What Good is Humboldt-Forum?

Due to the dispute about its facades, the use concept for Humboldt-Forum has not been critically discussed so far. But a glance at the competition brief for the architectural competition currently underway shows: the usable area has been cut by more than half since the initial conception from 7 years ago without changing the concept or developing it further. The ethnological collections of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage) and the Berliner Zentral- und Landesbibliothek (Central and Regional Library of Berlin) have been fragmented and torn apart in an irresponsible manner. It’s not the cultural community that has the say, but rather politics, which subjects the project to its questionable needs for legitimation. An Analysis and Criticism of Humboldt-Forum’s Use Concept by Philipp Oswalt

More important than the reconstruction of the baroque facades is ultimately the issue of functional use relating to the construction of the Berlin Palace (German: Berliner Schloß) site: What should take place here? For a long time, this subject has been rather neglected because the debate is dominated to this day by the desire to reconstruct the Palace facades, after the temporary facade backdrop in 1993 left a strong impression on many. But since Klaus Dieter Lehmann, as President of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz in the years 1999 – 2001, developed the idea of Humboldt-Forum, the issue of how the Palace should be used appears to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Humboldt-Forum also deliberately gives a proposal to those who are critical of the facade reconstruction, which appears attractive with regard to its use and is thankfully accepted by them, such as by federal and state politicians belonging to the Green Party and The Left. In its ingratiating manner as a rather embarrassing gesture of embrace, the argumentation for Humboldt-Forum takes on the reputed „house of the people“ idea of the Palast der Republik.
The legitimizing function of the use concept is obvious: the Prussian monarchial palace will become a place of global cultural exchange under the label of the liberal Humboldt brothers-a classic example of political correctness. Here, no one must worry any longer that German nationalism or Prussian militarism will celebrate its revival, thus taking the wind from the sails of all killer arguments with which the demolition of the Palace was ‘justified‘ at the time. In his flowery speech, Peter Klaus Schuster summarized it while addressing the Expert Commission in 2001: „One could almost speak of an alchemical metamorphosis of Prussia through its museums and universities for the glory of this Federal Republic.“ Whether such a transformation of heritage by means of selective memory at this site of German history is appropriate shall not be further discussed here. Beyond dispute however, it fulfills a central political function, because ultimately, Humboldt-Forum has been called the most important national construction project for decades and should serve as a place of identification for reunified Berlin and Germany.
In this connection, it is curious how one’s own definition of identity avoids the here and now, and is instead constructed both through recourse to the distant past and based on things far away. Does the involuntary core of Germany identity lie in this undoubtedly traumatically grounded contortion?
Whereas the instrumentalization of „non-European“ cultures functions well to legitimize, as is apparently still viewed necessary, a Prussian revival and thereby develops a surrealistic charm, the question conversely arises as to what the distinct Christian imprint of the Palace building means for creations mostly stemming from cultures influenced by other religions.
The use concept is otherwise a pragmatic solution in terms of the politics of power: the Palace site’s three neighbors-Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Humboldt University and Berliner Landesbibliothek-divvy up the cake amongst themselves. What’s unfortunate about this, however, is that the existing Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) is not based on Museum Island, but in Tiergarten next to the Bundeskanzleramt (Federal Chancellery). Thus, it was not given consideration when subdividing the no man’s land amongst the three neighboring large institutions even though until now it has been the place in Berlin where Humboldt-Forum’s goal of creating a dialogue among cultures has been successfully practiced-for almost 20 years. Every move since then suffers from this handicap. Time and again, there is talk about including the Haus der Kulturen and also other institutions, but it is de facto ignored and-according to rumors-it should also stay that way by request of the office of the Federal Commissioner for Culture.

Altogether, there is no movement or development discernible anyway. At the time of the Expert Commission – reportedly – the three users of Humboldt-Forum had formed a workgroup in order to develop the use concept. Yet what this group developed in the past six years for Germany’s most important cultural project is not recognizable. The results of a cooperative project of the Bundeszentrale für politischen Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education) with the users, which is documented on a DVD and website (www.humboldt-forum.de), are upsettingly meager, with brief interviews and one (!) scant page of text. The brief for the architectural competition also gives nothing else in terms of content-except for the sometimes presumptuous self-attributions (‘unique worldwide,‘ ‘suggestive potential,‘ ‘most significant building in Northern Europe‘ etc.) and a quantitative breakdown of the areas for the spatial program.
How this conceptual vacuum came about is surprising, since the need for a sustainable and well-conceived concept is acute. The initial idea for Humboldt-Forum must not only be further developed before the planned half a billion Euro is-hopefully only literally and not metaphorically-sunken into the sand. Substantial need for revisal also exists because of an acute need to save: the 100,000 sq.m (over 1 million sq. ft.) planned by the International Expert Commission were reduced-by more than half-to 40,000 sq.m. (approx. 430,000 sq. ft.) This, even though as early as 2001, Lehmann viewed the original area for the spatial program plan as being insufficient and suggested eliminating one of the components. But exactly such a rather unavoidable step has been ignored. Instead, the uses were cut back to the point of becoming unrecognizable: instead of 8,000 sq.m, Humboldt University is now represented with a mere 1,000 sq.m including administration. Nothing sensible can be done with such limited space. It merely serves to keep up appearances.

The Landesbibliothek receives 4,000 sq.m and thereby appears to fare better than the University. But in this case, the space problem is much graver, since it pertains to the library’s basic function as one of the most important and most used cultural educational institutions in Berlin and not to an additional activity. Instead of concentrating and unifying the library on the Palace site as originally planned and providing the 26,000 to 50,000 sq.m needed for this purpose, the designated space is sufficient for only a small part of the library. As a result, it will be distributed in four buildings (instead of the current provisional three) and still won’t have sufficient space. Absurdly, the split will be made such that the departments for ethnology and folklore won’t even be situated in Humboldt-Forum, even though the ethnological collection of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz will be presented there. Fragmenting the holdings of such an urban public library is conceptually fatal: it is precisely the purpose of such a library to offer easy and swift access to the most diverse fields of knowledge and not to specialize. Isn’t it precisely the pleasure of such a library to be able to seek out an entirely foreign or new field of knowledge in an uncomplicated way? Notwithstanding, the Director of the Landesbibliothek, Claudia Lux, acts as if everything is okay and wrote in July 2007: „4,000 sq.m of new public space on Schlossplatz for Berlin’s citizens and residents in their Landesbibliothek, one has to agree to that.“ Actually-No. But the main thing is to be a part of the scene.
But that’s not all. A grave mistake underlying the concept for Humboldt-Forum from the beginning is the destruction of existing relationships among the holdings of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz in order to construct the politically desired form of legitimation. Strangely, this hasn’t occurred to anyone so far. It was only possible to use the desired label „non-European collections“ by separating the European section from the existing ethnological collection in Dahlem in 1999 (the same point in time when Lehmann initially formulated his proposal for the Palace site) and making it into an independent Museum of European Cultures. It is not to be incorporated in Humboldt-Forum but remains instead in Dahlem. Thus, the collection initiated by Rudolf Virchow at the end of the 19th century was removed from the ethnological Museum and consequently, non-European folk culture can be presented in contrast with European high culture on the Museum Island.
Furthermore, Humboldt-Forum’s designation as site of the non-European collections of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz is a deception. That’s because, similar to the ethnological collections in Dahlem, there is a whole series of other museums in which the „European“ is mixed with the „non-European:“ the Sculpture Collection / Museum of Byzantine Art in the Bode Museum, the Numismatic Collection in the Pergamon Museum, the New National Gallery and the Museum for Contemporary Art in Hamburger Bahnhof. Apart from these, moreover, there are the other stunning non-European collections: the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, the Museum of the Ancient Near East and the Museum of Islamic Art in the Pergamon Museum as well as the Ibero-American Institute at the Kulturforum. None are part of Humboldt-Forum, although the latter supposedly combines together the non-European collections of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK).
The bottom line is-the current concept for Humboldt-Forum is one based on the ethnological collection of the SPK, robbed of its European division, plus the Asian collections. Added to that comes a small part of the Landesbibliothek that will be torn away from the existing locations and to which great popularity is attributed (subject areas: Children and Youth, Theater, Film, Dance, Art, Music).
But the originators, builders and operators of Humboldt-Forum have no doubts. Rather, for them it is a magical miracle machine that makes everything possible: Humboldt-Forum is-according to the architectural competition brief-„a global network which puts the enjoyment of art next to the debate about chances and risks of globalization, and which understands itself at the same time as an attractive event center.“ Thereby, according to Klaus Dieter Lehmann, the Agora, as „the portal,“ offers „‘global Shopping‘ for visitors, passers-by and tourists,“ while the collections „document authentic non-European cultures“ and thereby offer a „non-curated reservoir of ideas.“ Humboldt-Forum gives „world competence and world knowledge“ a „vibrant center“ with its „worldwide unique wealth.“ For the International Expert Commission, it is a „Bürgerforum“ („Civic Forum“) that „picks up on the idea of a ‘Volkshaus‘ (‘House of the People‘) embodied in the Palast der Republik“ and establishes nothing less than the „civic center of the German capital.“ That makes it implicitly „a vital location which uses again the profoundly political palace site in a political manner“ and generously makes „the world the partner of one of the most distinguished locations in Germany.“ After all, a „huge number of artists and scientists from all over the world …, as guests in the Humboldt-Forum, will have their place of activity in the center of Berlin.“ Thus, the „universal right to study in the museum the art of the whole world and all the sciences achieves its real fulfillment with the Humboldt-Forum.“

Today’s Humboldt-Forum construct can be understood as a reaction to pressure to justify the baroque facade reconstruction, which has been a highly controversial decision within society, without thus far offering a sustainable concept. It is politically justifiable, but not (yet) on a cultural or curatorial level. And in the shadow of the facade controversy, which is the focus of public debate, it has so far escaped criticism. One wishes to positively acknowledge that it nevertheless defines the functions; politically implements a public, and publicly financed, cultural use in this location and, at least suggestively, formulates the target of seeking a new format for a cultural institution. What has been formulated until now, however, is not good enough as the basis for such a significant project. First expressions of doubt about the use concept were recently voiced in the Frankfurter Allgemein Zeitung. The newspaper proposes the Palace as a new site for the Gemäldegalerie (Gallery of Old Master Paintings), but even this is not a convincing solution.
In 1998, an intelligent suggestion from Michael Cullens was quickly removed from discussion: unify both branches (East and West) of the Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library) on the Palace site and, in a brilliant chess move, make the Stabi-West building available to the Landesbibliothek. Regardless, the question arises as to what advantages the additional concentration of new museum space on the Museum Island (which would be continued by the projected relocation of the Gemäldegalerie from the Kulturforum) should bring with it. The very charm of the museum landscape in many metropolises is that when visiting various museums, one at the same time walks through and explores diverse districts. As it is, no one can grasp in one fell swoop the collections already concentrated on the Museum Island. Urbanistically, it would be more desirable to attract other audiences to this location, cater to various subgroups and stimulate a broad spectrum of public activities, instead of creating a ghetto of sorts purely for tourists. Even though the decisions on the Staatsbibliothek have already been made, the matter remains unresolved and other entities beside the museums are imaginable.
It is late for the development of a sustainable concept, but not yet too late. After the decision on the architectural competition, the spatial concept could be revised and refined based on a sustainable concept. Thanks to a change at the head of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, this central figure has qualified new leadership-Hermann Parzinger-and could, with adequate political backing, realign things. Let’s hope that the participants are able to muster the courage to seriously pursue the issue of functional use again and not, if the facade seems right for them, simply wave the project on or even push it through as quickly as possible.
For the development to be successful, it would however be essential to separate the project from its political instrumentalization and to remove state influence. All the important committees and processes have been, and still continue to be, dominated by politicians. The International Expert Commission for the Historic Center was presided by Austrian politician Hannes Swoboda, five politicians served moreover as the ‘moderators‘ and four others were themselves experts. Ten federal and state politicians serve as members of the jury for the current architectural competition, whereas the users have only three representatives. Federal Parliament member Thierse played a dominant role in the first jury session. Ex-MP Richard Schröder (SPD) and Ingrid Rexrodt, widow of an FDP politician, are executive board members of the Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V. and even the accompanying activities such as those of the Stiftung Berlin (Volker Hassemer, Senator, retired, CDU; Richard Schröder) or the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Thomas Michael Krüger, SPD) are firmly in the hands of politicians. Only by succeeding in separating the project from the political machinery and thereby from its needs for legitimation, barter deals, exertion of lobby influence, interdependency of interests, as well as from anxieties, taboos and orthodoxies, can something useful emerge.
The Palace site was for centuries a center of state power, and only during brief moments of upheaval-at the time of the Berliner Unwille (Berlin Indignation) revolt in 1448, after the November Revolution of 1919, prior to its detonation in the early post-war years, and in the time after the asbestos abatement of the Palace until its demolition (2002 – 2005)-has it been a place belonging to civil society and the citizenry. Only if, after having secured the financing, the political establishment is prepared to surrender control over the project and independent cultural stakeholders are able to develop it, can there be a chance for a coherent project. Continued mobilization of culture at the service of the political machinery and state apparatus would be a continuation of an unfortunate tradition of the site.

German Version published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 24.8.2008



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