The Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst Open Exhibition Spaces in the West Wing at the Humboldt Forum

Humboldt Forum

Rich cultural assets from around the globe – from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania – are on view on the two upper floors of the Humboldt Forum (starting 23 September 2021). The collections of two museums (the Ethnological Museum and the Asian Art Museum) were exhibited in Berlin-Dahlem until 2017. Numerous objects are nevertheless being shown for the first time. Around 10,000 exhibits, elucidated from various perspectives, are presented in more than 8,500 m2 of exhibition space and more than 30 exhibition sections. With the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin shown at the Humboldt Forum, and those of European art and cultural history and the Near East on the Museumsinsel Berlin (Museum Island), Berlin-Mitte has become a true hub of world culture.

Unique objects are among the highlights, including an 18th-century Chinese painting of Buddha preaching, completed on a massive 50 m2 scale; a 19th-century throne from the Kingdom of Bamoun (Cameroon); boats from various regions in Oceania; partially reconstructed caverns from along the Silk Route; Hindu art treasures; and Japanese screens. Contemporary art interventions, which refer directly to the collections or were made in dialogue with them, are also integrated into the exhibitions. Angolan artist Antonio Ole’s large-scale Township Wall and a dress designed as an artwork by Namibian fashion designer Cynthia Schimming are prime examples. The spatial designs at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst are also spectacular, such as the elliptical music ethnology listening area designed by Wang Shu, a Chinese architect and recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Another highlight is the hall dedicated to Chinese court art, also designed by Wang Shu, which sheds light on the mutual artistic influences between China and Europe. The work was generously supported by the Kuratorium Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Funding Committee of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation).

Critical Reappraisals of Provenances and Acquisition Contexts

The collections and the objects on view are presented and commented on from a variety of perspectives. Right from the start, the curators decided to pursue a multiple perspectives approach. It meant that the collaboration with international partners and members of the communities of a work’s origin was an integral component of the exhibition concept. The museums go beyond presenting current, cooperative research on the objects and new exhibition and communication concepts to address their collection histories and ongoing post-Colonial questions. The critical revisionism of provenances and acquisition contexts and its embedding in colonial history are part of the narrative at the Humboldt Forum. They will continue to influence and shape work on the collections.

Discussions about the Origins of Collection Objects

Multiple offers are dedicated to discussions about the origins of the objects in the collections at the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, associated issues, and potential problems. For instance, an accompanying booklet (PDF, 5,5 MB, German only) uses selected collection contexts and objects to point out the diverse nature and some of the challenges of provenance research. It explains why it is vital to research and examine the background of objects in cultural contexts and how this work is done. Visitors are encouraged to explore the building together with provenance researchers on guided tours, where they will have the opportunity to discuss any potentially problematic provenances directly.

Bringing to Life Perspectives on Objects and Their Histories

The exhibitions at the Humboldt Forum aim to make multiple perspectives on the objects and history visual and audible – and as participatory and inclusive as possible. For this reason, the new presentation of the two museums is firmly focused on communication and education – for example, through consistent use of graphics, digital media and designated areas for families, children and young adults.

In viewing depots and study collections at the two museums – each with their own densely displayed object presentations in specially-constructed large glass showcases – collection inventories are arranged and shown in keeping with various focuses. This presentation form underscores the importance of collections as the foundation of any museum, from which exhibitions and other projects originate and can continually be developed anew. Among other subjects addressed, it brings up topics for discussion that include collecting, collection history and the associated provenances of the exhibits on display.

Family Spaces, Activity Areas and Changing Exhibition Spaces

Four large family spaces are designed especially for families, children and young adults. In addition, activity areas, rooms, and meeting points serve diverse group activities and smaller events for up to 50 people. The first changing exhibition spaces are open: Together with the exhibitions realised by the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, these areas and their varying focuses make it possible to adopt a faster and more flexible approach to current topics, questions, developments and challenges in a global context. The changing exhibition spaces will have 15 additional rooms available on the two upper floors with the opening of the East Wing in 2022.

Collaborative Approaches at the Humboldt Forum

Diverse objects that are part of Spuren (Traces), co-organised with the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, are related to the history of the Berlin Palace. The former building was connected with the museums and collections in many ways, not just through the nucleus of the inventory that originated from the historical Kunstkammer (Art Chamber). Ultimately, the spatial use of the permanent exhibition areas will be enhanced by an interdisciplinary, scientific “viewing window” in collaboration with the Naturkundemuseum Berlin and the Botanischer Garten, Botanisches Museum.