Tuesday, November 30

The strange new museum in Berlin: a Prussian palace rebuilt for 680 million euros | Museums

TO The museum gift shop has never been such an ideological battlefield. At one end of the store in The new Humboldt Forum in Berlin It is a display of memorabilia adorned with the golden silhouette of the Stadtschloss, the city’s former royal palace, which was bombed to pieces in World War II. Shelves of silk scarves and Christmas decorations hang above rows of candles in regal colors, adorned with an image of the majestic prussian pile.

At the other end of the store is a rival range of merchandise, themed on the former East German parliament and leisure center, the Republica palace, which was built triumphantly on the palace ruins in the 1970s. With its sharp white marble walls, bronze mirrored windows and space age chandeliers, it was designed to display the wonders of socialism. You can buy enameled keyrings and mugs. in a retro soviet style, as well as a model of the building in Formo, the East German Lego version, for € 250.

Rival keychains.
Hard to remove … rival keychains. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright / The Guardian

Macabre juxtaposition. The Palast der Republik was demolished in 2006 and in its place now stands a strange reconstruction of the baroque royal palace, built at a cost of 680 million euros to house the new museum. Now, 19 years after the German parliament made that decision, it has never seemed so wrong.

Like a towering Disneyland castle with no fun, the Humboldt Forum sits in the middle of Berlin’s Museum Island, its beige walls and freshly carved stone gleaming with the unreal quality of a high-definition digital model. Constructed from photographic records, it is a simulation for the media age: a reconstructed image of a palace, made of images, to project an image of an idealized past. The feeling of encountering a stage is confirmed when you turn the corner and discover that the eastern façade has completely shed its period costume. It greets the River Spree with a stripped concrete grid, giving chilling echoes of the most recent fascist past.

The colossal complex has an unusual origin story, being an institution manufactured to fill a building, and not the other way around. Conceived as a place “to tell the universal history of the human race from multiple perspectives”, it brings together the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art of the city, along with spaces for the Museum of the City of Berlin and the Laboratory of the University Humboldt. The hope is that it will give the collections of Africa, America, Asia, Australia and Oceania a setting equal to that of the works of classical antiquity displayed in the museums next door. But the symbolism of the rebuilding of an imperial palace, crowned with a gilded crucifix, as a showcase for colonial loot, now seems almost comically miscalculated.

Restored statues of the Prussian princes line the hallways of the building.
Restored statues of the Prussian princes line the hallways of the building. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright / The Guardian

“What’s done is done,” says Hartmut Dorgerloh, director of the Forum since 2018. “I don’t think the same decision will be made to rebuild the palace today. But we cannot change the architecture. Now that it’s here, it serves as a useful catalyst for discussions about our program and where the collections come from. “

The original idea to rebuild the Stadtschloss can be largely attributed to Wilhelm von Boddien, a Hamburg tractor magnate. For the past three decades, he has presided over an astonishingly successful campaign. In the 90s he erected a giant tarp on the site, painted with the facade of the palace, to provoke a public debate, and finally convinced the government to finance the project in 2002, on the condition that it attract private funds to pay for the reconstructed palace structure. Since then, his association has attracted more than € 105 million in donations, including a substantial sum from the widow of retail magnate Werner Otto to pay for the golden orb and cross, a fitting alliance for this strange heritage mall.

Dorgerloh, who grew up in East Germany, might have reservations about the effort, but argues that, now that he’s here, the imperial architecture makes the colonial conversation impossible to ignore. After all, this was the building where Kaiser Wilhelm II resided. while his troops committed genocide in Namibia and brutally put down an uprising in Tanzania in the 1900s. Restored statues of Prussian princes line its resounding white hallways, while an inscription below the dome exhorts everyone on Earth to kneel before Jesus.

Part of the world exhibition in Berlin.
Shaping the future … part of the Berlin world exposition. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright / The Guardian

The architectural catalyst may be starting to take effect. In April, the German culture minister announced that Benin’s long-disputed collection of bronzes, looted by British soldiers and sailors in 1897 and flogged in museums in Europe and America, will be returned to Nigeria starting next year. The gallery that was supposed to show them in the Humboldt Forum is empty, the text on the wall and the display stand await a redesign. Is this the trigger that forces the British Museum and others to follow suit?

“We are at a turning point in Europe to understand and negotiate our colonial past,” says Dorgerloh. “We are in a perfect position to reach tourists who may never have considered these questions. If you are interested in knowing where your t-shirt and coffee come from, you may be interested in knowing where these objects come from and how they were obtained ”.

The building is dotted with installations that allude to these themes, including a giant black patinated bronze sculpture of a half-mast flagby Kang Sunkoo. Titled Statue of Limitations (a set of legal statutes blocking restitution claims), it bursts through the ceiling of an escalator lobby, while its upper half is in Berlin’s so-called African Quarter, where the streets they still have disputed colonial names.

The main collections have yet to be installed and it remains to be seen how the objects are presented. One flagship item, a 16-meter sailboat off Luf Island in the South Pacific, has come into the limelight after a recent book connected the ship (which authorities have always said was successfully acquired) with a massacre of the island’s population. In response, the director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation says the ship will now be on display as a “memorial to the horrors of the German colonial era.”

Great designs ... the atrium of the Forum.
Great designs … the atrium of the Forum. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright / The Guardian

As well-intentioned as the curatorial program is, the Forum’s partners still have to grapple with the building’s oddities. The Frankenstein complex is the work of the Italian architect Frank stella, a proponent of stripped neo-rationalism, who was selected in an anonymous competition in 2007. The brief ordered the reconstruction of three sides of the palace, along with the dome and the cross, but the rest was up for grabs. Stella was an amazing choice. More used to designing villas, he has never built anything on this scale, and it shows.

Entering through the south portal, an incongruously glazed Baroque portal with a modern revolving door, you arrive at an austere white atrium. The triumphal arch is suspended in a world of concrete grids, like a laboratory specimen in a clinical display case. A giant totem of LED screens rises towards the ceiling, cementing the impression of an airport concourse. The surreal clash of baroque re-enactments and modernist grids continues throughout, like a strange mix of two costume parties. The courtyards feature stone arches clasped between the generic facades of the office blocks, while inside, classic statues line hallways designed with the look of a shopping mall.

“The interior is not that convincing,” admits Dorgerloh. “But it is very functional. It gives us fantastic opportunities to incorporate very different types of exhibition design and scenery. “

Free until November, when the main galleries of the museum will open, are the Berlin world exposition and the Humboldt Laboratory. The first is a fast-paced pinball journey between colonial struggles, club culture, fashion trends and genocide, while the second focuses on climate change and the loss of biodiversity, with illuminated objects in glass cases hanging from the ceiling on mechanical arms. .

The competing demands of an 18th century palace and a modern museum mean there are many awkward crosses. Some floors stop before walls to avoid bumping into tall windows, resulting in strange double-height spaces. The windows, meanwhile, are single-glazed to be true to the original, so they have been supplemented internally with bulky secondary glazing to meet current environmental standards. It’s a common solution in listed historic buildings, where the windows can’t be altered, but planning it from scratch seems absurd.

Seductive majesty ... the Humboldt Forum.
Seductive majesty … the Humboldt Forum. Photography: Alexander Schippel / © 2020 by Alexander Schippel

The whole experience makes it easy to feel nostalgic for the Republica palace. The ghost of the Soviet building is present in flashbacks around the museum, including an original sign and some globe chandeliers, which gave the Palast its nickname “Erich’s lamp shop”, in honor of Communist Party leader Erich Honecker. . The exhibits show that while the building may have been a symbol of a repressive regime, it was also a public leisure palace, with a cinema, bowling alley and skating rink, as well as a disco with a revolving dance floor. With growth ostalgie For East German culture and design, and the growing awareness of the embodied energy of demolition, the building could have been a prime candidate for careful restoration and reuse. Instead, his memory has been limited to key chains and replicas of chandeliers. available in the gift shop for € 3,500.

But there is a twist. In a surreal provocation, an activist group has started a bell demolish the old new palace and rebuild the Palast der Republik, with a five-point plan that accurately mimics the campaign of the nineties. “We want to help ensure that conflicting history remains present in central Berlin,” they write, “and prevent a decades-long debate from supposedly ending with the completion of the palace construction site.” Funds are being raised for the installation of a bronze model of the Soviet building outside the Humboldt Forum, so maybe we can hope to get back on the revolving dance floor three decades from now and buy nostalgic Forum trinkets from the gift shop. .


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