Berlin: The End of a Museum Idyll

The Dahlem museums, Berlin, March 11, 2014
Schöning/ullstein bild/Getty Images
The Dahlem museums, Berlin, March 11, 2014

For the past quarter-century, the museums in Berlin’s genteel western suburb of Dahlem have been treated like a relic of the old days of the Cold War. Located on a side street near the campus of Free University in a series of modernist buildings designed by Jugendstil architect Bruno Paul, they housed masterpieces and artifacts from the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and Asia—a world-class collection far from the city’s once-divided center.

Despite the rebirth of Berlin as Germany’s brash and loud capital, this quiet idyll survived. As recently as mid-January, one could stand alone in a cave of swirling frescoes from the Silk Road oasis of Turfan, quietly contemplate great outriggers of the South Pacific, or watch the story of the Buddha’s life unfold in stone friezes from Gandhara. For refreshment, a university-style cafeteria in the basement served fifty-cent cups of tea from the samovar—refills gratis. Visitors came because they cared for the art, not because it was part of the Time Out grand tour.

These slow days are quickly ending. On January 11, parts of the museum closed, with the rest scheduled to follow in a year. In 2019, a very different version of the museum is supposed to reopen in the approximately $630 million Humboldt Forum—the wildly ambitious effort to rebuild a lost Prussian palace in the center of Berlin and fill it mostly with works from the Dahlem collections. While the move will likely bring these remarkable objects a far larger audience, it will also erase some of the qualities that have made the museum so special to generations of Berliners.

Building post from New Guinea, 1963, in the Dahlem Museum, 2016
Ian Johnson
Building post from New Guinea, 1963, at the Dahlem museums, 2016

The location of the Humboldt Forum is coveted for its proximity to Museum Island, which now houses many of the city’s most important historic art collections—among them, the Pergamon Museum, the Bode Museum, the Altes Museum, the Neues Museum, and the Alte Nationalgalerie. By adding the Dahlem collections to the area, the city argues that visitors will be able to see the sweep of human accomplishment in one central location.

But the building that will house the Forum has been one of the most controversial projects in a city famous for architectural and urban planning disputes. It occupies the historic site of Berlin’s City Palace (or Stadtschloß), a defining landmark as treasured to Berliners as Versailles is to Parisians. Damaged in the war, East German leaders demolished it in 1950 to prove that they were making a clean break with the past. They replaced it with the banal bronze-mirrored-glass Palace of the Republic, home to East Germany’s rubber-stamp parliament, thirteen restaurants, a bowling alley, a post office, and a disco.

After the Wall fell in 1989, a citizens’ movement agitated to have the Palace of the Republic torn down and the old palace rebuilt. At first, this seemed just another bizarre addition to the city’s collection of lost causes. But the group hung on, and benefited from a stroke of luck: the Palace of the Republic turned out to be filled with asbestos and tearing it down became the cheapest option. Still, rebuilding the entire old Stadtschloß was rejected as too nostalgic, so a compromise was reached: the city would recreate the façade of the old palace, with new modern innards behind it. But for what purpose? Cultural officials looked south to Dahlem, and had a solution: they could bring the Ethnographic and Asian museums to the rebuilt palace, which could in turn be renamed after the great naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, and his older brother, the linguist and pioneering education theorist Wilhelm.

Visitors attend the topping-out ceremony for the Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany, June 12, 2015
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
The Humboldt Forum under construction, Berlin, June 12, 2015

Yet it is hard to find an architect, planner, or curator who doesn’t have serious misgivings about the plan. Many doubt that an architectural hologram can really restore a city’s lost historic heart. And then there’s the awkward idea of filling a mock Prussian palace with some of these non-European pieces. The palace symbolizes many good things, such as an at times tolerant and inquisitive kingdom—but it also was a center of a colonial ideology that conquered and pillaged many parts of the world. This legacy is unambiguous in the history of many of the works themselves—not just from Africa or Oceania, but also East Asia: the Silk Road frescoes chiseled out of caves in western China, for example, or the Buddhist statues taken in the aftermath of China’s Boxer rebellion. Housing these objects in a building meant to glorify this same era of European history feels tone-deaf.

But the biggest question is how the collections themselves are being treated. One gets an uneasy feeling that they are viewed as much as a way to bolster tourism than as works of complex beauty and history requiring diligent care, scholarship, and attention. Defenders of the plan have asserted that their current home in Dahlem is too far out of town. One director, citing rapidly declining visitor numbers, has even said she would rather the ethnographic collection be housed in a circus tent if it were downtown than in the university district—anything to get into the city center.

This explanation strikes me as purposefully obtuse. The Dahlem museums are only forty minutes by public transportation from Museum Island in the eastern center of Berlin, and twenty-five minutes from the Zoo station in the center of the city’s west. That’s not the same as being across the street from the Museum Island, but is no further than taking the subway from the Met to the new Whitney downtown or to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Dahlem has not become harder to reach; instead the decline in visitors can be explained by the city systematically starving the Dahlem museums of resources.

Parinirvāna of the Buddha, Gandhara, third century AD
Ian Johnson
Parinirvāna of the Buddha, Gandhara, third century AD

What I think happened is this: up until the 1990s, the Dahlem campus also housed the city’s famous collection of Renaissance and Old Masters paintings, along with several other collections of western art. This was part of the old West Berlin provisional arrangement, but the presence of Botticelli, Dürer and Rembrandt guaranteed that the non-European collections also got some respect. When the western art moved to a more central museum campus in the early 1990s, the museum management started to neglect Dahlem, and even treat it as an embarrassing relic. When I first went to the Dahlem museums in the 1980s, the entrance hall had audio booths featuring some of the collection’s phenomenal recordings of world music. The museums also sponsored concerts, and sold records and CDs. Bit by bit, these attractions were removed. The museums also made little effort to leverage their holdings and stage ambitious exhibitions, which is what art institutions must do to gain attendance. Instead, most of the time they offered nothing more than their permanent collections, unchanged for decades. Was it any wonder that attendance dropped?

I thought I might have been a bit nostalgic, but last summer I participated in a workshop in Dahlem, and realized I had not been wrong. The meeting was about how to display traditional Chinese medicine artifacts collected by the German sinologist Paul Unschuld, one of the leading experts in the field and a passionate collector of medicine chests, books, and especially small wooden statuettes of the god of medicine, Sun Simiao.

The workshop was fascinating, but shocking. It turned out that this unique collection had only been shown to the public once before, in 1995, shortly after Unschuld made the donation to the Museum of Asian Art. Here was a popular subject linking West and East—traditional medicine—and yet the museum had been sitting on the collection for two decades. One of the positive outcomes of the move to the Humboldt Forum is that these works will finally be put on permanent display there, but this reflects curatorial decisions, not location.

This sense of almost willful neglect was reinforced when we walked through the East Asian collection’s storerooms. Our guide told us that the collection has not had a proper head of the warehouse (Magazinleiter) in a decade, nor a person in charge of conservation. He said he has worked alone in the large storage area for years, barely able to keep tabs of the collection, let alone mine it for imaginative exhibitions.

Outriggers at the Dahlem Museum, Berlin, 2016
Ian Johnson
Outriggers at the Dahlem museums, Berlin, 2016

The high-profile Humboldt Forum is meant to change all that. The pieces are to be displayed less passively than in Dahlem, with fewer items on display but more interpretation and explanation. One of its three directors is the highly regarded former head of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. He pledges to use the collection to tell the story of human civilization—a wonderful undertaking.

Of course, this could have happened in Dahlem, as well. What is gained is convenience—the collections will be close to each other and to the other big museums. But the costs to the city’s urban fabric are huge. It means crippling an important historic neighborhood—there is no projected use for the Bruno Paul building because of its enormous rooms designed specifically for the collection—while further concentrating tourist attractions in an already overcrowded part of the city.

As for the collection, this must be one of the few new museum projects that shrinks the available space. Officials say that the collections’ crown jewels—the South Sea outriggers, North American totem poles, African masks, Silk Road frescoes, and Buddhist sculptures—will be displayed prominently (although apparently only half the outriggers will be on display).

I don’t doubt this. The new leadership has a sharp eye for the collection’s most interesting pieces. But the move is not driven by the needs of the collection; instead it is being used for a different purpose: to create another Berlin spectacle.