The eastern wing, the last section of the Humboldt Forum museum to be completed, is finally inaugurated. Highlights of the presentation are the Benin Bronzes, considered looted art.
“The Benin Bronzes are an active part of our ancestors. It is as though you would ask me, what relation I had to my father,” says Kate Akhadelor about the valuable Nigerian pieces. The museum educator came to Berlin a month ago from Nigeria with her colleague Joseph Alonge to help set up the exhibition.
The Benin Bronzes are artifacts made of bronze, brass or ivory, which are part of a new exhibition at the Humboldt Forum.
“Ever since we have been here, we have been tirelessly working to interpret the artifacts in view of their meaning, function and usage and to make the history and the culture of the Benin kingdom understandable for people,” Alonge told DW.
The last years witnessed an intense debate about whether the bronzes could be exhibited at all, because the brutal acquisition of the artworks is well documented.
They were seized in 1897 during a punitive expedition by British colonial forces from the king’s palace in Benin City, in present-day Nigeria. Then in the beginning of the 20th century, the pieces were auctioned in London and several reached Germany, which has the second-largest collection of Benin Bronzes worldwide.
There have been many demands to take back the bronzes, which mostly fell on deaf years in Europe, though with the rebuilding of the Berlin Palace that houses the Humboldt Forum, the debate around restitution became louder.
Benin Bronzes are borrowed
Towards the end, the restitution process picked up speed. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, whose collection is being exhibited at the Forum, transferred property rights of its 512 objects to Nigeria. Instead of the 220 objects to be exhibited initially, only 40 pieces will be shown to the public.
In 10 years, the loan contract will expire and will need to be renegotiated with Nigeria. Abba Isa Tijani, director of Nigeria’s national museum commission, says this is a milestone. “It is the only way we can truly work together. Three of our experts are here to help shape the exhibition together. In turn, they profit from the experience of their European colleagues.”
It sounds too good to be true: Knowledge exchange, cooperation and restructuring. And that too after a years-long fight, which centered around the architecture of the reconstructed Prussian Palace in the same style as it had during Germany’s colonial heyday.
Destroyed in WWII, the palace was torn down by the former East German government and rebuilt as the so-called Palace of the Republic. After the Wall came down, it was unclear what would happen to the structure.
But when it was decided that the old palace would be rebuilt in the center of Berlin, there was criticism from all sides: too expensive, too pompous, too outdated.
A palace in the center of Berlin
With the opening of the eastern wing on September 16, 2022, Germany’s currently most expensive cultural project, which cost €680 million ($679 million), is complete.
The opening was delayed for over two years, partly because of the pandemic. Only digital visits were possible in December 2020. In spring 2021, the courtyards were made accessible and in summer and autumn of the same year temporary exhibitions and some pieces from the non-European collections were opened.
“This is a great moment in the history of this place, but we are not yet done,” says Hartmut Dorgerloh, general director of the Humboldt Forum. He explains that the Forum defines itself as a platform for global dialogue. It is not a museum, he adds, but actually a forum that gives people the possibility for exchange and to work on projects together. It is to be an ongoing process, during which one wants to focus on the future and address themes like migration and climate change.
Exhibitions in 40,000 square meters
Besides artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa, exhibits include those from Asia, Oceania, America and Berlin.
The abundance of the exhibits is overwhelming, especially because the showcases seem overcrowded sometimes. Even the change from one room to the next and in this manner, from continent to continent, prompts questions: How could all these things possibly have landed in Berlin?
In the beginning of the 20th century, there was a race among European ethnological museums to collect art from outside Europe, and many of the exhibits in the Forum thus come from former European colonies.
Another question that emerged was: Were all these objects obtained by illegitimate means? Not all, but many.
In many cases the provenance — the origins of the items and how they landed in Berlin — is not easy to trace.
It is not common that the collections were voluntarily sold to Europe to save them from destruction. But it did happen with a trove of artifacts from Omaha in the US.
Pierre Elmar Merrick is a descendant of the ethnologist Francis la Flesche from the Omaha tribe, who sold a collection of around 60 objects belonging to their culture to the Ethnological Museum of Berlin between 1894 and 1897.
The exhibition entitled “We talk. You listen” presents these objects. “Those were very dangerous times for Native People in America,” Merrick told DW, adding that the US cavalry beat and forcibly relocated tribes.
The objects in this exhibition are one of their kind in the world. For Merrick, it was a special moment to hold these objects, some of which are holy, in his hands. When asked if he felt listened to, as the title of the exhibition suggests, he said, “The team (at the Humboldt Forum) was more than ready to listen to us.”
The collection also includes a pipe that was considered too holy to show in public. This was removed from the exhibition. Now, Merrick hopes he can take it home to America one day.
In Berlin, the reopening of the completed Humboldt Forum on September 16 is a historical event, but there are still many stories hidden behind the façade of the reconstructed baroque palace.