In the heart of the German capital of Berlin, walkways and streets alike are being obstructed by the construction of the U5 ‘ubahn’ line that runs under the central district of Mitte. Just across from the metro construction is a new museum known as the Humboldt Forum, named after Prussian philosopher and linguist brothers, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt. The museum, slated for inauguration in 2019, will absorb the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and Museum of Asian Art and is being celebrated as “Europe’s most important museum project.”  

Many people are welcoming the construction of the Humboldt Forum at Berlin’s former Stadtschloss or Royal Palace as a project that is going to breathe fresh life into the heart of Berlin. Ahead of this excitement is a large number of Berliners who are fuming at the implications the construction of the museum has on Berlin as an urban cultural center.

The Humboldt Forum has proven to be one of Berlin’s many contentious development projects, mainly because of its construction on a historically sensitive site and the confusion around how the museum’s leadership plans to address Germany’s colonial history on account of the government’s looming failure to do so. By looking at the Humboldt Forum as another political project, how can we understand urban development in Berlin?

Another One Bites the Dust?

Humboldt Forum

The now defunct Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. (CC: Presse168)

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany, Berlin became the capital of the European nation once again. As Berliners slowly began returning to living in an undivided city, German officials became adamant on reestablishing Berlin as the capital city of Germany.

In one attempt to reestablish Berlin importance in Germany, the German government announced plans in 1991 to build a new airport for Berlin and close down the Schönefeld and Tegel airports as well as the now defunct Tempelhof Airport. Following two decades of negotiations, scandals, bribery, and even the alleged poisoning of an official, the airport remains only partially built, with a swelling budget that has reached EUR 7 billion (USD 7.9 billion) as of this year. With the deadline continuously being pushed back, people are becoming increasingly skeptical that the airport will be opened at all.

For many Berliners, the airport has become a symbol of the political and administrative incompetencies of city officials. However, failure to construct something as basic as an airport is far from Berlin’s only problem among housing, racism, and other social and political challenges that the city is facing. Many are prophesying a similar future for the Humboldt Forum, saying it will join the airport up on Berlin’s other delayed, failed, or scratched projects. The Forum’s leadership, however, is hoping for a different future for the museum.

The Humboldt Forum

Humboldt Forum

The Palast der Republik as it stood during the Cold War. (CC: Lutz Schramm)

In 2006, the German government began to level the Stadtschloss – or the Berlin City Palace – removing a once revered structure with a tumultuous history from the capital. The structure, which was originally built as a Prussian palace, had been reconstructed in 1952 by the East German government, which turned it into the Palast der Republik or parliament building and cultural center for East Germany.

Following the reunification of Germany in the early 1990s, the building was found to be contaminated with asbestos, a mineral which can cause serious health complications. Using this contamination as drive for its demolition, the German government decided to tear down the palace, despite heated deliberations between former East and West Berliners.

The site of the former palace is where the Humboldt Forum is now being constructed. East Berliners that lamented the destruction of the Palast der Republik are dubious of the Humboldt Forum and what it promises to bring. For them, the site, albeit representing a painful historical moment, was a place of relative solace during the Cold War. On the other hand, Neil MacGregor, one of the Forum’s three founding directors, believes the Forum will help break down boundaries and turn the site into a space for inquiry and conversation.

Frustration with the Humboldt Forum, however, is not only rooted in the sensitive past of the site of the former Stadtschloss. Alongside its European counterparts, Germany has a dark history with colonialism, one that the wider German public is calling on its government to address after years of allegedly ignoring it. Since many of the artifacts that will be put on display in the Humboldt Forum were acquired by Germany during its colonial years, many are also urging the German government to begin discussing colonial restitution.

Memories of Yesterday, Realities of Today

Humboldt Forum

A German colonial lord lounging around, posing with African subjects put to work. (Author Unknown)

On a trip to Senegal in November 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron ardently announced that returning art looted from Africa in the past is a “top priority” for the French Republic. A few months before Macron’s speech, Bénédicte Savoy, one of the Humboldt Forum’s previous directors, resigned from her position in protest of the Forum’s apparently ill-advised approach to Germany’s colonial past. “I want to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork,” she said, according to Deutsche Welle.

Dr. Lars Koch, director of the collection from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in the Forum, however, believes restitution is not as easy a task as the public claims it to be. In front of a class from the Berlin-based Free University, Dr. Koch cited travel expenses and red tape among the reasons why restitution of looted artifacts is difficult. “You can’t just send things back,” he said. “It’s complicated.”

Alternatively, he wants to use the Forum as an opportunity to address this part of Germany’s past and engage with what are being called ‘source communities.’ “We are not a colonial museum,” he said. “Mostly we talk about [it] in Africa. But how do we display it?”

Conversation about Germany’s colonial history in Berlin – or lack thereof on the government’s part – seems to be one of many issues gnawing at Berliners in relation to the Humboldt Forum. Whether – and how – the Humboldt Forum’s leadership intends to address Germany’s history with colonialism is still uncertain.

After the destruction of the Palast der Republik, reconstruction of the Schloss – which is to become home to the Humboldt Forum – began in 2008 in an attempt to restore the building’s pre-war aesthetics. The Palast der Republik’s bronze-mirrored facade is nowhere to be seen in the reconstructed building.

Instead, the facade was replaced with the Schloss’ classic dome-top and Baroque style – both of which serve no architectural utility, contrary to the former Schloss’ architectural style. Conservative politicians even wanted to hoist a cross in the center of the dome to emphasize Germany’s history with Christianity, which became in its own right a controversy as well.

Although one of many controversial projects, the Humboldt Forum seems to be moving forward nonetheless, procuring a decent public-private funding plan for the project. The Forum’s leadership announced that the museum will be partially open by the end of 2018, and will be fully open to the public by September 2019 in time to celebrate Alexander Von Humboldt’s 250th birthday. Once inaugurated, the public will be able visit the 16,000 square meter (172,200 square feet) museum for free to see up to 600,000 artifacts from as far as Alaska to Fiji.

Wendy Shaw, professor of Art History at the Free University, claims that most museums in Berlin are frequented by tourists and not by the city’s residents. When she asked the class she is teaching on the Humboldt Forum if they visited Berlin’s famous Museum Island, only a handful of students raised their hands. 

As a museum, the Humboldt Forum truly does give Mitte – and Berlin at large – a chance to become a cultural hub. Dr. Koch believes the Humboldt Forum will afford an opportunity to provide Berlin with ‘immaterial culture’ or museums that don’t just have tangible artifacts on display. The Humboldt Forum Sound Box, currently installed in Mitte, is the kind of immaterial culture’ that Dr. Koch hopes will proliferate with the Humboldt Forum.

Despite the adamance of the Forum’s leaders to prove that the museum is conducive to dialogue, many are worried about the narratives of Germany’s colonial history that will be put on display. To make matters worse, the architectural reconstruction of the Schloss is also causing frustration. These issues with the Humboldt Forum, as a cultural and urban project, suggests that, like Berlin’s failed airport project, urban development in Berlin does in fact have strong political implications.

Controversies in Berlin’s Urban Development

Humboldt Forum

Scaffolding of the “schloss.” (CC: Betexion)

“There was an era when everything to do with the German Democratic Republic had to be eliminated,” said Chief Director of the Humboldt Forum, Hartmut Dorgerloh, to The Art Newspaper. “When rebuilding the royal palace was being discussed, there was a debate about why we need it in a democracy.” Although he said he was against the decision, he also said that growing up in a dictatorship instilled in him a strong inclination to respect parliamentary decisions.

These decisions to include or exclude, demolish or rebuild, or honor or forget, have colored urban redevelopment projects in Berlin since the fall of the Berlin Wall – perhaps even long before.

The most visible in the city is the changes to residential neighborhoods like Neukölln or Schöneberg, historically migrant and queer neighborhoods of Berlin, respectively. Today, rents have risen exponentially in under 10 years, residential buildings are being increasingly remodeled, and high-end coffee shops are popping up like wildflowers. If anything, the ‘makeup’ of the residential demographic looks nothing like it did just five or 10 years ago.

Elsewhere in the city, Google had its fair share of Berliner-brawl with residents of Kreuzberg, when the tech-tycoon attempted to open its campus in the area. In response, residents of the area mobilized and started a movement to stop any attempts by the company to open its campus. Although Google already has a smaller office in a nearby area, residents continue to be very skeptical of these kinds of changes out of fear of the gentrification of whole neighborhoods.

Along those same lines, it should come to no surprise that many Berliners are angry with the Humboldt Forum. Like with the gentrification of residential neighborhoods and the building of the botched airport, the Humboldt Forum seems to fit into a greater framework of change that forces to the forefront one narrative over the other. And for some Berliners, that kind of historical recounting does not sit well. Forced erasure of the Palast der Republik and superimposition of the Stadtschloss is one such attempt. Failing to address the acquisition of the Forum’s antiques through colonialism, but strong emphasis on Germany’s past with Nazism, is another.

It is in this sense that the Humboldt Forum has struck a rather sensitive chord in the German capital: one that feigns a certain remembering and forces a certain forgetting.

Political Encounters and Urban Development

It is no coincidence that Berlin is a politically active city. In October, the #Unteilbar demonstration (link in German) and November’s counter-Nazi demonstration brought together close to 250,000 Berliners who opposed conservative politics and Nazi demonstrators. This political awareness is also at the root of opposition to the Humboldt Forum.

It seems that the Humboldt Forum, both as a museum speaking for Germany’s dark history and an attempt to generate more cultural capital for Mitte, is rubbing Berliners the wrong way. With the Forum’s contributions to the conversation around Germany’s colonial history, the Palast der Republik’s architectural erasure, and the millions funnelled into a project that many Berliners are at odds with, the museum is a divisive project.

For the Humboldt Forum, it is not just about urban development, but, also, what, where, and how the city will be developed. Like protests to the proposed Google Campus and gentrification in Berlin, the Humboldt Forum, as an urban development project, has naturally become another political conversation. What is to become of that conversation is yet to be revealed.

Does this suggest that every attempt to change Berlin will go down in a fight? Not necessarily. But does that also mean urban development can be seen as a political practice in Berlin? Most definitely.

An earlier version of this article stated that the Palast der Republik was rebuilt by the Nazi government; however, it was the East German government that rebuilt the structure in 1952. This article was also modified for clarity on 19 December, 2018.