A Long-Awaited Museum Opens, With Agony and Ivory

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

So on Tuesday evening, when he finally stood in the building’s darkened exhibition spaces, he was thrilled, he said.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day from the beginning,” Kohl said. “I’m here to see if it delivers on what it proposed.”

Kohl, 63, was there to see “Terrible Beauty,” a temporary exhibition of ivory artifacts ranging across 40,000 years. It was one of six inaugural shows in the Forum, which brings together several museum collections in a reconstructed Baroque palace.

Located on the site of the demolished East German Parliament and conceived as Germany’s equivalent to the Louvre, the Humboldt Forum was originally scheduled to open in 2019, but ran into construction delays. It is now opening in phases over the next two years.

In addition to the ivory exhibition, the Humboldt Forum is also presenting a display called “Berlin Global,” about the city’s relationship to the world; a conceptual show exploring human life after climate change; and spaces dedicated to the history of the site.

The Forum’s most disputed section is yet to open: floors containing thousands of ethnological artifacts from a variety of cultures, including a spectacular African throne and huge wooden boats from the South Pacific, many of which were acquired during Germany’s expansionist imperial phase. Anticolonial activists have argued that the Humboldt Forum has not gone far enough in investigating the provenance of its objects.

In an agreement negotiated this spring, much of Berlin’s collection of Benin Bronzes, which were set to be exhibited in the building, is to be returned to Nigeria next year. But the process of deciding what the Forum should do about items with more ambiguous histories is likely to be a messier endeavor. On Tuesday, a group of anticolonial protesters gathered outside, chanting slogans like “Defund the Humboldt Forum.”

The opening this week is the first opportunity for curators to present what they argue is a forward-thinking and inclusive manner of showing artifacts with colonial associations to a broad audience.

Although the Humboldt Forum held its official opening ceremony online in December, pandemic restrictions have forced it to remain closed to the public until now. Some have argued that the prolonged closure might have been to its advantage, giving administrators longer to resolve some of the $825 million building’s technical problems.

In May, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper cited a confidential memo from the project’s head of construction, Hans-Dieter Hegner, which said that the systems managing the building’s air-conditioning and security alarms were “still in a very bad state,” and that continuing defects “endanger the cultural artifacts that had already been installed.”

In an interview last week, the Humboldt Forum’s director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, said that he was acutely aware of the delicateness of some of the ivory items, which require careful monitoring of temperature, humidity and light, and can develop cracks if conditions change too fast. “It’s demanding from a conservation point of view,” he said. “We are exhibiting 40,000-year-old items in Berlin for the first time, in a building that’s been around for less than 10 years.”

But he emphasized that the climate-control system in the area where the items are being exhibited was fully functional, and that no items were in danger. “The climate in this area is very stable,” he said.

Dorgerloh said that the show was an appropriate way of opening the Humboldt Forum because it reflected his goal of “creating a space in which we can share experiences,” rather than merely depicting cultures.

Featuring about 200 items — including numerous spectacular pieces of jewelry, ornate sculptures and one of the world’s oldest preserved musical instruments, an ivory flute — the exhibition was organized in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya, among others. In a dramatic touch, the space has been painted red and interspersed with loudspeakers playing the sound of a dying elephant’s breathing. Alongside the ivory objects, the show also features artifacts depicting colonial exploitation and mistreatment, and video monitors featuring interviews with people whose lives are affected 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 a responsibility to tell the objects’ stories, which “are often about injustice and violence.”

Saviello explained that although none of the institutions lending objects 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 show’s critical tone. “We are not doing this in a classical aesthetic context that emphasizes the beauty of the works,” he said. “There were concerns we were saying, ‘If you display ivory anywhere, it’s a crime.’”

Ultimately, Dorgerloh said, the curators were able to convince concerned lenders with arguments about the exhibition’s educational importance.

Although public interest in the exhibition is strong, with all visitor slots reserved until the end of the month, the reaction in the German media has been mixed. The Süddeutsche Zeitung argued that the exhibition, which mostly features artifacts made in Europe, seemed like an attempt to distract from the debate about giving back disputed items set to be displayed in the building. RBB, a regional broadcaster, said that the curators had 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 that he was impressed by the building, but underwhelmed by the exhibition. “These are incredible objects, but it’s too much at once,” he said.

“It might be better if they did a separate exhibition about all the bad things related to it,” Sonne added.

Nika Goloma, 48, felt that the show’s concept had been well chosen. “So many people have been talking” about the Forum’s colonial baggage, she said, “and this shows that from the beginning, they aren’t afraid to show it and say, ‘Look at it.’” Though, she added, “I think they had no other choice.”

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