above The modern façade of the Humboldt Forum, designed by Frank Stella. right Inside the foyer of the Forum, with the ‘Cosmograph’, a tall digital display for information.

Berlin’s Humboldt Forum: building power

Berlin’s ambitious cultural project the Humboldt Forum opened its doors to the public this summer. Exhibition spaces, museum collections, and presentations of scientific research are brought together in a partially rebuilt Baroque palace that once stood on the site. As Alfred Hagemann tells Lucia Marchini, this spot – and the buildings on it – has long occupied a prominent place in public discourse.


Alfred Hagemann has been head of the ‘History of the Site’ department at the Humboldt Forum Foundation since 2018. Over the past 15 years, the art historian has curated cultural-historical exhibitions on the history of Prussia and the GDR in Berlin and Potsdam. He has curated exhibitions focusing on the expressions of political power in art and architecture, including the permanent presentation at Schloss Schönhausen in Berlin, which opened in 2009 and explores the history of the Baroque palace during the second half of the 20th century, and the exhibition Friderisiko about Prussian King Frederick II at the grand Neues Palais in Potsdam in 2012.

The Humboldt Forum site has a long history as a palace, but also before that as a monastery. What are the main buildings Berlin has seen on the site?

Berlin is, by comparison, not an old city like London or Cologne. The first settlement of people on this little island in the Spree River was about AD 1170, and on the site where the Humboldt Forum stands we have some of the earliest traces of human settlement of this spot. It started with a residential area in this new community of tradesmen who settled at the easternmost border of what was then the German-speaking world, and grew pretty fast into a relatively important trade town in what is today Brandenburg. This is why, in around 1300, the Dominicans settled in Berlin and founded a monastery on the spot.

above: The Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed Baroque Berlin Palace (Berliner Schloss).
The Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed Baroque Berlin Palace (Berliner Schloss). Image: Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/Photo: Christoph Musiol.

In the archaeology we did before building the Humboldt Forum, we actually found these traces of the medieval settlement, about a third of which was flattened to erect the monastery. We get the very earliest steps of the development of what later would become a metropolis. And then we have the first brick-built walls of this monastery of the time around 1300. We also found a number of clasps for closing books. They give a hint of the important library that this monastery owned. This monastery was one of the first centres of learning in Berlin, and for some time the monastery in Berlin was the central ‘university’ of the Dominicans in north-east Europe.

The monks had a close relationship with the rulers of the area, the Margraves of Brandenburg. And in 1443, when the Margraves – the Hohenzollern dynasty – decided to build a palace in Berlin, they put it side-by-side with the monastery. This palace didn’t go down well with the Berliners, as they had been relatively independent for the previous 200 years, and they flooded the building site. This is important for us because it shows that from the very beginning this is a contested site, which it still certainly is. It was a site where people would protest against power.

Then, in the 1470s, the palace became the permanent residence of the Hohenzollerns, who were also Prince-Electors of Brandenburg; the Electors were seven princes in the Holy Roman Empire who could elect the Emperor. Brandenburg was increasing in power and, by the late 17th century, had a bigger role in European politics. This is why Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg, decides he would rather be a king. So, in 1701, the Elector of Brandenburg became King of Prussia. To underline his ambition, Frederick sent his architect Andreas Schlüter to France and to Italy, and then built this very monumental Baroque palace, the palace that has been partly rebuilt. This was the first big Baroque palace in central Europe, so it really was a statement.

above The modern façade of the Humboldt Forum, designed by Frank Stella. right Inside the foyer of the Forum, with the ‘Cosmograph’, a tall digital display for information.
The modern façade of the Humboldt Forum, designed by Frank Stella. Image: Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/photo: Christoph Musiol.

In the following century, Prussia became more and more important, and by the late 19th century dominated Germany. With the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, the palace became not only the seat of the Kings of Prussia but the seat of the German Emperor, and Berlin the capital of all of Germany.

This is the history until the end of the monarchy in 1918, when the Weimar Republic was founded. Interestingly, the Weimar Republic did not use the palace for governmental purposes, but put in museums and lots of university institutions. This is a tradition we now draw on to say the Humboldt Forum is a cultural centre rather than a political centre.

Nevertheless, the palace was destroyed in the Second World War and the East German communist government decided in 1950 to blow up the ruins to make space for a huge parade ground. Then they discussed for about 20 years what to do with this central spot in the city centre. You do away with a symbol of monarchy, but what do you put in this highly symbolic place as a socialist state? In the end, they decided to build the Palace of the Republic, which opened in 1976. It was a multi-functional cultural centre, but also the seat of parliament of the GDR. But the parliament had no political importance in this one-party system, so it was merely a symbol.

This building then closed in 1990, after German unification, and then they discussed for another 20 years what to do with the Palace of the Republic. In 2006, it was finally demolished to rebuild the palace that had been demolished earlier. And now we have this strange situation of a partly rebuilt Baroque palace in this very symbolic place, and it is highly disputed if that was a good idea.

Why was the decision made to rebuild the Baroque Berlin Palace?

In the 1990s, there was a strong wish to overcome wounds that the Second World War and the communist dictatorship of East Germany had left in the cities physically, and also in the sense of German identity as a whole. In many cities in East Germany but also in West Germany, from the late 1980s, there was a discussion about rebuilding historic buildings that were lost in the Second World War. In Berlin, there were the ones who wanted a fresh start, a modern building; there were the ones who said let’s keep the Palace of the Republic; and there were the ones saying let’s rebuild the palace.

In the end, the decision of the majority was to partly rebuild the palace. It was interesting that the ones who wanted to rebuild the palace always promoted it as a work of art which was to be retrieved. It was not about Prussia, it was not about monarchy, but it was always about this wonderful Baroque architecture.

Inside the foyer of the Forum, with the ‘Cosmograph’, a tall digital display for information. Photo: Alexander Schippel.

It was also about healing the whole fabric of the city centre of Berlin. Museum Island, the cathedral, all these buildings were built around the palace and this centre was missing. So, it was very much an aesthetic and town-planning argument. And only lately, in the last five or so years, it has become more a debate about what does it mean to rebuild a royal palace and put non-European art collections in it?

What do you think about this debate?

Like many people, it is now about half of my life that this discussion has raged about how to deal with this centre of Berlin. By training, I’m an art historian, an architectural historian, and since I came to Berlin to study it has always been a point of discussion. Out of principle, as an architectural historian, you wouldn’t really go for the rebuilding of a lost building. I certainly would not have voted in any way to rebuild it, especially as it meant the destruction of an existing monument, the Palace of the Republic.

Nevertheless, I could see some of the arguments about how it would relate to the existing historic buildings in the city. Like many other people, I think, in the beginning I quite liked the idea that you, on the one hand, rebuild a lost building of German history, and, on the other, you put non-European art in it and you bring all the arts together on Museum Island. It was perhaps a little naïve of me in the beginning, but it was more a gesture of openness and cosmopolitanism, to celebrate the arts of the world.

A couple of years later, it became more obvious to more and more people that it is strange, because these non-European art collections have, of course, a colonial background. As the history of these collections became more and more critically viewed, it became very strange to put them in a reconstructed Prussian royal palace. I think for the German public, for a long time the colonial history and its problems seemed so much less problematic than the Nazi era and the communist regime, and only lately has one started to realise how much colonial traditions still shape our world and our thinking, and that 20 years of German colonialism were quite enough to do a lot of damage and to produce these huge collections.

So, I think the focus has shifted and the Humboldt Forum has to deal with it and find its place in this discussion.

above left Traces of the East German Palace of the Republic are visible in some of the ‘flashbacks’ dotted around the building, including this signage. left Remains of the palace cellar, where finds from the medieval monastery and from the centuries of previous occupation of the site are on display.
Traces of the East German Palace of the Republic are visible in some of the ‘flashbacks’ dotted around the building, including this signage. Image: Piktogramme Klaus Wittkugel/Akademie der Künste, Berlin/Trägersystem Peter Rockel/Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/digital reproduction: Jester Blank GbR.

The Weimar Republic used the building as museum space. Were royal collections housed in the palace before this?

The first art collections of the Electors of Brandenburg were there already in the 16th century, in the Renaissance palace, but during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century most of that was destroyed and dispersed. But with the building of the Baroque palace around 1700, there was from the beginning a rather large set of rooms for the art collections – for antiquities, for naturalia, and also for a huge coin collection. It was also the seat of the first library, what today is the state library, the largest library in Germany. The library moved out of the palace in the late 18th century. It’s the same with the art collection: the Kunstkammer was in the palace until the first museum on Museum Island was opened in 1830.

So, the palace was always a public place in the sense that a tourist of the 18th century could go into the palace. It was always much more than just the home of the royal family. It was the centre of state and representation, and the arts.

Are there any works from these collections that are now in the museums in the Humboldt Forum?

The Museum of Asian Art, which is moving into the third floor, has its roots in the collection of the Kunstkammer. In the 17th and 18th century, Chinese and Japanese art was very fashionable, so there are some quite astonishing pieces of porcelain and lacquerwork from China that date back to the Kunstkammer.

Remains of the palace cellar, where finds from the medieval monastery and from the centuries of previous occupation of the site are on display. Image: Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/Photo: David von Becker.

The Forum is named after Alexander von Humboldt and his brother Wilhelm von Humboldt. Why are these figures attached to this huge new cultural centre?

If you come to Berlin, you will find that a lot of places are called ‘Humboldt’-something. I think Alexander von Humboldt is one of the few Germans of the 19th century who is known all over the world in a popular way. Berliners were terribly proud of their world-renowned traveller, writer, and scientist.

His brother Wilhelm, who is less well known, is nevertheless of immense importance to German learning. He designed, more or less, the modern university system, which was a model for many universities in the world. He was a great scholar of languages and compared languages from all over the world.

Both Alexander and Wilhelm had a global view, and they both argued that everything in the world is connected, that all things depend on each other: nature and culture, language and society and thinking are all connected. I think 20 years ago, when the idea of the Humboldt Forum came up, they seemed just the perfect role models for what it would be about: the whole world connected, interchanging, and being seen as one big human culture.

I think what is very important about both of them is the idea that knowledge should be a democratic asset. They were very much working for the opening of knowledge, getting out of an elitist system into a broader society. This is at the basis of modern museums: to take art from private ownership of the king or a rich man, into a public place.

Is this legacy of both Alexander and Wilhelm and their ambitions for broadening education something the Humboldt Forum hopes to reflect?

Let’s say the naming after Humboldt is as ambiguous as the whole project is. You can look at the undisputed achievements of the Humboldts – a democratic approach to knowledge, and a global approach to culture and human interaction – and certainly this is something the Humboldt Forum wants to have. But, at the same time, the Humboldts are white males of their time, and they are not free of Eurocentric or racist ideas – and that’s the same with the Humboldt Forum. We have issues with colonialism, with the collections of the museums. We have issues with the political reasons for the erection of a palace and then for putting the museums into it. All these idiosyncrasies are there.

Decorations from the Baroque palace exhibited in the Sculpture Hall. Photo: Alexander Schippel.

To have these contradictions in this place at the very heart of the capital hurts and gives a lot of people a headache, but at the same time it’s a chance not to have a smooth, perfect, and undisputed symbolic centre but to have a place people really fight about. My hope would be that the Humboldt Forum will move from a place everybody fights about to a place where people meet to discuss and get to terms with problems. One of the successes maybe of the Humboldt Forum already is this discussion about colonialism in Germany. I think if you built a new museum for non-European art somewhere else in Berlin, the whole debate would not have become such a heated, widely recognised problem to German society as it is at this very spot. I think it was high time we started this discussion. It’s a discussion that rages in France and England and everywhere at the moment, and I think the Humboldt Forum was a catalyst for this debate in Germany. In a way, I’m thankful for that.

We can become a place that fulfils our name, not so much of ‘Humboldt’ but ‘Forum’, in a sense of a place that people meet and discuss and exchange knowledge and opinion and our points of view. If we can manage that, then I think we can be a success.

You can find out more about the art works on display in the newly opened spaces of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum and Museum für Asiatische Kunst.