Neil MacGregor represents the cosmopolitan spirit of the Humboldt Forum. Now, he says, the museum project needs new leadership. He has already set up the prerequisites for this process.
Andreas Kilb (FAZ): Mr MacGregor, the opening of the Humboldt Forum is still over a year and a half away. It’s now become clear that the city of Berlin is doing its own thing for its permanent exhibition on the first floor. The Staatliche Museen, the state museums, are finding it difficult to accept changes to their plans for the exhibition on the upper floors. Is the project at an impasse?
No. The way I read the history of the Humboldt Forum, it all began with a series of more or less unconnected political decisions: First there was the resolution to reconstruct the body of the Hohenzollern palace with its three Baroque facades. Then there was the design competition, and finally Monika Grütters made the wise decision to give the whole thing a structure. At that point it wasn’t possible to appoint a director because there was no management structure. That’s why the Steering Committee was set up.
With what aim?
My colleagues Hermann Parzinger, Horst Bredekamp and I had three clearly defined tasks: first of all, we had to come up with a management structure that sets out the division of roles. Secondly, we needed to define the Forum’s cultural programme in a way that takes appropriate account of the various institutions involved and the future management team. Third, we had to establish a team which would be responsible for the Forum’s programme and organization.
The cultural content was just one item on that list.
All three points belong together. When we started out here, the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss was fortunately already in existence to take care of the construction, of collecting donations and of the Site History section of the exhibition. But there was neither a team nor a structure in place for actually running the cultural side of things. We had to set everything up at the same time.
At the press conference three years ago when the Steering Committee was introduced, the idea was that the Humboldt Forum would be a “temple of all gods”. Now it’s all about structures. How much momentum remains from those days?
You can’t get any cultural project up and running without a management structure. In any other country this issue would have been settled right at the start. Otherwise the Tate Modern or the Centre Pompidou would never have been founded.
So it’s a particularly German route?
You said it [laughs]. The federal debate took a little longer, like it always does.
So who should lead this structure? And when will that be decided?
The first step has to be getting the management structure that we, as the Steering Committee, have proposed accepted by those involved: the city of Berlin, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, the Humboldt-Universität, the Stiftung Humboldt Forum and several others.
That sounds like the Groko [political Grand Coalition] being extended into the cultural sector.
Germany’s well known for that. We needed a long time to find out how the city of Berlin wanted to be part of this structure. There were extensive discussions with the directors of the Staatliche Museen. A few months ago we submitted our proposal to Frau Grütters. Since then she has been doing everything possible to arrive at a quick solution. As soon as this has been found, a regular director can hopefully be appointed as soon as possible.
Who says the structure will work?
We know it will, because we’ve been working with it for months now. The proposed structure for the forum already exists at a working level, and it’s proven successful.
What will it look like?
In any other European country the structure would be strictly hierarchical. In Germany, or at least for this project with so many involved actors, that won’t work. That’s why the future director should be able to rely on a management commission to coordinate the potential of the participating institutions.
A kind of forum within a forum.
Exactly, and managed by directors.
It was already a difficult task for the three of you, and now a single person is supposed to manage everything?
We’re old friends, so getting along with each other wasn’t an issue. But making decisions was occasionally difficult. The whole point of this three-person solution was that it was provisional. This set-up was ideal for discussing things and trying ideas out. But now it’s in the public interest to make urgent decisions about how the institution is run.
To the general public it always looked as if you were the sole member of the Steering Committee.
Yes. A primus, but inter pares.
So what’s the next step?
The minister of state for culture will propose one or more candidates to the Foundation Council of the Stiftung Humboldt Forum for the role of director.
How quickly will that happen?
As quickly as possible. We now have a structure, we have a team, the Kultur GmbH [the company responsible for cultural operations at the Forum], and we’ve set out the exhibition sections for special and temporary exhibitions which the director will have at his or her disposal. There will also be space for temporary exhibitions in the area designated for permanent exhibitions on the upper floors. The attraction of temporary exhibitions is that foreign curators, who might be from the objects’ countries of origin, for example, can be involved in the planning, under the overall management of the Forum director.
Is that not the case for the areas devoted to the Ethnologisches Museum and the Asiatisches Museum?
The Staatliche Museen have passionately defended their sovereignty for their permanent exhibition areas. Their statutes would not permit any other course of action.
What portion of the sixty million or so euros which is envisaged as the Forum’s annual budget will the future director have control over?
I don’t know precisely. But the new director should play a decisive role on the board of the Stiftung Humboldt Forum, which is responsible for financial matters. Only the Foundation Council is situated above that.
The Preußenstiftung [Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz] has just experienced something of a car crash in its attempt to fill the role of head of collections with Stuttgart museum director Inés de Castro. Do you worry that something similar will happen while looking for a director?
Frau de Castro’s declining the job is not a car crash. There were several highly suitable candidates and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz will soon name someone else to take over the museums. The directorship of the Humboldt Forum is a unique opportunity to play a key role in shaping the future of exhibitions in Germany. It will offer the chance to ask big questions in a completely new way. At the moment, there is no other institution in the world with similar goals. I can’t imagine anyone who would not want to take this job. It may be an extremely difficult task, but it’s also a huge opportunity.
The Humboldt Forum has received severe criticism from private initiatives and foreign scholars for what are allegedly its colonial looted goods. Any director would be personally in the line of fire right from the start.
Heading a major cultural institution with historical holdings automatically means being at the centre of the debate. The building itself embodies a debate about the relationship between the past and future. The intensity of the current post-colonial discussions is part of the Humboldt Forum effect. The task of the director will be to provide a venue for conducting these debates and invite all the relevant parties to participate. The objects will remain the responsibility of the Staatliche Museen, and that includes research into provenance.
A museum should sort out the world – that’s another very German idea.
Of course that’s something no museum can manage. But the big question behind that idea is how we should deal with collections of objects. The nineteenth century had a clear answer to that: it was about knowledge and research, and the general public were permitted to look on. This model is no longer appropriate for our age. Of course, knowledge and research are still important – more important than ever – but today the visitors have to be the main focus. All visitors! That’s why I’m grateful to the federal finance minister for agreeing that there will be free entry to the entire Humboldt Forum for the first three years. It would be a sign of success if the visitors feel that the public collections belong to them.
But that’s exactly what draws condemnation from post-colonial critics: they want to bring the objects back to their countries of origin.
Of course there are demands that items be returned, and these have to be negotiated by the museums and politicians. But it’s also important that the world’s cultural heritage is made as accessible as possible to everyone. How can we share these treasures with people all over the world? We can only create global citizens when we have a convincing answer to this question.
Free entry will make it easier for many groups to protest in the building itself.
Of course. After all, the building is supposed to be a forum, a venue for debate. It’s something we experienced in the British Museum every day. Of course it’s always an experiment and a risk. When entry to the National Gallery became free of charge in 1820 there were great fears that poor people might damage the works of art. A project as big as this is always an adventure. If it works it can serve as an important role model.
After the new director is appointed, what will happen to the three members of the Steering Committee?
Our essential goals have been achieved: the management structure, planning the programme, a great team. Now the new management has to have a free hand to take the next steps. As soon as the new director takes the reins, the Steering Committee will be dissolved. Whether the three of us make any further contribution to the ongoing development of the project is a decision for the director alone.
Right now the Humboldt Forum is very closely associated with you and with the cosmopolitan attitude you embody.
Fortunately, the project has an inherently international spirit which is completely independent of me. I’m just happy if my experience was beneficial in getting the Forum off the ground. If the new director should require that experience in some form or other in the future, of course I’d be available. I think this is Europe’s most important museum project.
When you look back over the last three years, do you have the feeling you’ve achieved your goals for the Humboldt Forum?
Most of them, yes. Of course, I hoped to have achieved some of them a bit quicker. I’d have liked to have solved the problems of the management structures earlier – they took a lot of time and energy. The negotiations between actors, some of whom are extremely dissimilar, turned out to be far more tricky than expected, and the delay was exacerbated by the process of forming a government. It was time we could have devoted instead to planning exhibitions. Nevertheless, we’re on the right path now. So not only is there an impressive programme waiting for the new director, but also a fantastic team who can put it into practice.
How much Humboldt – in other words, how much Prussian enlightenment – will be retained in the Humboldt Forum?
The spirit of Prussian enlightenment is a notable presence in the temporary exhibitions on the upper floors and in the Humboldt Forum Akademie on the first floor. It’s about the underlying idea rather than the size of the rooms: culture as a means of public education. “Public engagement” is something of a buzzword right now in England. The Humboldt Forum Akademie will be headed by someone who integrates the scholarly activities with the exhibition programme. At the same time, this person will be responsible for the educational programme for school groups and visitors. This is how we’ll be linking the university directly with the day-to-day running of the museum. That’s essentially something entirely new. The spirit of Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos lectures, which everyone from a king to a carpenter was free to attend, will become the principle underpinning the entire Forum.
Recently we’ve heard lots of ideas and concepts for the Humboldt Forum, but we’ve seen relatively little that’s concrete. So far there have been two exhibitions with accompanying programmes in the Humboldt-Box, neither of which was particularly successful. In March you’ll be opening a further exhibition in the Box, focusing on the Phonogramm-Archiv of the Staatliche Museen and the Lautarchiv of the Humboldt-Universität. How do you intend to visualize historical sound documents?
The exhibitions were important for us in two respects: firstly, the various actors involved in the Forum as well as several other partners were able to try out and optimize they way they work with each other. Secondly, we were able to come face-to-face with the general public in [the central district of] Mitte, which is considerably more heterogeneous than [the suburban district of] Dahlem. That experience is essential for the way the Forum is run in the future. The next exhibition aims to show that the Humboldt Forum will also be a museum of sound. In no other museum in the world will you be able to listen to so many voices, songs and foreign languages. In front of the Bamum Throne from Cameroon, for example, you’ll be able to hear the voice of the King of Bamum.
But we won’t be able to see what the king looked like?
Of course, there will be photos. But a much more important question for the exhibition in the Humboldt-Box will be how historical audio documents are collected and what that means for our present-day cultural understanding.
That sounds rather academic.
It’s very concrete. The exhibition will be an aural experience above all else. We’re all visual people, but we enjoy music too, for example. We’re just not so used to thinking about sound.
Two years ago you bid farewell to the British Museum with a major exhibition about Germany – its history, mentality and everyday culture. As a member of the Steering Committee have you learned something about the Germans you hadn’t previously known?
At the start of the exhibition there was a map of Germany showing the two hundred currencies in circulation during the Holy Roman Empire. This federal tradition has been retained. There’s a different distribution of power in Germany to any other European country. Federalism is not an invention of the victorious Allies in 1945, it’s contained in the German DNA. I already knew that. Now I’ve experienced it. I’ve become familiar with the unique German concept of the “duty to achieve consensus” – an idea that couldn’t have been invented anywhere else in Europe. It means endless negotiations. But in the end everyone is involved in the result.
The interview was conducted by Andreas Kilb.
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