Partially clad in a Baroque façade of glowing cherubs, gods, and lions, Berlin’s Humboldt Forum was conceived as a way to make a shattered city whole. The building is a reconstruction of the Stadtschloss, or City Palace, the main residence of the Hohenzollerns from 1443 to 1918, as they evolved from a family of counts and dukes to one of kings and kaisers. When Berlin was divided by the Allied powers after World War II, the palace, which had been heavily damaged by bombing, lay in the Soviet zone. After that section of the city became part of East Germany in 1949, the country’s rulers demolished it to signal their break with the past. For good measure, they later built a convention center–like structure called the Palace of the Republic on the site.
When Germany reunited in 1990, the building was found to be ridden with asbestos and closed. By 2008 it had been razed, leaving a gaping hole in the city center. That was followed by nearly ten years of debate over whether to rebuild the Stadtschloss, with critics lampooning the project as nostalgic kitsch and advocates touting it as an important new space for exhibitions. The latter argument prevailed, and in 2021 part of the new building opened, with the rest opening last September. What was once an eccentric vision is now surprisingly real.
Three of the Humboldt Forum’s façades imitate the Stadtschloss’s original extravagance. They are adorned with 2,800 handmade sandstone figures, some of them originals salvaged from the wreckage of the demolished palace. The eastern façade was left plain, to show that the building is a reconstruction. Still, if one walks east along Unter den Linden, passing the State Opera, the Humboldt University, and the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, the Humboldt Forum completes the tableau. Like a colored postcard from the past, it makes it possible to imagine that Berlin’s Prussian center is intact, and that the twentieth century didn’t happen.
But the building’s most audacious trompe l’oeil lies inside its walls. Although it was first proposed in the 1990s as a way to restore Berlin’s lost heart, the project only gained critical support when its proponents suggested making it a showcase for the city’s collection of cultural objects from Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. At the time they were housed in a largely custom-built museum in the university district of Dahlem, to the city’s south, but instead—so the argument went—they could be displayed next to the story of Western civilization, which is told across the street in five museums that make up what is known as Museum Island. This complex gives the traditional version of Western culture’s roots: from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome to the Europe of nation-states. The rebuilt palace would provide a counterpoint by housing the Museum of Asian Art and the Museum of Ethnology.
The new complex was named after the German scholars Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, two Enlightenment figures who spoke to universal values of knowledge and scientific inquiry. What began as a pet project of Prussian nostalgists won over skeptics by promising a forward-thinking bridge between Western and non-Western cultures—a symbol of Berlin’s aspirations to be an up-to-date world capital. Like the building’s façades, this conceit works for a moment: the outriggers of Oceania, the frescoes of the Silk Road, and the masks of African tribes across the street from the bust of Nefertiti, the Pergamon Altar, and Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic landscapes—a brilliant juxtaposition that puts non-Western and Western art on the same level. But like the façades, the interiors conjure up an anachronism: the noble universal museum founded to educate the public.
Generations of people have been inspired by visits to universal museums, such as the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Berlin’s collections. Nowadays their treasures are explained by scholars who use their holdings and loans to inform and entertain the public. And they give visitors the chance to see objects that otherwise would require travel to distant lands.
But for decades these museums have misrepresented their true nature. Their premise is that their holdings are encyclopedic and collected for the public good, explaining cultures and peoples in the detached voice of art history or social science. The reality is that large swaths of their collections were randomly acquired by hoarders, looters, and donors. This raises fundamental questions about the stories they tell, not to mention the prov- enance of their holdings. Now, as the peoples whose goods were plundered gain a voice, the question goes far beyond the aesthetics of nostalgia. Instead it is, How long can these museums exist in their current form?
Every gallery of every museum has its own stories to tell, but one noteworthy example is room 320 of the Museum of Asian Art, housed on the Humboldt Forum’s third floor. To understand the objects on view, it is useful to recall an episode from modern Chinese history that can stand in for the violence and unequal power dynamic that underlie many other museums’ holdings.
Between 1899 and 1901 a group of Chinese rebels launched a doomed effort to reverse decades of incursions that China had suffered at foreign hands. They were known as the Yihetuan, the Righteous and Harmonious Militia—or condescendingly in Western history as the “Boxers” because some of their followers practiced martial arts. In 1900 the Yihetuan arrived in Beijing and besieged the capital’s embassy district. In one of its many colossal misjudgments, the Qing dynasty sided with them.
For several months, the siege transfixed the world, which was kept up to date on developments in real time by new technologies such as the telegraph. Eight countries—Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States—sent 19,000 soldiers to Beijing to lift the siege. The angriest of them were probably the Germans, whose envoy in Beijing had been killed. To the Germans, this showed that the Chinese were barbarians who didn’t understand that embassies and envoys were sacrosanct. The fact that the envoy had brought this violence upon himself by ordering the summary execution of a Chinese boy suspected of being a member of the Yihetuan didn’t matter. The Chinese people needed to be taught a lesson, and Germany was only too happy to be their Lehrmeister.
Kaiser Wilhelm II saw his troops off with an incendiary speech, vowing, “No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken!” By the time the Germans arrived, other foreign troops had already lifted the siege and had sent the Qing court fleeing to the country’s interior. The troops of all eight countries committed widespread war crimes. Up to 100,000 people were killed. Female family members of murdered Chinese officials were raped and sent to brothels set up for the foreign troops. The Chinese state treasury was plundered, papers were burned, and buildings were destroyed. German troops were widely regarded as especially bloodthirsty, fanning out across northern China to burn, destroy, and loot. Many seemed eager to follow Kaiser Wilhelm’s parting advice to make a name for themselves just as the Huns had when they rampaged through Europe centuries earlier.
This history permeates room 320. Here, in a reconstruction of the very palace from which Kaiser Wilhelm ruled, modern-day Germany displays the booty that German troops carried off in the last century. They include prints, paintings, and ritual objects from the Chinese imperial collection.
This juxtaposition of looter and looted is in itself disorienting and distressing. But the museum’s involvement goes beyond what is on view. In 2015 I participated in a workshop to discuss new ways of displaying the museum’s holdings. As part of the day-long meeting, we were given access to the storage facilities at the museum’s old home in Dahlem. I saw many other objects with the suspicious acquisition dates of 1900 and 1901. Documents in the storerooms confirmed that the museum itself had participated in the looting. At the feet of two gilded seventeenth-century Buddhas, for example, was a notecard explaining that they were taken from Sanfosi, an important Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing, and acquired by F.W.K. Müller, the longtime head of the Museum of Ethnology’s East Asian Department. Müller, the notecard said, “undertook during the ‘Boxer Rebellion’ of 1900/01 a research and acquisition tour through China, resulting in these important lama temple figures, among others.” It would be hard to come up with a clearer statement that objects were looted.
The Humboldt Forum has attempted to address these issues. It has published a colorful brochure in English with a very basic account of the origins of eighteen objects in its enormous holdings. Two of these eighteen objects are from the Asian collection. One is an eighteenth-century portrait stolen from an imperial palace in Beijing used by German troops as their headquarters. In a video version of the brochure, the narrator disingenuously asks, “Are other plundered goods from the Boxer war in the collection?”—as if there were any question.
The room has two vitrines filled with more complex examples of looted art. In 1959, when East Germany and the People’s Republic were both in the Soviet orbit, Beijing sent to East Berlin 250 pieces of art that its Palace Museum had recently acquired. As the art historian Kejia Wu points out in A Modern History of China’s Art Market, the Communist government systematically confiscated the possessions of prominent families during the Mao era. Some artworks went to top party officials who fancied themselves connoisseurs. Others were kept in warehouses and formed the basis of China’s art auction industry, which restarted in the 1990s. And some were bought at steep discounts by state-run institutions, such as the Palace Museum, which gave them as gifts to foreigners. Instead of referring to these well-known facts, a video on the Humboldt Forum’s website ends with the bizarre assertion that the objects’ provenance can be determined only by collaborating closely with Chinese colleagues—who work for the same state and the same institution that seized them from the Chinese public.
While these fragmentary explanations are offered online, visitors to room 320 are given even sketchier explanations. The vitrines displaying the confiscated porcelain, lacquerware, and enamel goods carry a short explanatory paragraph that does not mention their troubled history. It is titled “A Generous Official Gift from 1959” and simply says that the goods were donated to East Germany. An even more enigmatic information board called “Art Between War and Peace” tells visitors that some spoils of war were taken to Berlin after the Boxer uprising and that most of them were taken to the Soviet Union after World War II. This is accurate. What comes next is not: “As a sign of peace” (instead of realpolitik) China gave East Germany “an important collection from the Palace Museum in 1959” (instead of the much more likely explanation that they were objects confiscated from Chinese families). The impression is that the artifacts on display are the result of postwar goodwill rather than state violence.
I have previously discussed the specious arguments used to justify construction of the Humboldt Forum.1 One of them was that Dahlem was too far from central Berlin to attract tourists, but this was true only if the goal was to centralize all attractions in one location for the convenience of tour buses. Dahlem is only forty minutes from Museum Island by public transportation, about the same time it takes to get from the Metropolitan Museum to the Whitney. Dahlem was in fact a hugely successful museum complex that in the 1980s was a center of West Berlin cultural life. One of the many reasons for this was that most of the complex was constructed after the war specifically to house the collections. Dahlem’s layout and design were in essence an act of respect for the objects, despite their tortured history.
The Humboldt Forum, by contrast, subjugates the artifacts to the demands of nostalgia. Most of the rooms are laid out according to the plans of the old palace. They do not have ornate ceiling and wall decorations, but they do have the same rectangular shape, the same windows, and the same columns. Within the reconstructed Baroque façades, the layout of the rooms could have taken many forms. Instead, a curator told me during a private tour of the complex, the layout, columns, and windows were installed to leave open the possibility of an exact reconstruction of its interior.
For a modern museum this is extremely constraining. Consider the reconstructed palace’s windows. They make the outer rooms almost unusable for exhibitions; curators are forced to cover them with shades and to build temporary walls in front. Again, the contrast with Dahlem is striking. Some rooms there had no windows, while others had floor-to-ceiling glass that could flood a room in soft natural light. The Humboldt Forum’s layout requires visitors to move from one rectangular room to the next, imposing a linear, segmented approach to displaying the objects. In Dahlem, some of the rooms radiated out from central spaces. One especially effective room explained the origins of Buddhism, with attached rooms focused on different regions, highlighting the way the religion linked these different parts of Asia.
Another disappointment is the lack of space. When the giant new building was proposed, its backers said that it would allow curators to show more of the collection. This was the premise of our 2015 workshop. But based on official figures, the Humboldt Forum gives the Asian and ethnographic collections 16,000 square meters of exhibition space, which is almost exactly the same as in Dahlem. This has led to numerous problems. One is the lack of space to display one of the museum’s greatest—legitimate—acquisitions: hundreds of statues, models, books, prints, and paintings concerning Chinese medicine. These were purchased from Professor Paul Unschuld, one of the leading scholars of the subject, who acquired them in travels to China over the past half-century. It is one of the most important collections in this field in the world. Its contents remain in the vaults.
Instead, vast swaths of the Humboldt Forum—it has a total floor space of 30,000 square meters—are given over to trivial shows, such as “Berlin Global,” a public relations–type exhibition aimed at showing what a cosmopolitan city Berlin is. Many other rooms are empty or barely used. Large entranceways to the exhibitions are filled with television sets showing identical videos. A long bar on the second floor is often shut for lack of visitors. Although the organizers claim the building is a huge success, with 1.5 million visitors during its first twelve months of operation, many of them seem to be spillovers from Museum Island who traipse through the ground floor, visit the gift shops, and rarely make it to the serious holdings upstairs. On the four trips I made there in 2021, 2022, and 2023 the halls were mostly empty, despite the museum now making admission free.
I walked through the Humboldt Forum one day with Dan Hicks, an archaeologist at Oxford and a leading proponent of repatriating stolen artifacts.2 He said that most of the collections were acquired in the late nineteenth century when extractive colonialism replaced settler colonialism. Looting was part of the extraction—a way to show ownership and control. “It was a tactic,” he told me. “Within weeks of lootings, many things were on display in the metropole.”
Our walk showed that many of the Humboldt Forum’s other holdings are as questionable as those in the Chinese section—from the pillaged lands of Africa to the plundered islands of Oceania. Thanks to the efforts of Hicks and others, there is now increasing pressure to return some of the most notorious examples of looted art, especially the Benin Bronzes, the thousands of sculptures and plaques that British forces looted in 1897 from Benin City, in what is now Nigeria. Many ended up in museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, and the Humboldt Forum. Last year Germany formally transferred ownership of more than 1,100 objects to Nigeria, and in December the German foreign minister flew to Abuja to personally return twenty objects. Museums elsewhere have also announced efforts to return their holdings of the bronzes.
While other countries have left it up to individual institutions to decide what to do, the German government decided to act in early 2019, when advisers to Chancellor Angela Merkel told her that the Humboldt Forum was about to turn into a public relations disaster. A leading voice for decolonizing the collection, the Berlin-based historian Bénédicte Savoy, had already resigned from the forum’s advisory board, comparing the project to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Merkel organized a dinner with historians and experts, who convinced her that the bronzes had to be returned to defuse the issue.
The Humboldt Forum and most other universal museums around the world, however, still largely follow what Hicks calls a “retain and explain” method: the objects are kept on display but given a sometimes hand-wringing origin story. As we walked around the exhibits, he said, “It’s a performance of white fragility. What should we do? Oh my.”
In fact, these explanations don’t heal the traumas but add to the sense of injury. At a conference last year, Savoy said that after she visited the Humboldt Forum she felt a great unease. In the African collection she saw doorframes from the former German colony of Cameroon. The ornately carved wooden objects are presented as beautiful works of art and tastefully displayed. “But they are from the burning of a village,” Savoy said. “It is horrific. If you know where it came from, it’s hard to not be shocked.”
It would be wrong to see this as a specifically German or European problem. In fact, compared to many museums in the world, the Humboldt Forum is relatively transparent about its holdings. It has joined six other German museums in a research project called “Traces of the ‘Boxer War’ in German Museum Collections.” More broadly, federal and state cultural ministers have approved guidelines for handling items with “colonial contexts,” stating that all objects obtained “unethically” are liable to be returned.
Many other museums, especially in the United States, avoid even this level of discussion. The Met, for example, has mainly been concerned with identifying and restituting works looted during the Nazi era, which dominates almost all discussion of provenance on the museum’s website. It claims that some 350,000 digitized holdings now include “provenance information,” but this is misleading. At least in my use of the search tool, provenance research is limited to recording who sold an item to the Met—not the more relevant question of where and how that person obtained it.
The problems are abundantly clear in the Met’s gallery 206, a vast hall devoted to Chinese Buddhist art. Most of the works in it were taken from Chinese temples and cave complexes in the 1920s, a time when government authority was weak due to decades of foreign invasion and civil wars. That led to economic crises and a breakdown in public order, allowing once grand temples to be looted by pseudoacademic adventurers and empire-building museum directors, who worked through compradors and desperately poor local people.
The gallery explains nothing of this background. The artifacts are described from a clinically detached art historical perspective, as if the horrific national crisis that caused them to be disgorged from their places of worship had not occurred. The room is dominated, for example, by a vast thirteenth-to-fourteenth-century fresco of the Buddha of Medicine from the Lower Guangsheng Temple in Shanxi Province. The information card says that a stele at the temple records that monks sold unidentified murals to pay for the temple’s reconstruction after it was damaged in an earthquake. In fact, the sale of the temple’s treasures to foreigners is widely seen in China as one of the most egregious examples of the country’s looted patrimony. The Met makes no mention of this.
The same can be said for many other museums around the United States. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, for example, has other murals from the same temple and one of the most famous sculptures from China, Kuan-yin of the Southern Sea. It was bought from the art dealer C.T. Loo, who was notorious for trafficking in looted goods and is now the subject of a joint German-US provenance research project. Even more egregious is the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation in New York, which holds one of the earliest examples of Chinese writing, the Chu Manuscript. It was smuggled out of China by a US intelligence officer after World War II in violation of Chinese laws. Its provenance is so tainted that it remains in possession of the Sackler Foundation rather than one of the Sackler galleries at the Met or the Smithsonian, and it is not shown to the public.3
Solutions are not hard to imagine. Some objects could be repatriated, and others left in place on semipermanent loan. At the very least, a start would be to give an honest account of the background and provenance of each one—in other words, real explanations in the galleries. That could contribute to a better understanding of them and lead to the sort of change in public opinion that forced politicians to push museums to return the Benin Bronzes. Another recent example is the Parthenon (or Elgin) Marbles, which the British Museum as recently as 2019 said would never be returned to Athens. Now there are signs that they could well be headed back to Greece thanks to sustained public and political pressure.
One attempt to help visitors understand these issues is on view at the Humboldt Forum. It is called “Empty Showcases?” and features rooms meant to hold some of the 10,000 objects in the museum’s collection taken from Tanzania during Germany’s short but bloody colonial rule. Instead of a traditional exhibition, the show displays some objects but dissects why they were collected, what they omit, and how they can be shown. More fundamentally, as its online description asks: “How can we even exhibit objects that were violently acquired?”
This is a question that artists have been dealing with for decades, in works ranging from the film Statues Also Die (1953), directed by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Ghislain Cloquet, to Fred Wilson’s installation Mining the Museum (1992). One of the most striking newer works on the subject is the New York–based artist Furen Dai’s On the Future Ruin (2022), which explores what museums would look like if stripped of their often violently obtained objects. Dai’s animated videos, stills, frescoes, and sculptures show empty plinths, halls, and galleries. Of course, universal museums have vast storerooms, and none will run out of things to show, but Dai challenges us to think of the future as an era not of loss but of optimism, when a policy of no-questions-asked acquisitions finally lies in ruins.
See, for example, his book The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto, 2020); reviewed in these pages by Coco Fusco, February 25, 2021. ↩
See my “How a Chinese Manuscript Written 2,300 Years Ago Ended Up in Washington,” The New York Times, June 8, 2018. ↩