Thirty Years in the Making, Berlin’s Humboldt Forum Is Complete

After nearly three decades of planning, the Humboldt Forum has finally opened to the public. But questionable design choices and a searing restitution debate threaten to overshadow the museum’s potential as a world-class arts destination.

The Humboldt Forum on Berlin’s Museum Island. Photography by Alexander Schippel

To say the site of the former Berliner Schloss has endured a tumultuous history is an understatement. Originally built in the 15th century on Berlin’s Museum Island to house the Brandenburg princes, the structure was expanded by King Frederick I of Prussia in the 18th century into a hallmark of Prussian Baroque architecture. Allied Forces shelled the palace in World War II, leading to its demolition in 1950, and it soon gave rise to the Palast Der Republik, a modernist cuboid home to East Germany’s parliament. In the early ‘90s, developers and tractor tycoons plotted to restore the site to its former majesty by building a replica of the former palace and packing it with the holdings of a world-class museum on par with those found in other European capitals. 

Tasked with envisioning what would become Europe’s largest cultural development was Italian architect Franco Stella, who designed three of the Humboldt Forum’s facades to mimic the original palace by Andreas Schlüter. (The fourth eschews classical ornamentation and is finished in modern stone.) To replicate the original architectural details, sculptors and plaster molders meticulously crafted 2,800 figures and 22,000 sandstone elements including windows, cornices, and columns. Situated throughout are three soaring courtyards that Stella intended as “a city in the form of a palace” that balances old and new. Some critics disagree, dismissing it as “an imposing Disneyland castle minus the fun” and “a simulacrum for the media age to project an image of an idealized past.”

Photography by Alexander Schippel

After a decade of construction and pandemic delays, the new $682 million building has finally opened to the public. Inside are the holdings of both the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art, fulfilling the Humboldt Forum’s promise to spotlight cultures and art forms from around the world. But while the institution is no doubt a welcome addition to the German capital’s cultural sphere, controversy has erupted over its ownership of looted art and artifacts obtained from the German colonial empire in Africa and Asia. 

Nigerians have called for the return of the stolen artifacts—the Benin Bronzes—for decades, condemning their placement in Western museums as a potent reminder of colonialism’s ongoing reverberations in Africa. Their demands went largely unheard until 2017, when France vowed to return stolen artifacts to Africa from the country’s museums over five years. The Ethnological Museum of Berlin found itself at the epicenter of the debate after art historian and restitution specialist Bénédicte Savoy resigned from the Humboldt Forum’s advisory board that year, decrying the museum’s inaction to research the provenance of its Benin Bronzes. She suggested repatriating the objects and filling the galleries with replicas instead. “A fake museum inside a fake palace,” she told Süddeutsche Zeitung. “That would make sense.”

Photography by Giuliani von Giese, courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss

Humboldt Forum curators took note of the criticism, however, and reorganized galleries dedicated to the Kingdom of Benin to center the restitution debate. One displays cast bronze memorial heads, carved ivory tusks, and relief plaques; a neighboring room illustrates the restitution process with video installations by German and Nigerian scholars and artists explaining the significance of each object.  “We’ve learned that restitution is much more than an administrative act, but a shared intercultural and at best a productive process of negotiation, and that is about personal references, about self-empowerment, about cultural identity, and about dignity,” Hartmut Dorgerloh, general director of the Humboldt Forum, said in a statement. “And we have learned to listen. You talk, we listen.”

The gallery planned to showcase 200 bronzes but that number has dwindled to 40, all of which will be repatriated to Nigeria after ten years. While the museum is taking steps to lessen the damage wrought by Germany’s colonial past, some argue it’s not going far enough. Nigerian artist Emote Paul Ogbebor says the curatorial approach doesn’t reflect West Africa’s perspective, suggesting the museum “actually employ people from these countries as part of their curator teams.” 

Photography by Christoph Musiol
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