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Humboldt Forum courtyard
Photograph: Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss / Alexander Schippel

Berlin’s controversial new museum is finally opening in full

The Humboldt Forum is adding another 20,000 exhibits – including many with ties to Germany’s colonial past

Ed Cunningham
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Ed Cunningham
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If you’ve been to Berlin in the past year or so, you’ll have surely noticed a spectacular addition to the city’s Museum Island. The huge new Humboldt Forum, with its grand palatial façade, is pretty hard to miss.

The Humboldt is dedicated to cultures and art forms from around the world and, since opening in July 2021, the 40,000-square-metre space has quickly become one of the German capital’s most essential cultural establishments. (That’s despite some serious controversy – see below.)

Anyway, the Humboldt is now about to get even huger. Later this month, the museum’s 20-year development will finally be completed with the opening of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art, in a brand new East Wing attached to the baroque Berlin Palace. A whopping 20,000 more exhibits will be unveiled, many of which have never been seen by the public.

So what kind of stuff can you expect from the vast new bits of the Humboldt Forum? Well, there’s a massive range of things to see. Stuff as varied a traditional meeting house (or bai) from Palau and some sixteenth century pictographic manuscripts from Central America can be found in the new exhibition galleries. Here are a few pictures of some of the soon-to-open exhibits.

Humboldt Forum exhibit
Photograph: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss / Giuliani von Giese
Humboldt Forum exhibit
Photograph: SPK / photothek / Thomas Köhler
Humboldt Forum exhibit
Photograph: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss / Giuliani von Giese

Now here’s why the Humboldt is such a controversial place. While the museum does attempt to engage with colonialism and the reasons why it contains all these artefacts taken from important sites across the globe, it’s still a sensitive subject as to why they’re here in the first place (hint: they were – mostly – stolen). Plus, in terms of symbols and optics, the fact that the Humboldt is housed in an old (rebuilt) imperial palace probably doesn’t help.

On top of that, the museum is apparently planning a temporary display of its collection of Benin bronzes, a series of artworks looted from the Kingdom of Benin (modern-day Nigeria) in the 1800s. While the Humboldt’s 400 bronzes are apparently in the process of making their way back to Nigeria, it’s still a pretty debatable move.

The Humboldt’s Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art are set to open on September 17 with a 24-hour opening programme of culture and parties. You can find out more and buy tickets on the museum’s website here. Whatever your view, there’s no better way to make up your mind about the Humboldt than by seeing it all for yourself.

Now, Washington DC’s Smithsonian is giving back all its Benin Bronzes – so why isn’t the UK?

Plus: Ukraine is ‘decolonising’ streets named after figures like Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky.

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