The Humboldt Forum: under one roof

Over the course of this article, we take a look at a small selection of works on display in the newly opened spaces of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum and Museum für Asiatische Kunst.


In September, the new spaces of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum and Museum für Asiatische Kunst in the west wing of the Humboldt Forum opened to visitors. The impressive new displays of the two museums present a range of objects and artworks from across Asia, Oceania, and parts of Africa, encompassing boats, sculpture, ceramics, musical instruments (even recordings of music in a bright, elliptical listening room), and much more. Aspects of these collections have been called into question in recent years. The Ethnological Museum, for example, is currently in talks with Nigeria to repatriate the Benin bronzes. While the Benin room at the Humboldt Forum is not due to open until next year, these issues are still addressed in the open rooms, setting the colonial collections in context and, in the case of one of the ‘open storage’ cases, grouping objects together to present a timeline of acquisitions from the 16th century onwards (shown below).

Image: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/photo: Alexander Schippel.

Hartmut Dorgeloh, General Director of the Humboldt Forum, told Minerva, ‘Museums are traditionally places where you can learn something, but where there is only one perspective or one position that is offered to you. We want to change this. So perhaps we’re presenting the same objects but telling different stories. It’s more about stories, it is more about object biographies, for example. We’re not forgetting the artistic value and the cultural importance and significance of these objects, but we are also talking about the reasons why they are in Berlin.’

Both the Ethnological and Asian Art Museums are based in Dahlem, on the outskirts of Berlin, so moving parts of their collections into these new exhibition spaces brings them right into the centre of the city. As Dorgeloh said, ‘Because we are located on such a popular spot and it’s such a huge building – and perhaps a spectacular building – there are various reasons for visiting us. It is a great chance to attract visitors who are perhaps not so familiar with museums and with the colonial past, or with exhibitions and collections from beyond Europe.’

Contemporary art is intermingled with the historic collections: for example, a teahouse by Ai Weiwei, built out of bricks of pu-erh tea, stands in a room devoted to Chinese art dominated by a truly vast 18th-century painting on silk. Elsewhere there is another tea house for hosting Japanese tea ceremonies. And beyond the permanent displays, there is space for temporary exhibitions. The first at the Humboldt Forum, Terrible Beauty: elephant – human – ivory (on view until 28 November) combines art, archaeology, and science to explore the relationship between people and elephants, covering aspects like poaching, craft in prehistory, and the use of ivory in musical instruments. There is even a beehive on display: elephants are afraid of bees and so they are an effective deterrent, protecting agricultural land. Importantly, while some intricate ivory artworks are on view, the exhibition stresses the point that the material comes at the cost of a dead elephant, and the sound from a film of an elephant dying fills the space heavily.

Over the course of this article, we take a look at a small selection of works on display in the newly opened museum spaces. More is set to open in the east wing next year.

For information on visiting the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and what’s on, go to www.humboldtforum.org/en/.

The objects

Beneath the cupola of the reconstructed Berlin Palace – a politicised addition made to the Baroque Schloss by Frederick William IV (r. 1840-1861) as a display of his anti-constitutional stance and his belief that he was appointed by god – is a lofty room, whose domed ceiling is used by the Museum für Asiatische Kunst as a screen for projections of paintings from Buddhist cave temples.

Image: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum/Dietrich Graf

In this gallery, art from the Northern Silk Roads is on display, collected over four expeditions to north-west China between 1902 and 1914. From the cave temples cut into the soft stone of the mountains along the river at Kizil come well-preserved sculptures and panels of wall paintings. Between around the 3rd and the 8th century, hundreds of caves (including dwellings for monks next to the bigger temples) were dug at Kizil, part of the regional kingdom of Kucha which was ruled by the Tocharians.

The painting shown here comes from Kizil Cave 8 or the ‘Cave of the Swordbearers’. These swordbearers are high-ranking Tocharian donors. Four were shown on each side wall of the two corridors leading to the back chamber of the temple, and all 16 figures face the Buddha. They wear kaftans (which probably would have been silk) with contrasting hems and patterns popular at the time when the figures were painted in the 6th-7th century.

The Museum für Asiatische Kunst houses an array of Buddhist sculpture, including depictions of the Buddha in human form, scenes from his life, and his large footprint. This 1st-century carved sandstone panel, measuring about half a metre in height, comes from Sanchi in central India. It does not show the Buddha, but rather a mound-shaped stupa. These structures first arose in India, where Buddhism originated, soon after the Buddha’s death about 2,500 years ago. Relics representing the Buddha were enshrined in these stupas, and in this carved scene we see two men worshipping the monument (which is decorated with garlands of flowers) and the Enlightened One. Two heavenly beings on either side of the stupa bring more garlands.

Image: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst/Jürgen Liepe

This beautiful figure of a white bull is Nandi, the mount of the Hindu god Shiva. It was created in the 17th century in southern India and served a processional role in festivals at temples. According to some Hindu legends, Nandi is akin to a pet, happily spending time with Shiva’s family on the holy mountain Kalish, but, importantly, as well as being the god’s mount, the powerful bull is Shiva’s most loyal follower, therefore serving as a model for the faithful follower and for stability. As such, Nandi is honoured at festivals and receives his own offerings.

Image: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst/Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, digital reproduction: Jester Blank GbR

In temple festivals, bronze statues of Shiva and his wife Parvati are brought out on painted wooden figures like this one (which measures 1.34m in height), giving those worshippers who would not normally be allowed to enter the temple a chance to see and to revere the gods. Stone sculptures of Nandi can be found outside many temples to Shiva in India, positioned so that they look towards the god. This connection is reflected in the Humboldt Forum, as Nandi looks towards a representation of Shiva in the gallery.

In the 19th century, Johann Stanislaus Kubary collected a number of objects from Oceania for the museum of a merchant in Hamburg. Among the works he obtained was, in 1877, this wooden figure of the god Sope from the island of Nukuoro, in the Federal States of Micronesia. These carved figures are known as tino aitu. They were, according to Kubary, believed to be the temporary abodes of gods. People gathered in front of the decorated figures to offer them food as they took part in ceremonial feasts. The main temple of the village Nukuoro Nukuoro had six figures of Sope, indicating that the god may have been of some importance and revered across the island.

Image: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum/Claudia Obrock

Tino aitu figures such as these were desired by collectors from the 1870s onwards and purchased by museums, though the collectors recorded no details about the Nukuoro artists who carved them. There are 38 figures known today, and they vary in both size and detail. This example, which entered the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin in 1962, is 1.68m in height.

Measuring 1.74m in height, this spectacular carved wooden ‘Mandu Yenu’ throne is decorated with cowrie shells and coloured glass beads from Europe, with a proliferation of dazzling blues. It was made in the Kingdom of Bamum, in what is now north-west Cameroon, before 1885 and is an impressive example of the opulent art of the Bamum court in the late 19th century. Two large standing human figures, twin protectors of the king, flank the ruler who sits on the throne, while two smaller figures on the footstool bearing rifles symbolise military might. There are also carvings of two-headed serpents, and spiders, a symbol of wisdom found in royal art found across the western region of the German colony Kamerun.

German colonial rule of Kamerun – which was often imposed using force and had a devastating effect on many people – began in 1884. The Germans arrived in Bamum in 1902, and the Bamum King Njoya allied with them, hoping to develop new technologies and to receive military support against rivals, like the Banso’ kingdom that had defeated his father. An important object in Bamum, the throne was much sought after by the German Royal Museum of Ethnology (the predecessor of the Ethnological Museum), which had been trying to acquire it since 1905. King Njoya gave King William II the throne on his birthday in 1908, after a joint campaign against the Kingdom of Banso’. Njoya had a similar throne made as a replacement.

Image: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss/photo: Alexander Schippel.

Vast quantities of red feathers from the ‘i‘iwi bird and yellow feathers from the mamo and ‘ō‘ō birds were used to make this sumptuous, delicate cloak or ‘ahu ‘ula, another kingly gift now in the Ethnologisches Museum. On Hawai’i, the vibrant ‘ahu ‘ula symbolised the ruler’s divinity and power. It was normally worn for ceremonial events in combination with a headpiece, together protecting the head and the spine. The feather cloaks were rare, prestigious items, the preserve of the highest-ranks of Hawaiian society, but until the 19th century they were also exchanged in order to secure relationships or as a means of honouring someone.

Image: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum/Martin Franken

This particular feather cloak was said to have been worn by King Kamehameha I (r. 1795-1819), and in 1828 was given (along with some other objects) by his son King Kamehameha III to King Frederick William III of Prussia. Honolulu was a hub for Prussian merchant ships travelling on to East Asia. Kamehameha III handed the gifts not directly to the king, but to Wilhelm Oswald, who travelled to Hawai’i on a merchant ship, to take them back to Berlin.

In 1831, Frederick William sent a reciprocal gift of a guard’s uniform, portraits of himself and of General Blücher, pistols, jewellery, an armchair, and other items.