This article is part of the feature „… a world in which coloniality no longer has a place.

Unlike All Other Empires – The Instrumentalization of Critique in the Humboldt Forum

12 min read

Ethnological museums are under attack as global and local movements for racial justice, decolonisation and reparations have gained momentum. The problem colonialism poses for museums is how to revere national history but not reproduce the ontological and epistemic assumptions embedded in the Western project of modernity and progress. So far, museums have employed three interlinked strategies designed to distance themselves from colonial practices: initiating the return process, re-contextualising their display collections, and seeking to control the narrative through public relations and advertising. Paradoxically, these methods only function to sustain the existing hegemony.

The keepers of the European colonial treasures announced the repatriation: the British Museum returned Buddhist terracotta, while Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum returned the first Bénin bronzes this year. French President Emmanuel Macron has been lionised for returning some looted objects and appointing Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy to write a restitution report.. His promise to return African heritage to the continent is credited for sparking the restitution movement. Bénédicte Savoy, a French art historian who recorded 40 years of unsuccessful African reparation advocacy and recommended “the full restitution of all objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions,” is celebrated as the lead expert in the process.

In all instances, the repatriation efforts are presented from the colonizer’s point of view: Western acts of recording unsuccessful advocacy, writing the report and initiating the returning process crowd out histories of the violent encounter and ideologies behind it. Emphasising the object’s return serves as a perfect screen for what is at stake: acknowledging the crimes committed against African nations and the set of ideals and laws that justified them. It is hard not to understand Savoy’s set of procedural recommendations as an extension of international law or, more accurately, legalized Christian doctrine that invented the ontological and epistemic differences and evaluation of the different cultural systems as inferior and needing guidance on how to handle the reparation process. Control of restitution narrative converts difference into a social value and perpetuates the imperialist supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Neither provides a critical assessment of colonial legacy nor contributes to dismantling the hidden system of oppression embedded in museums as institutions where memory is honoured, and difference reified.

Humboldt Forum’s four institutions – Berlin Palace Foundation, Berlin City Museum Foundation, Berlin Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art, and Humboldt University Berlin – have particular difficulty establishing a positive narrative for themselves. The building that houses the ethnological collection has been torn down and rebuilt anew, featuring architectural elements that bolster imperial values. A partially reconstructed façade of what was first known as Berlin Palace built for Prussian King Frederick and a lantern crowning the dome surmounted by a four-meter cross are visual symbols of Prussian Protestantism reinforcing the western ideas the institution claims to question. In addition, the institution’s name honours the Humboldt brothers, whose work is a product of colonial times. The word forum evokes the (Holy) Roman Empire of German Nations. It also ties it to the architectural features (e.g., piazza) of the Renaissance – when Europeans invented capitalism, the scientific revolution, and free trade, which justified the racial categorisation of human beings and legalised human trafficking.

Like other museums, the Humboldt Forum utilises its website to spin the institutional critique into an optimistic Public Relations narrative. The four director’s responses to critical debates surrounding the Forum and the editorial team’s positive interpretations of the critiques illustrate my point. In the Talk section of the Forum’s online Magazine, readers can find out what the Forum’s four directors think about the role the widely-protested façade and golden cross have played and could play in understanding the post-colonial debate.  The answers are seemingly straightforward: the President of Humboldt University in Berlin informs us that none of the four directors was part of the architectural decision-making process. The Director of Berlin’s City Museum and chief curator of the Federal State of Berlin tell us the institution is not defending the site. The General Director of the Humboldt Forum and the Chairman of the Board of the Humboldt Forum Foundation in the Berlin Palace thinks the programming for the audience who have no “biographical point of reference” for the Forum will make the site fertile ground for decolonisation. Similarly, the director of the National Museums in Berlin implies that giving context to exhibited objects and bringing the global aspect of art and ethnology to the city centre resolves the issue.

Disclaimers aside, all four directors did choose to be the public face of this national institution. Not having an answer or not “defend[ing] the site” allows the building to project the colonial past by flaunting its architectural innovations using the visual language of prosperity and wealth in one of the two most re-developed cities in the European Union. It enables the logic of the corporate economy to articulate the foundational elements of the social order, authority, identity, legitimacy, and national policy. The directors’ comments make one wary of Forum’s programming designed to serve the visitors who have no “biographical point of reference for the palace in mind.” This statement raises a few questions: What audience utterly lacks reference points for ancient Greek-Roman, Renaissance, or colonial architecture? In post-colonial terms, how does Germany stage the European project of modernity? Humboldt Forum’s four directors are unconvincing in their readiness to decolonise knowledge, detaching themselves from the decision-making process, claiming no interpretational sovereignty, and assuming ignorant audiences. Dissociating the exhibits with the building is another failed attempt to narrate the confluence of Western interest without acknowledging colonialist ideology that brought Indigenous peoples’ plagues and slavery and shipped African people to chattel slavery.

The Forum’s website article, “Who left which mark for what reasons on the building’s façade,” addresses the golden cross, which triggered controversial reactions from “many people” who publicly denounced the cross as an unmistakable symbol of Christian power that should not be on the top of the building. As the title suggests, the text lists monarchic and religious elements as part of the facade. By comparing it to other architectural components, the authors minimise the size, position, and obvious symbolism of the golden cross on the top of the building that houses and displays objects from the colonial era. Editors explain they gathered multiple views in a dossier and summarise its content for the readers. The debate is thus controlled not only through restriction of access to diverse opinions but also through curatorship of “diversity.” It is no surprise the first view editors care to mention is that of theologians who interpret the cross as a symbol of hope and peace, nor is it surprising that theologians would do so. The editorial concludes that the cross stands for crossroads “where travellers from many different directions and positions converge.” Of course, the editorial approach to the topic is the prime example of unsuccessful institutional instrumentalisation of critique. Resorting to Christian peace rhetoric doesn’t contribute to the global decolonisation efforts the Forum promises to lead.

Humboldt Forum was also critiqued for perpetuating imperialist attitudes in its promotional campaign. Die Zeit’s piece, “Less Humboldt and more humble,”(2) reproached a design company and the Humboldt Forum for their colonising poster campaign. The poster had several iterations that worked off the same template. The first layer featured four quadrants with different colours, the second employed the Humboldt square logo, and the third layer merged images of four figures into one harmonious human figure along the dividing axes. The image perfectly aligned with the text, contrasting, juxtaposing, and highlighting the differences between the objects, yet it achieved a specific unity. It directed the viewer to see a human form composed of four different figures. From a design perspective, the poster was crafted with excellence. It used all design principles: balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety, and unity. It presented an intriguing object that incited curiosity. However, the authors of “…more humble” maintained that these images violated and culturally appropriated sacred objects and thus reinforced the imperialist attitude. In the context of Humboldt’s promise to decolonise its practices, the posters failed to give a coherent message beyond the coordinates of the white First World Self.

The publication of the “…more humble” article was a success. Humboldt responded by doing what it could not do with the building – it retrieved the posters from circulation and swept the problem under the carpet. The Forum’s online Magazine did not acknowledge or address the charges of “Less Humboldt and more humble.” This silence suggests that “Less Humboldt” authors were right to assume that the Humboldt Forum Magazine is unlikely to allow dissent and publish an article critical of its advertising campaign. While the Forum aspires to “empower everyone to help shape the project,” Forum directors and editors don’t seem empowered enough to register or condemn the logic of imperialistic values in their work. Instead of re-inscribing knowledge production’s structural violence, the four institutions could have used this momentum to build an empathetic culture by using candour productively. Holding a press conference and acknowledging Humboldt Forum made a mistake would project transparency and complexities in confronting the challenges of decolonisation. More urgently, the four institutions’ should demonstrate sustained commitment to acting on decolonising culture by designing and implementing a systematic evaluation of equity, diversity and inclusion in its display, programming and cultural campaign – none of which are apparent at present.

In their displays, museums are distancing themselves from colonialism through the use of words such as “stolen,” “looted,” and “punitive expeditions” when re-contextualising, cataloguing and labelling their collections. Humboldt Forum’s employment of this technique is evident in every single display. Every object’s origins and background stories in exhibits are supported with biographies and images of German collectors, foreign, and military officers, “cooperative” kingdoms, information on climate change, gender, and racial histories. Contextually rich rooms provide overwhelming information while the display cabinets resemble a high-end version of industrial design shopping mall aesthetics. As noted in many previous reviews, the exhibit “Terrible Beauty: Elephant – Humans – Ivory and After Nature” stood out as a curatorial success. Aside from the typically excessive multimedia textual context, the exhibit contained a vehicle presumably destroyed by a hunted animal and a soundtrack of an elephant dying. These latter two elements made the display conceptually solid and poignant. One doesn’t even need to see the exhibition or read the explanation to get the point: the human species kills animals, which is wrong. Hearing the soundtrack calls for compassion, remorse, and a more just world. Regrettably, the rest of the exhibits do not carry an equally insightful and emotional impact or convey conquest’s devastating consequences on colonised ecologies.

To further distance their displays from colonialism, Forum has joined other museums in the recent trend of purchasing contemporary works by artists with distinguishable ethnic or national origins intended to contemporise “universal museums”. When asked why contemporary art should be shown in an ethnological museum, one of the four directors responded that museums “have to deal with this kind of cataloguing every single day.”  But showing contemporary art takes more than cataloguing. There is a certain naivety in claiming that art will “encourage us to confront our colonial legacy” while explaining that the winning designs for the building’s staircases are highly successful because “[t]he Berlin collections can trace their roots back to the chamber of art and curiosities in the Baroque palace.” All European museums started as Baroque chambers of art and curiosities; reworking the objects back into this context hardly defies colonialism.

Justine Gaga’s Indignation serves as a further appropriation of critique. Banners on the eighteen gas-canister pillars read “fundamentalism”, “racism”, and “corruption” and are meant to “address the repercussions of the colonial era in the present”(3). However, this work does not critique Humboldt’s collection or its colonial practices. Instead, the pieces stand as a perfect paradigm of colonialism: the up-cycled objects convey the stereotype of an African continent populated by slum dwellers deprived of cultural history. Display of this piece confirms that ethnographic approach to knowledge about “colonies” has not seen much progress since the colonial exchanges.

Curating contemporary African art in an ethnographic museum indicates it has lesser value in the Western system of seeing and knowing. Commissioning artworks that “illustrate(s) the different positions and perspectives in dealing with colonial history” is equally as grievous an error as spanning debate about the cross by gaslighting its audience. Decolonisation makes an ethical demand on museums to guide their visitors through the experience of acknowledging the consequences of conquest, commerce, and exploitation. So far, instead of providing a critique, museums have instrumentalised it and implicitly supported the status quo. I have outlined three current strategies: spinning repatriation stories in mass media, using public relations to smooth out conflict, and changing captions on exhibits. Self-reflective displays with cultural sensitivity that guide audiences through an understanding of how museums participate in reproducing the ideological power of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy are still lacking. Hopefully, the permanent exhibitions will become more fluid in effectively challenging the museum’s violent interactions between knowledge and power by contesting visitors to locate their agency in perpetuating or refuting historical conditions that lead to planetary crises and neoliberal fascist responses.


(1) Edward W. Said. “Blind Imperial Arrogance.” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2003.

(2) Teresa Koloma Beck and Priya Basil. “Mehr Humble Forum, bitte!” Zeit Online, September 21, 2021.

(3) Open Storage Africa, banner for installation: “Indignation” by Justine Gaga in the module“, Colonial Cameroon. Conquest and agency”. Ethnology Museum, Humboldt Forum. E 37 XX 02.017.B2 140 × 420 mm Stahlverbund, Modul 37, Treffpunkt Afrika, Kamerun.

Gorda Stan

Dr. Gorda Stan is an interdisciplinary researcher, arts and humanities, and social science scholar. Her research focuses on the social history of art, museums, public scholarship, using critical theory and quantitative and qualitative methods to gain insight into the design, implementation, and evaluation of visual culture and literacy on social justice. She is particularly interested in understanding the creation and transformation of human empathy into trends and narratives sensitive to equality, diversity, and inclusion-defined goals.