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29.07.2017 Feature Article

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The Berlin-based art historian Bénédicte Savoy was a member of the advisory board of Germany’s most ambitious cultural project in decades. A reckoning.The Berlin-based art historian Bénédicte Savoy was a member of the advisory board of Germany’s most ambitious cultural project in decades. A reckoning.
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The Arts Council of the African Studies Association will be holding its17thTriennial Conference in Accra, Legon University, Ghana, from 9th to 12 Augusr, 2017( ) and within this conference, representatives of the Humboldt-Forum, Jonathan Fine and Paola Ivanov (both Ethnologisches Museum Berlin) will be presenting the institution under the topic of External and Internal Museum Collaborations. It is important that the African and international public hear also other views about the Humboldt-Forum. My own views of the relations between African museums and Western museums can be easily found at this site as well as at other places.

Kwame Opoku.

“The Humboldt Forum is like Chernobyl”

(From Suddeutsche Zeitung, founded 1945, also known as SZ, Germany's largest broadsheet newspaper, publishes Süddeutsche articles of international interest on this tumblr. (Translation mostly in cooperation with Worldcrunch .)

The Berlin-based art historian Bénédicte Savoy was a member of the advisory board of Germany’s most ambitious cultural project in decades. A reckoning. The Berlin-based art historian Bénédicte Savoy was a member of the advisory board of Germany’s most ambitious cultural project in decades. A reckoning.

By Jörg Häntzschel Last week, Neil MacGregor’s contract as advisor to the Humboldt Forum was renewed until 2019. Nevertheless, doubts and misgivings about this major project persist. We discussed this with renowned art historian Bénédicte Savoy, 45, who resigned from the Forum’s advisory board a few days ago.

SZ: What were your reasons for leaving the advisory board?

Bénédicte Savoy: My frustration had been building up over months. It was mainly because of the way this panel was treated. It existed since 2015. There have been only two meetings over that period. I also felt that I couldn’t speak freely while I was part of the project. You either belong to it and defend it, or you have a critical view, in which case it’s better to leave.

But are critical debates not the purpose of the board?

Yes, they are, and we were very critical. But other boards, such as the Louvre’s, where I’m also a member, meet four or five times a year. The work there is really hands-on. Critical views are taken seriously. This one however is a token exercise.

Has your view of the Humboldt Forum changed over the last two years?

When I first heard of the project, I was 30. Now I’m 45. I have never been enthusiastic about it.

Why not? To begin with, there is the reconstruction of the Schloss. The architecture conveys that history is reversible. But when people ask for the return of stolen objects they are told that history cannot be reversed. It’s an irreconcilable contradiction that will always haunt the Humboldt Forum. Then there is the iconography of the façade, with its weapons, helmets, armour. Finally, there’s the cross on top of the cupola.

Still you decided to join. I was relieved and hopeful when Neil MacGregor came on board. But as soon as he was nominated it became clear that the same institutions would continue that had not got their act together for ten years. Not even a MacGregor can achieve much against the lethargy and immobility of these institutions. There is still the same lack of transparency, team spirit and responsibility as before. Even with political will, much money and a brilliant head at the helm, such a project does not stand a chance.

Are you referring to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz? What issues do you see there?

First of all, there’s the name. There are historical reasons for it, as for the structure of the organization as such. But it isn’t appropriate anymore. Culture is not the “property” of Prussia, Great Britain or France. And Prussia doesn’t have the best global reputation. These are names, words, but the terminology influences the way of thinking, just as the cross does. It counteracts the project. The metaphors wind their way through the entire institution. The hierarchical structure, the individual museums’ lack of autonomy - there’s total sclerosis. The SPK reigns over a huge number of archives, museums, libraries. They should have had the courage to say: This is too much. We would like to pass on the responsibility. It’s a question of honesty and responsibility.

What was the role of policymakers? Policymakers allowed the rebuilding of the Schloss without ensuring a critical debate about it. The first ten years were squandered, but in a way that left scars and makes everything more difficult. Monika Grütters and Neil MacGregor are desperately trying to save whatever is left to save. But if this behemoth should stand a chance to work in 15 years or so, things need to be dealt with today.

What is the most important task? Provenance research. It costs lots of money, it’s a thankless job. You might work for ten years on a particular collection and end up not knowing much more than when you started. But today no Humboldt Forum and no ethnological museum anywhere should open before this research isn’t done. Provenance research should be the key idea of the project. And, secondly, the provenance of each object should be displayed in a comprehensible way. It’s no longer possible to display works on the walls of a museum without stating where they came from. Even if you don’t find anything, you state: We did what we could, we digitalized all the documents, they’re accessible to anybody, this is what we know as of today. It’s also a matter of respect to the people that we took these objects from.

So the main concern is educating the public.

For me, it’s less important to understand what particular use an object had in Namibia than to find out about the circumstances in which it got here. I want to know where my steak is coming from, too. When you buy food, this information is on the packaging. The same should apply to intellectual nutrition. I want to know how much blood is dripping from a piece of art, how much academic ambition went into finding it, how much archaeological delight. It makes these objects even more significant. It’s a win for both sides.

The museums in Dahlem are destined to become purely research institutions, while the Humboldt Forum is due to display their top objects. Exhibiting objects and research will be separated.

This is not the only problem, but the museums will also be separated from the universities. If you only exhibit objects and stop working with them intellectually, they’re dead. Collections and museums have been created for research purposes. In the 19th century lectures and seminars were held in Berlin museums. The British Museum, the Louvre continue to be research institutions to this day. This integration of academic endeavour and museums should also have been encouraged as part of the planning process in the Humboldt Forum, by providing the necessary rooms. Why can’t school children have regular classes there?

The founding directors would object to this and explain that the project was after all founded in the spirit of the Humboldt brothers, the legendary scientists.

No, they would not. They know very well that the Humboldt name is only a label. The core belief of the Humboldts was that collecting, research and teaching should be connected. This is precisely what will not be realized at the Humboldt Forum.

But this is the main selling point of the project.

It’s just buzzwords that are being sold here. Humboldt, provenance, multi-perspectivity, shared heritage. Lofty concepts, but what we need is intellectual creativity. Not museum education where everybody dresses up as American Indians or ancient gods, but a serious, poetic, humanistic engagement with these objects and the past from which they originate. Education is a daily practice, it requires continuous inventing and adapting to the needs of younger generations. There could be intellectual fireworks there. And by the way: Intelligence is sexy. One could use the potential in Berlin, the passion of so many young people to create something that is sexy. Instead we sit here in these gloomy board meetings as if it was still the 1980s.

What do you make of Neil MacGregor’s idea to bring culture and nature together and to include objects from other Berlin museums?

Why not? I welcome any idea, anything that stimulates the mind and is not just there to bring in the crowds and make money with restaurants and shops. The Humboldt Forum is too valuable for that. It is based on 300 years of collecting, with all the abominations and hopes that came with it. It’s us, it’s Europe. So much could be done with it, were it not covered under this leaden blanket, like nuclear waste, to make sure no radiation can escape. The Humboldt Forum is like Chernobyl.

Germany has changed quite a bit in recent years. What does that mean for this project?

It comes at the wrong time. Germany redefines itself as an open, international country. It makes a huge effort to accommodate people escaping from conflict areas and war zones. It’s impossible to open this type of museum, in such a location, at this particular moment. It would have been better to leave the objects in Dahlem and prepare them in a way that they could have withstood Germany’s internationalization and the debate about its colonial history. That way one could have said at some point: Look, we accommodated people from all over the world in a reasonably dignified manner. And we took care of these objects that came to us in the same way. The right thing would have been to have a moratorium. That would have bought time to understand the new situation. I have students who grew up in Damascus. That’s our reality. Everybody is aware of this, except for those up there.

What do your students say? They say the Schloss is fake, but it’s meant to house original objects. Why not produce perfect copies and write on the labels: We owned the original for 120 years, now we have returned it to Cameroon. A museum of fakes in a fake castle, that would make sense.

You’re from the country of the “grands projets”. How would France have tackled the Humboldt Forum?

They would have left it alone due to lack of money. As everywhere in Europe, there is not enough money for culture. Germany is the only place where it’s flowing so incredibly freely. But you need to have ideas flowing too. It would have been better if the funds had been missing here, too, but instead the desire would have been there. Then people in the institutions would have brainstormed every week: What great things can we do? Where do we find the money? Instead they gave 600 million to an institution that is completely exhausted, that hasn’t had an idea in decades and told them: Do something! This could only ever fail.

Picture: Anja Berghäuser

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2017

The author has 261 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwameOpoku

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