Colonialism and Coloniality
How does the Humboldt Forum deal with colonial collections?
There is much discussion around the Humboldt Forum. One of the central discussions is around the objects in the ethnological collections which will be shown to the public in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin exhibition areas in the Humboldt Forum in the coming year. Where are they from? How, and under which circumstances, have they come to be in these collections in Berlin? Should they still be here? The Humboldt Forum will be working intensively to address these questions in the coming year.
Colonialism and Coloniality is a core theme in our programme. Engaging with postcolonial voices and perspectives is central, as is developing a methodological practice for a sustained and transparent process of reflection on the persistence of colonial practices. On this page you will find the Humboldt Forum’s stance on colonialism and coloniality, what is meant by these terms, which projects have already been initiated, as well as an overview of the first series of events on this topic.
What can be the role of the Humboldt Forum as a space for exhibitions, education and research, as well as discursive and performative events? A new definition of ‘museum’? More than a museum – and yet still a museum in the traditional sense? What does the ‘Forum’ in the name mean? Cultural institutions in general need to ask themselves for which sections of society they have not (yet) provided an appropriate space in which to feel addressed and represented. Cultural institutions are never neutral, and must be understood as a part of political and civil society engagement.
Privileges that come to light in a cultural institution, concepts of aesthetics, perceptions of art, but also of centre and periphery, academic knowledge and everyday knowledge, as well as expectations about which stories are presented as historical events and future ideals – and how they are presented – reflect a society. They also simultaneously exclude sections of that society. A cultural institution that faces the processes of coming to terms with colonialism, to actively change the coloniality of the present, needs its civil society. And a civil society needs its cultural institutions to act as a mirror for civic transformation. When a civil society calls on cultural institutions such as museums to change, it is a positive sign of change in the society itself – a process that needs to be walked together.
“As a publicly funded non-profit project, the Humboldt Forum has a responsibility to reach a broad public and to act on behalf of the general public. We see our cultural work as a social responsibility to connect people and create spaces for exchange.
Whether it’s the controversy over reconstructing Berlin’s Hohenzollern Palace or tearing down the Palace of the Republic, the current socio-political debates about facing our colonial past, the closely-related discussion about museum collections from a colonial context, or the demands for restitution of objects from these very collections: the public discussions and debates have had a direct influence on the Humboldt Forum – both on the approach and the content of this new cultural centre at the heart of Berlin. What effect do these recent public discussions now have on the Humboldt Forum?
Reflective engagement with colonialism and its consequences, as well as addressing the problem of current forms of racism at all levels of social life, are important guiding themes in the Humboldt Forum’s programme and profile. In particular, this includes critical examination of Germany’s colonial history and the effects of colonial practices, political imagery, and patterns of action and thought, up to the present day.
If the Humboldt Forum wants to be a place that brings together diverse perspectives and creates spaces for debate, we must include voices from diverse local and global perspectives and create trans-disciplinary approaches. The postcolonial debate, which various parties in civil society have been driving forward for many years, has reached to the heart of our society, not least through the debates surrounding the Humboldt Forum. The Humboldt Forum is committed to the practice of listening and sharing – with the hope of opening up new critical and collaborative spaces for debate and action in the future.”
“The new presentation of the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum) offers opportunities for a variety of collaborative ventures with the countries and societies of origin. The curators are constantly aware of the need to present exhibits in manners that incorporate multiple perspectives. By uncovering the ways in which the objects came here, we seek to fulfil our responsibility to address the past history of our collections and their roots in colonialism. Openness and honesty also mean that we are ready to return objects; indeed, we have already made restitutions in a significant number of cases. Basically, it is not just museums, but society as a whole that needs to deal – and will have to deal – with the consequences of colonialism and the subsequent decades of silence about its injustice. We are doing it by broadening the scope of the Humboldt Forum to include the notion of shouldering responsibility. The ever-growing number of collaborative projects with partners around the world is of great importance to the museums. In inviting the world to come here, to join us in this work and to take on joint curatorial responsibility, we believe that we have found the right response to the lessons taught by the past. A continual process of coming together must be integral to the Humboldt Forum; only thus can it seize this great opportunity to develop a fundamentally new relationship with the Global South through the power of culture.”
Taking Colonialism and Coloniality as one of its core themes, the Humboldt Forum will engage with postcolonial perspectives and voices and develop a methodological practice that promotes a transparent, ongoing process of reflection on the continuity of colonial practices in the way we work and perceive ourselves. Our intention is to promote urgently-needed areas of action and narratives for research and cultural practices, pertaining the handling of the collections as well as the reappraisal and transmission of a contemporary colonial history for civil society.
By coloniality, we mean the colonial patterns of thought and action that, in their various (re)configurations, continuously and sustainably structure today’s realities in former colonised and colonising societies. It has been used to justify the exploitation of – and violence and genocide against – ‘others’, and consolidated the kind of structural racism that continues to discriminate against – and even kill – non-white people. The Humboldt Forum is committed to breaking out of the coloniality that is also inherent in the traditions and practices of educational and cultural institutions such as museums. This requires a critical examination of our own canon, to overcome the binary exclusion mechanisms of Enlightenment and ‘modernity’ and to make space once again for marginalised or eradicated narratives. We can then create a methodological practice which not only enables a process-oriented examination of existing local and global power structures, but also pays tribute to continuous, creative resistance to oppressive power structures. In this way, the Humboldt Forum hopes to play its part in making visible the complexity of colonial histories and the extent to which they are enmeshed in our present and the reality of our lives. This is founded on the idea of understanding ourselves exclusively in terms of our entanglement with the world, and of cultivating the ability to learn ‘new’ things.
Humboldt Lab Dahlem
Established in 2012 and designed to run until 2015, the Humboldt Lab Dahlem was a project of the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Culture Foundation) and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). 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 1400 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 – including jewellery, prestige objects and historically significant artefacts – will travel to Namibia. Once there, they will undergo further investigation over the next three years, as well as being made available to contemporary artists for creative debate. This is the first time that such an open-ended collaborative process – largely directed by the Namibian partners – has been initiated in Germany. 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.