A protest against the Humboldt Forum in Berlin on December 16 (photo by Raul Walch)

A group of artists and cultural workers staged a protest today, December 16, outside of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum on its long-delayed opening day. The €677 million (~$824 million) project, set in the reconstructed Berlin Palace, hosted a virtual opening in accordance with Germany’s COVID-19 restrictions. The group, named the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against Humboldt Forum, rallied to defund the embattled ethnological museum, which they see as a “bottomless pit of spending” and a disagreeable ode to Germany’s colonial past.

With banners, speeches, and performances at Berlin’s Schinkelplatz, the protesters called to redirect government funding of the Humboldt Forum towards cultural decolonization initiatives. According to estimates, the renovation of the Berlin Palace, which started in 2013, cost €100 million (~$122 million) more than originally planned.

“With today’s non-opening, the Humboldt Forum begins its fall into the widening gaps of its budget, into a bottomless pit of spending, and into the ugly void of its own conceptual hole,” the group said in a statement on Facebook.

“Defund the Humboldt Forum now and redirect the money flow to a sustainable and meaningful decolonizing of Berlin’s cultural institutions, collections, and programs!” the group demanded. “Until this happens, we see any engagement with the Humboldt Forum as an injury to the world we wish to build.”

The Humboldt Forum combines the collections of Berlin’s Asian Art Museum and Ethnological Museum, as well as exhibitions from the City Museum of Berlin and a project overseen by Humboldt University. It’s said to house a collection of nearly 20,000 artifacts from Africa, Asia and Oceania, mostly originating from Germany’s former colonies.

In 2017, French art historian Bénédicte Savoy resigned in protest from the Humboldt Forum’s advisory board, calling the project “dead on arrival.” 

The art historian, who co-authored France’s report on the restitution of looted African art in 2018, told the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung in an interview: “I want to know how much blood drips from a work of art. Without this research, no Humboldt Forum and no ethnological museum should be opened today.”

A protest against the Humboldt Forum in July of 2020 (courtesy the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against Humboldt)

A week ago, Nigeria’s ambassador to Germany, Yusuf Tuggar, called for the restitution of his country’s looted Benin Bronzes, about 180 of which are planned to be displayed at the Humboldt Forum next year.

Tuggar said he had sent a formal letter to Germany’s Culture Minister Monika Gruetters and Chancellor Angela Merkel, but had received no reply.

A spokeswoman for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s public museums, claimed that “no official request for repatriation has been received.”

Meanwhile, Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller said today that the Humboldt Forum would be “a place to reflect on our history and our place in the world.”

Today’s demonstration is the second action that the group has organized against the Humboldt Forum. In July, about 250 members of the coalition protested outside the museum to demand the removal of a Prussian-era gilded cross that sits atop the renovated Berlin Palace. In a statement, the group called the cross “a symbol of imperial power and Christian global domination.” At the height of the protest, they carried a replica of the cross the nearby River Spree and plunged it into the water.

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...