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Humboldt Forum: Reroofing the Meeting House and Assembling a Double-Hulled Canoe

Humboldt Forum

In many exhibition spaces in the Humboldt Forum’s east and west wings, the organisers have worked closely with international partners from the displayed objects’ regions of origin. The partners’ knowledge has made it possible to reappraise the objects and present them from different perspectives, while also encouraging an informed approach to the exhibits. Indigenous boat and house builders are currently working on two exhibition highlights in the Oceania exhibition at the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

A Traditional Meeting House (Bai) from Palau

Since 1 August 2022, Patrick Tellei and his Palauan team have been reroofing the meeting house in the exhibition hall Bauwerke aus Ozeanien (Buildings from Oceania). The traditionally used palm-leaf shingles were made in Palau.

Meeting houses like the bai could previously be found at several locations in a Palauan village. They represented places of political power that to this day provide a sense of identity. There were meeting houses for the Council of Chiefs and for clubs of men of the same age. Political decisions were made there, and the men’s clubs organised public works such as constructing roads and houses. Each club had a meeting house where members also slept at night. The women’s clubs mostly met in residential buildings.

The German colonial government’s (1899–1914) drastic intervention in local power relations, perpetuated under the Japanese rule that followed, led to the men’s clubs losing significance and influence. Nonetheless, meeting houses continue to play an important role in Palauan culture. One of the four remaining bai, a reconstruction from 1991, stands on the grounds of the Belau National Museum in Koror (the Republic of Palau’s administrative state). The government seal of the Republic of Palau, founded in 1981 and independent since 1994, depicts a bai.

In 1907, physician and ethnologist Augustin Krämer travelled to Koror, where he had a bai built for what then was the Berliner Völkerkundemuseum (now the Ethnologisches Museum). In two months, master builder Golegeril and some forty members of the Ngaradegangl men’s club erected a reduced-scale meeting house and named it Kekerel Gosobulngau (small hearth house).

In Berlin, this bai was first displayed in 1908 and then not again until 1970, with a floor and roof framework added by the museum. After being moved from Berlin-Dahlem to the Humboldt Forum in Berlin-Mitte, the house was re-erected with these additions, which are now considered an integral part of the bai and its history. Only the roofing was lacking.

A Double-Hulled Canoe (Drua) from Fiji

In the adjacent exhibition hall Ozeanien, Mensch und Meer (Oceania: People and the Sea), boat-builders Joji Marau Misaele and Rogovosa Biuwale from Fiji are meanwhile assembling a double-hulled sailing canoe. They bind its various parts together with magimagi, a cord made of coconut fibre.

The Polynesians historically used double-hulled canoes to explore the eastern Pacific and to sail to and settle distant islands. More manoeuvrable Fijian canoes with hulls of unequal lengths (drua)subsequently replaced their predecessors with same-length hulls. In Fiji, the double-hulled canoes used to be an essential means of transport for trade and maintaining social relations between the islands.

The drua on display is a replica of a double-hulled canoe from 1913 that is now part of the maritime exhibition at the Fiji Museum in the capital Suva on the main island of Viti Levu. Constructed using traditional methods, the replica is a new acquisition of the Humboldt Forum Foundation in the Berlin Palace produced in collaboration with Fiji National University and Fijian boat builders.

After the exhibition opens as part of the family area, children and young people will be allowed to climb onto the approximately 2.7-metre by 10-metre sailing canoe. Virtual reality goggles help introduce young explorers to the world of navigation.