from the project’s construction chiefHans-Dieter Hegner said the systems that manage the building’s air conditioning and security alarms are “still in very poor condition” and that continued defects are “compromising cultural artifacts that have already been established”.

Hartmut Dorgerloh, director of the Humboldt Forum, said in an interview last week that he is certainly aware of the vulnerability of some of the ivory items, which require careful monitoring of temperature, humidity and light, which can form cracks if conditions change too quickly. . “It’s demanding in terms of protection,” he said. “This is the first time we are exhibiting 40,000 year old items in a building in Berlin that has been in operation for less than 10 years.”

However, he emphasized that the climate control system in the area where the items are displayed is fully functional and that no items are in danger. “The climate in this region is very stable,” he said.

Dorgerloh said the show was an apt way to open the Humboldt Forum because it reflected its goal of “creating a space where we could share experiences” rather than simply portraying cultures.

Consisting of nearly 200 pieces, including numerous magnificent pieces of jewellery, ornate sculptures and an ivory flute, one of the world’s oldest preserved musical instruments, the exhibition was organized in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya. In a dramatic twist, the space has been painted red and interspersed with speakers playing the sound of a dying elephant’s breath. Besides ivory objects, the show also features artifacts depicting colonial exploitation and abuse, and video monitors featuring interviews with people whose lives have been impacted by the ivory trade, including a Kenyan park ranger and a safari guide.

Alberto Saviello, one of the show’s three curators, said in an interview that his team felt it was important to include voices from the items’ countries of origin and that the objects had a “responsibility to tell stories that are often about injustice and violence.” ”

Saviello explained that although none of the object lending institutions for the exhibition, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, had any concerns about climate control issues in the exhibition space, some had reservations about the exhibit. critical tone of the show. “We don’t do this in a classical aesthetic context that emphasizes the beauty of the works,” he said. “There were concerns we said, ‘If you’re displaying ivory somewhere, it’s a crime.’

Ultimately, Dorgerloh said, the curators were able to persuade lenders of arguments about the educational importance of the exhibition.

Despite the intense public interest in the exhibition, where all visitor quotas are reserved until the end of the month, the reaction in the German media was mixed. The Süddeutsche Zeitung defended He said the exhibition, which features mostly works made in Europe, seemed like an attempt to move away from the debate over the return of controversial items to be displayed in the building. RBB, a regional broadcaster, said: He said the curators brought “a striking, illuminating approach to a complex subject” and that the exhibition was “impressive in its diversity”.

Visitors were similarly divided. Nikolaus Sonne, 74, a retired gallerist, said he was impressed by the building but not by the exhibition. “These are incredible objects, but too many at once,” he said.

“It might be better if they did a separate exhibit about all the bad things about him,” Sonne added.

Nika Goloma, 48, felt that the concept of the show was well chosen. “A lot of people talk about the Forum’s colonial baggage,” he said, “and it shows that from the very beginning they didn’t hesitate to point it out and say, ‘Look at this.'” Still, he added, “I guess they didn’t have any other options.”

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