This article is part of the feature „Great guys. Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt

A thoroughly modern past

14 min read
Auszug aus der Festrede anlässlich der Feierlichkeiten zum 250. Geburtstags von Wilhelm von Humboldt im Schloss Tegel, Berlin, am 22. Juni 2017.

Trying to do justice to one of Europe’s greatest intellectuals of the nineteenth century is a daunting task. So much has already been written and said about him as a linguist, an educational reformer, and a state theorist. What could I possibly add about the great Wilhelm von Humboldt?

Talking about Wilhelm’s scholarly achievements would be like “pouring water into the Danube”, as the Germans say so fittingly. So my focus will be not on a scholarly work but rather on an architectural one: Tegel Palace.

This opus could be compared with his books, and indeed, it played a substantial role in enabling and shaping many of his scholarly works. The new Tegel Palace is the structural nucleus of his intellectual activity. It became his creation after passing into his sole ownership in 1812. This was where Alexander and Wilhelm Humboldt, the two namesakes of the Humboldt Forum, spent their childhood. And it was at this very genius loci that the two brothers began, each in his own way, to imagine the world as something larger and more joined up than it had hitherto been.

Outside Germany, it was primarily Alexander who stole the limelight. As the younger brother he seems to have always been the more open and relaxed of the two. Like many other people, I admired Alexander’s courage in setting off for far-flung continents; for a long time, I was exhilarated by the image of Alexander as a Romantic hero with a glamorous aura. But both brothers, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, actually forged paths through the wilderness: Alexander through the dense Amazonian rainforest, and Wilhelm as a statesman, Prussian diplomat, and educational reformer through the sands of the Margraviate of Brandenburg. It wasn’t until much later, in fact only last year, that I realized it was perhaps Wilhelm who had fought his way through the most impenetrable jungle of all: the jungle of Berlin bureaucracy.

But what exactly is this spirit, this living ghost that resides in this building, whose presence can still be felt today? I would propose that spending our days with certain ghosts of the past allows us to imagine different futures. The new Tegel Palace, which Wilhelm and Caroline planned together with architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, was a building with a very specific purpose. Sculptures and plaster casts from Rome mingled in a classical setting with architectural and literary quotations from Greece. The architectural space that Schinkel designed and built was furnished by Wilhelm as a unique place for contemplation. He created this classical world around him not in order to dwell in the past but rather, on the contrary, to facilitate an intellectual revolution. It was all about making the past modern.

Wilhelm von Humboldt had experienced a society caught in the midst of upheaval. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the French occupation, the humiliation of Prussia, and the War of Liberation he had assumed an important function at the Congress of Vienna. After 1815 – just like in 1989 – the political geography of Europe and the world changed. And within this new geography the role of Prussia and its capital Berlin needed to be redefined. Ideas began to evolve for a new society and for a reevaluated, communicable form of science that would inspire people and empower them as citizens. It was here in this classicizing Utopia that Wilhelm developed his ideas about humanity, its languages and cultures, and the state – ideas that were to shape the future.

A classical setting for modern debates. The parallels between the Tegel Palace of 1820 and the rapidly growing Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Palace are unmistakable. In both palaces the two brothers used to present their research findings over afternoon tea. Both buildings are shaped by the apparent contradiction of confronting the present through the prism of the past. Just as Wilhelm brought Tegel Palace to life in a classical guise, so now the historical facades of the Berlin Palace will provide a space for new ideas. In the City Palace, just as in Tegel, it is all about a thoroughly modern past.

What does synchronizing the present and the past really mean? In the controversy about the apparent contradiction between the facades of the City Palace and the debates taking place in the Humboldt Forum it has often been claimed that reconstructing an old building leaves little room for new ideas about the present and the future, that the power of the past hangs over both that which already exists and that which is nascent. And aren’t these classical architectural elements actually an expression of a restrictive, hegemonistic notion of European supremacy?

Tegel tells us something different: the plaster casts of the gods Juno and Mars and the neoclassical sculptures by Thorvaldsen were permanent guests in Wilhelm and Caroline’s home. It would be quite wrong to think that this company would have confined Wilhelm’s view of the world to Rome and Mediterranean antiquity. Despite – or perhaps thanks to – the proximity of these ancient gods, Wilhelm was capable of thinking in anthropological terms which embraced the world every bit as much as his brother Alexander.

The fact that Wilhelm was able to travel to far-flung regions of the world while sitting at his desk in Tegel Palace in the shadow of the Venus de Milo provides eloquent and convincing testimony of this. He studied the native languages of America – Náhuatl, Huastec, Maya, Quechua, and many others – and prepared his lectures on Indian Sanskrit poetry for the academy under the seductive gaze of the goddess Aphrodite, who probably only spoke Greek. It was here, in close proximity to her, that he studied the languages of Asia and Polynesia. And here, too, he worked until his death on a study of the ancient Javanese language Kawi, enjoying the company of that same smiling Venus de Milo who had accompanied all his intellectual journeys.

The “discovery” of Javanese culture had direct consequences for Europe’s perception of itself. It was Thomas Stamford Raffles, governor of Java, who discovered the Buddhist temple at Borobudur and had it excavated. It is thanks to his History of Java, published in 1817, that Europe became aware of another, far-off ancient culture with a sophisticated and rich tradition of architecture and sculpture – a culture that developed in close connection with India, just as the Kawi language was closely related to Indian Sanskrit. Wilhelm came to view India as the hub of a cultural universe. Just as the Greek language and culture had spread across the eastern Mediterranean and its islands, Indian culture had spread across the sea to conquer the entire Southeast Asian region.

In this way, Europe became aware for the first time that other, faraway regions had their own Mediterranean Sea – a sea that formed a world of its own; a sea across which peoples, cultures, religions, and languages migrated. The traditional German expression for a saying is a geflügeltes Wort, which literally means a winged word. But here we have words that sailed across the seas, as it were. Wilhelm was one of the people who taught Europe, to its own astonishment, that it wasn’t the only centre of the world. Wilhelm himself was deeply convinced of this.

Just as his brother Alexander took an entirely new approach to exploring the world of plants, Wilhelm introduced us to an equally vibrant universe that resembled a living organism: the world of languages. Like plants, languages are shaped by their environment. They grow alongside and into one another, then becoming intertwined and develop out of one another. And just like plants, they are always branching out. Wilhelm’s idea that every language carries within it a unique understanding of how the world is experienced was to determine the future direction of linguistics as we know it today. He believed that each language contains a world within itself which we can visit and explore. We are only able to discover the diversity of languages and how they differ from one another if we master them. The legacy of a culture is defined not only in terms of its material relics but perhaps above all through its vocabulary and syntax. When a language becomes extinct, a unique way of interpreting the world, a syntax of life, dies irretrievably too.

The dissonance between form and content is intended to be provocative and to produce a dynamic of contradiction that will attract debates of all kinds to the building.

We see the world differently through the eyes of a foreign language. At the beginning of this speech, I refused to “pour water into the Danube”. Here in the sunny Elysium of Tegel, where we can admire the ancient reliefs on the palace towers which were copied from the Tower of the Winds, one would “bring owls to Athens”. This poetic idiom for bringing things to a place where they are already abundant reveals much about the significance of Greek culture in Germany, and its key role in Berlin’s architecture in the era of Schinkel and Wilhelm von Humboldt. The Greeks themselves “bring crocodiles to Egypt”, the Russians laugh at people who “bring their own samovar to Tula”, in Mosel Franconia one “drives snails to Metz”– and in England? No owls, no Athens, but instead the utterly banal analogy of “bringing coals to Newcastle”. One might think it was a land devoted to business and devoid of poetry.

Part of the magic of foreign languages is the connotations that words have. In English the word “pickle” doesn’t just mean vegetables preserved in vinegar. It is also used to denote a tricky situation that it is difficult to get a handle on. After a year in Berlin, where the new airport and the opera get talked about so much, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the German equivalent of a pickle is a Baustelle, a building site. The challenges of our building site at the Humboldt Forum are problems that would have interested Wilhelm, because this building site is about language, or to be more precise, about the meaning of the language of form.

Like in Tegel we hope that the discrepancy will yield fruitful new ideas in the Humboldt Forum too. The dissonance between form and content is intended to be provocative and to produce a dynamic of contradiction that will attract debates of all kinds to the building. Dissonance provides room for doubt. Considering the arguments for and against is a fundamental exercise in thinking. Here, too, the free spirit and universalist Wilhelm von Humboldt, who certainly did not shy conflict, comes to our aid when he says: “Doubts torment only those who believe, never those who pursue their own investigations.”

The fact that the Humboldt Forum will have three reconstructed facades and one modern one is intended to sharpen the awareness of the visitor and heighten the public debate. The combination of modern building and historical reconstruction testifies to the frailty of a culture and a society. The Humboldt Forum will certainly not deny the turbulent history of the demise of the Berlin Palace, and even less so the reasons for its destruction. The other stories about the location will be told here too, the different genii loci. As a whole, it tells us how important it is for a community to define itself, not least via knowledge, culture, and art.

Both Humboldt brothers thought it was important to enable everyone to have access to art and education. Alexander gave his Cosmos lectures for free, so that anyone from a carpenter to a king could attend them. Wilhelm founded not only the university as a forum for research and exchange, but also the Altes Museum. When the Antikensammlung and the Gemäldegalerie first opened their doors, anyone could enter free of charge. Wilhelm was deeply convinced that one could have an impact on others only through autodidacticism – not by instructing but by providing inspiration, not by commanding but by encouraging people to take action themselves: “I found it to be true that the human being always creates as much good as he has within him.” This illustrates the notion of universal education that bears the Humboldt stamp. Only through personal experience do we reach a state of mind in which we are ready to assume moral and ethical responsibility in a society.

With this in mind we hope that the Humboldt Forum will soon itself become a mother ship for the many invigorating ideas, convictions and hopes of the Humboldt brothers. They show us how to experience the world with curiosity and a sense of responsibility, and without reservations. We believe this would be the best and most effective form of tribute that we can pay to the brothers Humboldt.

Photo by Neil MacGregor
Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor, a British art historian, was Director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015 and Director of the Founding Directorate of the Humboldt Forum until 2018.