Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The museums are displaying their archaeological, ethnological and art historical collections over more than 17,000 square meters of exhibition space in the Humboldt Forum, together with a large collection of photographs, films and sound recordings. The modular exhibition structure allows a high degree of flexibility in responding to – and integrating – new research findings and taking a stance on current social issues.
The Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst are two of a total of 15 collections which together make up the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) belonging to the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). Both the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst have their origins in the Brandenburgisch-Preussische Kunstkammer, which was located in the Berlin Palace from the early 17th century and from which the present Staatliche Museen zu Berlin later emerged.
As one of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Ethnologisches Museum is internationally one of the largest and most important of its kind. Its collections contain some 500,000 ethnographic, archaeological, cultural and historical objects from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and the South Seas. The collection is additionally enhanced by 140,000 ethnomusicological audio documents, 285,000 ethnographic photographs, 20,000 films and 200,000 pages of written documents. Many of its collections are among the most extensive and valuable worldwide.
The Ethnologisches Museum has its historical origins in the Brandenburgisch-Preußische Kunstkammer in the Berlin Palace. However, an independent ethnological and anthropological museum was founded in Berlin as early as 1873, which from 1886 onwards exhibited its rapidly growing collections from the four continents of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania to the public in its own building on Königgrätzer Straße (now Stresemannstraße) under the name “Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde”.
At the end of the Second World War, the collections were seized by the Allied Forces. The Soviet Army transported its share of the reparations to Leningrad; these were not returned until after the reunification of Germany. The Western Allies returned their share to Berlin in the 1950s. Since the building in Stresemannstraße was so badly damaged during the war it could no longer be used as a museum, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin-Dahlem, established in 1957, had a large museum complex built, which also housed the ethnological collections.
After the reunification of Germany, items from the Soviet reparations that had been temporarily stored in Leipzig were also returned to Berlin – a total of around 55,000 objects. Finally, in 2000, the Museum für Völkerkunde was renamed the Ethnologisches Museum.
Museum für Asiatische Kunst
The collections in the Museum für Asiatische Kunst encompass a spectrum of art and crafts from the 5th century BC to the present day: East Asian painting and graphics; lacquerware and ceramics; the art and culture of the Silk Road; South and Southeast Asian, Hindu and Buddhist sculptures; and later Indian painting. At the heart of the collection are Central Asian wall paintings and sculptures, most of which come from Buddhist cave temples along the Silk Road. They represent a link between the cultures of South and East Asia.
The history of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst dates back to the Brandenburgisch-Preußische Kunstkammer – indeed, some of the objects in the current collection can be found in its inventory. The Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst was then founded in 1906 – the first of its kind in Germany. Exactly 100 years later, in 2006, it was then merged with the Museum für Indische Kunst, which had previously emerged from the former Indian Department of the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde (now the Ethnologisches Museum), to form the Museum für Asiatische Kunst.
Provenance research & colonialism
The Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are committed to taking a critical look at the legacy and consequences of colonialism, and at the role and perspective of Europe. Reflections on current attitudes and partnerships with source communities in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas will help widen biased Eurocentric perspectives without denying the existing European connections.
Bought, plundered, exchanged, donated, extorted, looted: the objects in the collections of the Ethnologischen Museums and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst were acquired and appropriated in a whole range of ways. Accompanied by a booklet, both collections at the Humboldt Forum explore the objects, people and events to tell the stories that have shaped the relationships between human kind and objects.
Humboldt Lab Dahlem
Established in 2012 and designed to run until 2015, the Humboldt Lab Dahlem was a project of the Kulturstiftung des Bundes and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz. It was, in a sense, an experimental rehearsal space, serving to prepare museum exhibitions for the future Humboldt Forum. Detailed information about the project can be found here.
Pilot project: Tanzania–Germany: Shared Object Histories?
Developed by the Ethnologisches Museum in partnership with institutions in Tanzania, a joint pilot project entitled “Tanzania-Germany: Shared Object Histories?”, has developed a framework concept for researching the provenance of problematic collections, particularly those collected during the colonial period. Detailed information about the project can be found here.
Humboldt Lab Tanzania
The Humboldt Lab Tanzania worked in close partnership with the “Tanzania-Germany: Shared Object Histories?” pilot project. It was a continuation of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem programme, run by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, and from 2012 to 2015 it provided impetus for the planning of exhibitions from the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in the future Humboldt Forum. Detailed information about the project can be found here.
Shared Knowledge: Researchers from the Amazon at the Ethnologisches Museum
In collaboration with partners from Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, the Ethnologisches Museum is working on a joint long-term project entitled “Shared Knowledge”. Together, they will be examining ethnographic objects originating from the north-eastern and north-western Amazon lowlands from the museum’s collection. Detailed information about the project can be found here.
Beginning in spring 2019, several researchers from Namibia spent time as guests at the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin as part of a partnership between the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN) and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Together with the museum’s team of researchers, they examined the museum’s Namibia collection of approximately 1,400 objects, investigating their history, significance and artistic potential. In their subsequent project “Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures”, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, 23 of these objects traveled to Namibia in May 2022 – including historical everyday objects, jewellery, tools and items of fashion, which were selected by a group of Namibian experts for their particular historical, cultural and aesthetic significance. In Namibia they undergo further investigation over the next three years, as well as being made available to contemporary artists for creative debate. The collaborative project explores the creative potential of the colonial collections from Namibia held by the Ethnologisches Museum and the National Museum of Namibia in Windhoek. It reunites the collections and transports them back to their societies of origin, while also reintroducing them to researchers, artists and the general public in Namibia. Additionally, the project will also support the founding of a new museum – The Museum of Namibian Fashion – in the city of Otjiwarongo, Namibia. Detailed information about the project can be found here.
Traces of the ‘Boxer War’ in German Museum Collections – a joint approach
Porcelain, bronzes, picture scrolls – hundreds of objects from China in German museum collections were sourced during actions of looting that took place around 1900 in the context of the so-called ‘Boxer War’. In most cases, their problematic history is unknown, and the various ways in which they found their way into German collections have only been researched in a cursory manner. For the first time, seven German museums have joined forces in this project in order to systematically examine their holdings for looted goods from the Boxer War in cooperation with the Palace Museum Beijing and to jointly research their provenance histories. Detailed information about the project can be found here.
During the preparations for the Humboldt Forum, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz developed a policy for the appropriate handling of non-European objects and their history. An essential feature of this policy is the involvement of, and exchange with, representatives of the source communities of non-European objects. Their knowledge will be incorporated into the work with the objects, enabling them to be processed and presented from a variety of perspectives. In addition, the source communities’ entitlement to appropriate handling of the objects will be taken into consideration.
Detailed information about handling of non-European objects by the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz can be found here (currently only available in German).
The majority of both museums’ collections will remain in Dahlem. In partnership with, among others, the Museum Europäischer Kulturen and the Institut für Museumsforschung of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the museums form the Forschungscampus Dahlem.
At the campus, research will be conducted on the holdings in collaboration with representatives of source communities from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America, and future Humboldt Forum exhibitions from the two museums will be designed on the basis of their findings.