“We have to shed light on the Palaces”

10 min read

by Maritta Tkalec with Hartmut Dorgerloh for the Berliner Zeitung
Berliner Zeitung: Mr Dorgerloh, you’re an East Berliner. What are your memories of the Palace of the Republic?

Hartmut Dorgerloh: I was a student at the Humboldt Uni between 1982 and 1987, and afterwards I worked close by, at the Institute for the Preservation of Historical Monuments in Brüderstrasse. During breaks between lectures, we were allowed into the library, the museum or the Palace of the Republic. It was warm and brightly lit inside, the phone kiosks always worked, and there was a well-stocked newsagent’s. The catering facilities were not such good value for money – compared to student finances, at any rate. For my matriculation in the grand hall, the vast majority of students wore the blue shirt of the Freie Deutsche Jugend. There were only a few small groups – students of Theology, History of Art or Theatre Studies – not wearing it, or wearing it with just the collar peeking out in an embarrassed fashion. We were clearly the minority. The colour contrast of the sea of blue against the yellow chairs is still imprinted on my memory. I never went to the big cultural events. The things that interested me didn’t take place in the Berlin Mitte district, and certainly not in the Palace of the Republic. For classical music I had a season ticket to the Konzerthaus, and as far as contemporary art and music were concerned, I was more interested in what was happening in the alternative scene – including during the interim usage of the asbestos-free Palace ruins.

You’re now responsible for the design and creation of this area, and everyone is waiting eagerly for the grand opening. When will it finally happen?

We’re on the home stretch. The various partners are currently coming to an agreement on the dates. A definite date has not yet been set, but we are working on the assumption that opening can begin from September, and will take place in three phases. First to open will be the ground floor, with the Foyer, events area, the special exhibition areas and the History of the Site, the Schlüter Courtyard and Passage, together with the Berlin exhibition and the Humboldt Universität areas on the first floor. The second phase will see the first areas containing collections from the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst on the two upper storeys open to the public. That will be in the second quarter of 2021. Finally, at the end of 2021, all the areas devoted to these collections will be open, alongside various temporary exhibitions, making the whole building open to the public.

Will there be a public celebration to start it off?

Oh yes, it’s really important to us to finally be able to welcome our visitors into the building. But I must make clear: We will not be finished when we open. But we want to take the public along with us – there really is a new urban space emerging. Just a visit to see the Schlüter Courtyard, the Entrance Hall and the Passages! Outside, there will still be some areas under construction for another year or two. The new Museum Island U-Bahn station is due to be finished in 2021/22.

Do you still have any tricky structural problems to overcome on the interior?

In the final phases of construction projects as large and complex as this, there will always be a hitch somewhere. And there currently are capacity issues in the construction industry as a whole. There is a shortage of skilled workers in many trades, and it’s not only us who need them, there are others too. But I remain optimistic.

Have people’s views on the ethnological collection changed in respect to colonial looted artworks?

I think it is good that the discussion about the future of ethnological collections, whose holdings often originate from colonial contexts, has reached a wider public. It has been a subject of discussion for a long time in professional circles. But there is also a wider question of how we deal more generally with our colonial inheritance, not just in museums. What does decolonisation mean for our society as a whole? It’s a huge and important topic, and a consequence of globalisation.

Should we expect to see the restitution of objects?

The Berlin State Museums have been reinforcing their provenance research in this area, and the results will lead to further restitution. But there is more to it: processes need to be approached in partnership with all those involved, for example in joint exhibition projects or in the area of outreach. We want to turn the Humboldt Forum into a place where these processes can take place, alongside discussions over restitution, or about the role of objects in cultural identity – a venue for a multiplicity of voices. For that reason, the collection exhibitions in question will have media stations presenting a diverse range of current opinion, for example the Benin bronzes.

Is there a particular object you will have to say farewell to soon?

That decision lies with the State Museums and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz as the owner of the collections. And it will be more than one object.

What will the area around the Humboldt Forum look like? Do you like having the ‘Unity See-Saw’ and bathing steps right on your front doorstep?

It’s a great idea, because it’s related to something important: the improved water quality in the River Spree. And we want the public to be mixing there – both locals and tourists. I’m also really excited to see how the discussions on the design of the other side of the Spree will progress – particularly the Marx-Engels Forum. There’s a competition running currently for a new design for the green space, but I don’t believe that will be the last word. There will definitely be further discussions about the area.

… You mean the Heiliggeist-Viertel, Marienviertel …


Built development – yes or no?

That depends on the function and purpose of the urban areas. For me, it’s important that it shouldn’t be a purely commercial district, or solely for people who can afford to live in the area. I consider it essential to have conflicts over urban areas – in the sense of negotiating with one another over something, and once the long discussions have reached a democratic conclusion, to accept and live with it. That also applies to the area around the Humboldt Forum, including the so-called ‘Unity See-Saw’.

Will we see the popular ‘Glass Flower’ from the Palace of the Republic back in the new building?

On the question of whether it should be exhibited, those responsible for that decision in our Foundation said quite openly at the time, “That would be worth considering, let’s see whether it’s possible.” It then sadly became apparent that for functional, technical and conceptual reasons, exhibiting it would not be possible. For that reason, we announced three and a half years ago that we had looked into it, and that it could not be achieved – at least not for permanent exhibition.

How will the Palace of the Republic be commemorated?

At the Humboldt forum, we have to, and we want to, explain why the former State Council building opposite still contains a piece of the Palace. And what it has to do with the Palace of the Republic. In this respect, commemorating the history of the site is a central task with a focus on the Palace, the Palace of the Republic and the Humboldt Forum itself. Because in a few years we will have to explain why this happened like this, how it happened, and what the prevailing factors were. You will find traces of the history of the site all around the building. However, commemoration cannot be limited to symbolic gestures – simply exhibiting a piece of each building. We’ll be doing that as well, but actively grappling with our history is just as vital. That’s why we’ll have a huge media wall presenting the whole spectrum of the site’s history, from its beginnings in the Medieval period, through the Renaissance palace up to the construction and demolition of the Palace of the Republic – including demolition of the old Palace, the parade ground and the interim cultural use after the closure in 1990.
We are currently conducting witness interviews, collecting data, building an archive and have received from the federal government hundreds of furnishing items from the Palace of the Republic. The manner in which we use this material also depends on public interest. There were many facets to Palace of the Republic – both politically and culturally.

But surely the Glass Flower would be an object central to demonstrating precisely that multi-faceted nature …

I don’t believe in saying, ‘If I put the throne and the Glass Flower on display, that will be an end to the matter.’ There will always need to be scrutiny of what happened on this site, because it’s the central site in this city. The value of the Glass Flower also shouldn’t be overestimated – while it is an important piece, it doesn’t stand for the whole of the Palace of the Republic. Reducing it to this one piece would be in contradiction of its complexity and significance, to which we must do justice. We therefore hope that visitors will allow us to participate in their memories of the Palace of the Republic. Perhaps a few of our visitors still have an object from the Palace. That too will play a role in our events programme.

So, what will be on display from the Palace of the Republic?

Twelve objects, ‘Flashbacks’ displayed in clearly visible locations around the whole building, presented and explained in a very distinctive way. These will include large, well-known pieces such as a section of Jo Jastram’s bronze relief ‘Lob des Kommunismus’ (In Praise of Communism), and Wolfgang Mattheuer’s painting ‘Guten Tag’ (Good Day), both on display in the central stairwell. Or a Meissen porcelain floral wall relief that once hung in the former Palace restaurant, which will once again be on display in a restaurant. A surveillance system will also be exhibited. And there is new, contemporary art, for example a piece by the Berlin artist Tim Trantenroth. He tackles the theme of the very popular copper mirrored façade, translating it into a mural – just one example of how the Palace of the Republic continues to inspire artists even today. We will also be exhibiting the most recent piece of Palace history: a glass ballot box from March 1990. This was first needed after the first free elections. It is good to have it prominently on display.

Photo by Hartmut Dorgerloh
Hartmut Dorgerloh

Prof. Dr. Hartmut Dorgerloh is General Director of the Humboldt Forum and Chairman of the Board of the Humboldt Forum Foundation in the Berlin Palace. The art historian and cultural manager has been an honorary professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin since 2004.