It is to be feared that the extended ethnological exhibition in the east section of the Humboldt Forum will not be better than the first part, which opened in 2021. I have visited this several times, also together with experienced museum people. Everyone thinks the concept is bad.
For example, wooden carved crocodiles from different cultures are stacked without comment, as are dance masks and everyday utensils. It’s like putting Italian and German sculptures from the 16th century in a glass case and saying: Look at all the things that were carved in Central Europe. There is something contemptuous, colonialistly condescending about such a presentation; moreover, it ignores museum educational and scientific standards.
In the case of the famous South Pacific airboat, no explanation is given of the sophistication with which it was built or what the paintings meant. The nautical skills of these early sailors were tremendous. It would be a good idea to compare this two-masted ship with the comparatively primitive ships of the Phoenicians, Romans or Vikings, which were propelled with many oars and a driving sail. They all needed oarsmen and, unlike the South Sea boats, could not tack against the wind. The airboat is the last surviving original. A World Heritage Site! You don’t learn anything about all this in the Humboldt Forum.
The deficits of the exhibition in terms of colonialism are depressing. Entering the unpleasantly lit bunker-like compartment of the airboat, one immediately learns that the Americans have been testing nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands for twelve years and that Australia has maintained an internment camp for refugees on the Papuan island of Manus.
Both islands once belonged to the German colonial empire, both were affected by so-called punitive expeditions, as was the island of Luf, which was particularly cruel. But not a word about that, all the more about the subsequent misdeeds of others. How could the President of the Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, and the Director of the Ethnological Museum, Lars-Christian Koch, allow such mistakes?
I am pleased that a return agreement has been reached for the Benin bronzes, and it is good that some of the bronzes can continue to be exhibited in Berlin. For the sake of historical truth, it should be said that the kings of Benin, who were heavily involved in the transatlantic slave trade, enriched themselves.
But this does not result in a right to refuse the return of cultural property. If one were to accept such a standard, then the museums, churches and private collections in this country would rightly and forever be stripped of all valuable cultural assets as a result of Hitler’s Germany’s crimes against humanity.
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