In future, the Humboldt Forum, this newly fashioned space in the heart of Berlin, will be a place where people meet and debates are conducted, a place from where images of public life emanate. These processes will be influenced by the building’s form and symbolism. The building’s architecture, its name – a homage to the brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt – and the objects that will be exhibited there from every continent bring a number of different histories into contact with one another: these are stories of power and knowledge, of education and culture that are a facet of the city of Berlin and have a global dimension too; stories of the proclaimed cosmopolitanism of the Humboldt brothers; stories of the cultures that have been gathered together under its roof, of the testimonies they bear and the paths that brought them there. These stories also link the Humboldt Forum to the injustice and pain inflicted across the centuries on people in many different parts of the world as a consequence of the power exercised by Prussians, Germans, and Europeans, the effects of which still reverberate today. The Humboldt Forum thus symbolizes not only power but also powerlessness – the loss of sovereignty over one’s own body, one’s own life, one’s own past.
Colonialism and Coloniality
So the reconstructed facades of what was once the residence of the Hohenzollerns represent more than an architectural achievement and a triumph of urban planning. They are a reminder of the historical conditions of the wealth they display, with inextricable links to one of the sources of this wealth: the exploitation of colonies and the people living in them. The history of the powers that once reigned supreme in this place is also one of colonial rule, of genocide – such as that carried out against the Herero and Nama – of the trade in enslaved Black people, and of merchants travelling the world, of armed militias, Christian missionaries, and explorers, and of men and women who plundered art.
The collections in the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst and the holdings of the Humboldt-Universität have their origins in the colonial era and are based on colonial practices of collecting things and of producing and propagating knowledge. The objects from these collections presented in the exhibitions at the Humboldt Forum not only bear witness to the cultural history of many regions of the world but are also symbols of colonial continuities. A substantial portion of the objects were stolen from their owners by European travellers, missionaries, colonial administrators, and military personnel, who felt empowered by their position of authority or resorted to the use of physical violence. A good number were acquired too in the course of unfair trade relations, removed from their original contexts without regard for their social functions and significance in the community, or dug from the earth in illicit excavations. Based on colonial and racist ways of thinking, they were given external ascriptions, the power of which still shapes common ideas of the life and culture of the people to whom the objects belonged. The Humboldt Forum will not easily shed these trappings of coloniality.
A process of becoming
The feature “… a world in which coloniality no longer has a place” sets out to raise awareness of the existing structures of coloniality to be found in the Humboldt Forum and in its societal references, while looking for ways to change them. The continuous expansion of the dossier can be seen as a process that focuses attention on the ongoing traumas and injuries that colonialism causes in contemporary societies. In the process, it is important to accept the paradoxes that are a constituent element of the Humboldt Forum: that of being a place, for example, where the world is present even while many of its people feel themselves unrepresented by it.
The utopian idea of a world in which coloniality is no longer possible grows out of a shared understanding of the conditions prevailing today, in which the (in)dependence of perspectives and structures are becoming visible and we can perceive a world in motion. This presents the Humboldt Forum with the task of becoming – in a sustained and increasingly collective process – a place that faces up to its own tangled involvement in global interdependencies. A place that offers space for dealing with the diverse manifestations of its own coloniality as well as the local, national, and global forms it takes. A place that allows the objects on display and the voices that speak from within it to be heard as counter-narratives to histories shaped by coloniality.
It is to be one of many places in the world where people find ways to repair global relations and our collective capacity to live together. In the best case, it will not just be a p(a)lace but also a key to unlock these doors.