The Humboldt Forum is completed in a period in which cultural and social certainties in connection with colonialism are being renegotiated. This presents the institution with unique opportunities and challenges.
The colonial past has left its mark on all the societies involved – primarily affecting the people who were once colonised, while also impacting the former imperial powers in Europe. To use the words of James Baldwin, “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated.” The situation is that much more dangerous when national and colonial histories stand side by side, disconnected from one another, and colonialism, racism, and nationalism are not seen in context. There is a compelling need not only to signalize “postcolonialism” as such, but also to facilitate the difficult, long-term process of fostering a nuanced critique to tackle the effects of a history of injustice and self-empowerment, of violence and oppression, of war crimes and deportations as well as of protesting, of learning from one another and of cultural exchange. The view of the past leads to the question of how we want to live together in one world both now and in the future and how we can face the challenges of our age, which will be impossible without a form of global learning. I am thinking of problems like the refugee crisis and migration, scarcity of resources, a lack of distributive justice and asymmetrical globalization. We need to incorporate these issues into the discussion on decolonialization.
As a new voice in the Berlin cultural landscape, the Humboldt Forum has an important role to play in this process of global reflection, learning and teaching. Because the non-European collections in the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin display objects not only from German colonies but also from those governed by other powers in Africa, Oceania and Asia, examining them in their complex entanglements with colonial expansion. The colonial past and its effects in the present are also key themes in the exhibitions at the Humboldt-Universität and the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin / Kulturprojekte Berlin; ultimately, as capital of the German imperial Reich, Berlin was at the heart of German colonial policy-making.
Accordingly, we at the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss feel we have a particular responsibility for engaging with our colonial legacy and postcolonial present in a critical, sensitive and proactive way. And this engagement does not end with the question of restitution but goes considerably further. Establishing connections and relationships across continental divides and social differences might be one way to facilitate participation. For example, with the help of a comprehensive programme of digitization, all the objects on display in the Humboldt Forum will be inventoried and the information made available to an international public via a database. This is predicated on provenance research – the process of clarifying the objects’ origin. In tackling the sometimes problematic appropriation histories of the collection holdings, we will give visibility to a distinctive approach to the issue of “colonial legacy” in our exhibitions and programmes – this can only come about in cooperation with representatives of the diverse communities from different regions of the world. By listening to the many different voices, the Humboldt Forum has the opportunity to be a vibrant place of collective learning and understanding, and a venue for examining the past and engaging with the present.
A few of the exhibition projects that are currently underway or in planning at the Ethnologische Museum at the Humboldt Forum should be mentioned here. These projects are interested in a specific reappraisal of Germany’s colonial past. For example, a temporary exhibition which is currently being developed on the basis of an established cooperation that has been underway for several years between researchers at the Ethnologisches Museum together with colleagues at National Museum in Tanzania. It not only deals with the colonial history of this East African country but also shows Tanzania’s cultural history and the global interdependencies that existed before and after the period of German colonialism. One current project involves young artists from Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, and their approach to dealing with their cultural heritage. They are working with masks as an artistic medium: some that are stored in the historical collection in the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin and others that are still in use in modern-day East Africa. Other projects focus primarily on the provenance of objects, such as artworks that came to Berlin in the context of the German colonial war with the Boxers in China.
The Humboldt Forum is being completed in a period in which cultural and social certainties are being renegotiated and past and present are being recontextualized. It is one of the Forum’s tasks to take up these debates, initiatives and ideas – in object presentations, exhibition concepts and events. In order to engage in dialogue and learn from one another, it is necessary to galvanize an active audience – in other words, you! After all, the whole concept behind the Humboldt Forum is to provide a space for the world’s very different voices and accommodate their diverse (hi)stories.
Hartmut Dorgerloh is general director of the Humboldt Forum. Since 2004 he has lectured as an honorary professor at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and since 2007 has taught regularly at Universität Bern.