Humboldt Forum
A Key to the World

Humboldt Forum Workshop Johannesburg, Februar 2016
Photo: Goethe-Institut / Benjamin Keuffel

​Three years until the opening of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum: at a Goethe-Institut congress in Johannesburg, Hermann Parzinger, Neil McGregor and others discussed how it will not just be a museum, but can be a place where we can come to terms with the history of oppression in Africa.

If Hermann Parzinger has his way, the Humboldt Forum will be nothing less than a key to the world. But in order for the key to fit, the grandiose claims that it will involve close international cooperation needs to be acted on. This was the tenor among the African experts. George Abungu, the former director of the National Museums of Kenya and consultant for the Humboldt Forum said aloud what many of his colleagues were thinking: “We must not forget how these exhibits got from Africa to Berlin. The suffering that is associated with this must be recognized. But we also need to ask ourselves how this cultural heritage can portray modern societies today. In a way that it will not reinforce the old colonial prejudices and structures; a world in which only some have a voice or a name, but many others do not.”

Space for diverse identities

The African museum professionals, artists and curators who have travelled from all over the continent to the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg have a post-ethnographic museum in mind in which the historic objects are illuminated in the kaleidoscope of the present. In which there is not only space for historical, social and cultural references, but also for diverse identities, emphasizes Marilyn Douala Manga Bell, founder of doual’art, a contemporary cultural centre in Cameroon.

“Each of us is part of the world,” she says. “We are composed of different layers of education, of information, of cultural backgrounds. All of them merge into one identity. It is very important that the museum reflects us in this complexity as the key to our roots and as a signpost for the future. I hope that the Humboldt Forum really does justice to its name as a forum and allows dialogue on the mixture of cultures.”

Contemporary artists and curators from all over the world could play central roles in this. The African experts take Hermann Parzinger at his word when he says that Europe is no longer the global centre of world interpretation. But many remain sceptical when it comes to its implementation. During the panel discussion, the South African curator Vusi Mchunu askes quite directly, “Do you have the courage to face the difficult topics in your programmes and presentations? For example the suffering of the Herero under German colonialism in former German South West Africa or of the Maji Maji in Tanzania?”

Coming to Terms with the Past

At this point Neil MacGregor leapt to the defense of his colleague, stressing that as a Briton he could testify that no nation examines its past so consistently as the Germans. Memory Biwa, historian from Namibia and activist from the No Humboldt 21 initiative criticized these words, calling them almost an affront given the blind spots of Germany’s colonial past in Africa. “The Humboldt Forum raises many questions that have not yet been worked out sufficiently. Questions about the origins and the lawful possession of the exhibits, about the position we take as Africans towards them and why the new museum is being built in Berlin and not here,” she said.

For many Africans, the pathway to Berlin and hence to a part of their own cultural heritage remains blocked. The African museum experts therefore also suggested traveling exhibitions, a proposal met by Hermann Parzinger with enthusiasm. “Ultimately, cultural heritage belongs to all people. And those who run cultural institutions today, who bear the responsibility, are also responsible for ensuring that things are being researched, that they are safely kept, they are freely available and that knowledge about these things is taught. And this also includes the exchange of objects,” he said.

It seems that some of the suggestions made in the dialogue at Johannesburg’s Goethe-Institut fell on fertile ground. How many of the ideas will actually be implemented is an entirely different question. But despite their scepticism, at the completion of their workshop the African experts hoped that the Humboldt Forum will be more than just a look through the keyhole. 

This article first appeared on the Deutschlandfunk website on 17 February, 2016 and was written by Leonie March.