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The Humboldt Forum: a space for claiming the African colonial heritage

During my stay in Berlin for a week in October, I visited the Humboldt Forum twice. This museum – or exhibition centre as the institution calls itself – is huge and only one day is not enough to visit all the exhibitions. Admission is free and justified by the fact that more than fifty per cent of the exhibition area is still closed to the public. Nevertheless, during my visits the Humboldt Forum was full, so crowded in fact that the elevators broke down. When I asked the security guard – who accompanied me on an unusual trip in the elevator for large loads – if this influx of people was usual, he answered negatively; they had opened a cocktail bar on the terrace and, therefore, people were also visiting the exhibitions.  Visitors flock to the exhibition rooms, touching the pieces and laughing at the sound of alarms like teenagers taking risk for the first time.

The Africa exhibition is on the second floor of the building, in a darkened environment and, if some pieces are displayed on low plinths as if they were art, others are displayed in glass cases, once the standard in ethnological museums, as still visible in the 19th century Pitt Rivers Museum aesthetics.  In these showcases, the pieces are displayed in ensembles and described by a single caption that presents the collector, the place and date of collection: “Wissmann, Conquering Congo, 1880-1887”; “Bastian, Loango Expedition 1873-1876”; “Rohlfs, Ethiopia, 1867/68-1880”. The visitor finds other artefacts displayed on open plinths or large glass boxes where the objects are described in more detail: name of the object, country/area of ​​provenance, materials, collector, date of purchase and purchaser, description and inventory number. Coming from Cameroon, the 19th-century doorframes are shown in a row in the centre of one of the exhibition rooms. Decorated with figures of leopards, crocodiles and spiders, these objects are so impressive in their scale that they cause a feeling of strangeness in those who look at them. 

The ethnographic collections on show at the Humboldt Forum are displayed as if they were in the museum’s collection facilities. This allows, according to the institution, public access to objects that otherwise would not be visible. However, most of the artefacts remain in the Berlin-Dahlem warehouse. In the wall text of the exhibition dedicated to African heritage “Appropriating objects and colonial fictions of Africa”, the curators state that “the current projects aim at the decolonization of collections through cooperation with partners from the societies of origin”. However, is this premise really being put into practice? The exhibition does not really reflect this intention (neither do, as we will see, the reactions of the civil society), with the exception of a video screen that shows short videos capturing provenance research with diasporic communities in the museum, or in the case of some – very few – exhibition captions where people associated with the communities of origin comment on the notations made about the artefacts during the colonial period.

During my stay in Berlin, I contacted a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work in this field. Of the various NGOs I contacted  – Afrotak Cibernomads Berlin PostKolonial EOTO Glokal Decolonize Berlin Afrika Haus Berlin and AfricAvenir International – only the administrators in latter were available for an interview.

The AfricAvenir International is a non-governmental organization, politically independent and non-profit, working in the field of civic and cultural education. Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III founded the headquarters in Douala, Cameroon, in 1985. The German section was founded in 2000, the Namibian section in 2007 followed by the Beninese section in 2012. Countries such as Austria, France, Canada, Senegal and the US have also been supporting AfricAvenir’s work for many years, and formal associations are currently being created in these countries1.  On its official website, this NGO claims to represent “a self – confident Africa, peaceful and prosperous in a just world order”; to defend “the equitable coexistence of all people, free from the resulting colonial or racist thinking, behaviour and power structures”; to support “the pan-African values ​​of the African Renaissance” and strive to help create “a Europe which consciously recognizes its past and present responsibility and actively reappraises it”, working against injustice and conducting a “campaign for reconciliation”2.

The presiding member of the AfricAvenir delegation in Berlin, Lawrence Oduro-Sarpong, from Ghana, made an appointment with me at the NGO’s headquarters at Kameruner Strasse [Cameroon Street] number 1, located in a neighbourhood in eastern Berlin known for the settlement of the African community. When I asked3 Lawrence about the type of activities the organization is engaged in, he told me that in the past they have programmed “film cycles, symposia and conferences on different themes such as the African perspective of the future, decolonization of the Second World War, decolonization of climate change, sustainability paradoxes”, they also have had a project on migration to Europe in 2015. The main idea that sustains the project is the African renaissance, “as AfricAvenir stands for the French word “avenir” that symbolizes future”. Thus, as Lawrence confirmed “one of the main things we do is decolonize: the mind, the thinking, and the educational systems. Associated with the theme of decolonization, we ended up talking about white privilege, power sharing and reconciliation”. The ultimate goal of this association “is to achieve reconciliation”. When I asked him about the impact of AfricAvenir on the African Community living in Berlin, Lawrence answered positively because in his opinion “the content of what  [they] do is original”.  And he explained: “Most of the people who participate and organize [their] events either come from the diaspora or are descendants of Africans who speak for themselves”. He continued:  

(…) in the context of the mainstream European debate, when you look for experts on Africa on a panel, for example, you will always have five white people and one African. We don’t think this is fair and that’s why we created space for Africans to speak for themselves and tell their stories.

I was very interested in talking with him about the demonstration against the Humboldt Forum in 2013 [the No Humboldt 21! movement]. Unfortunately, he told me that he hadn’t been there in person because he was “professionally committed in the weeks leading up to this event”. AfricAvenir takes part in a group formed by various associations – such as Initiative Schwarze Menchen in Deutschland Bund eVGlokal eV Eine Welt Stadt Berlin-Globales Lernen Afrotak TV and Berlin Postkolonial  and, as Lawrence explained later,  the demonstration was organized based on a series of effective criticisms of the Humboldt Forum project, the way they see it.  To prepare No Humboldt 21!, this group exchanged ideas, and there were a series of activities that were planned as a form of protest  that, as Lawrence guaranteed, “were all implemented”.

When I asked about the biggest criticisms AfricAvenir pointed towards the Humboldt Forum project, Lawrence stated that they have no doubt that most of the objects were obtained through force and extortion, and were part of the colonial project.  For AfricAvenir,  “after so long, if Germany says it wants to find some form of reconciliation, we wonder why they [Humboldt Forum] wanted to relocate a majority of objects extorted without bothering to have an honest conversation with the populations that are really affected by this gesture”. Furthermore, in the opinion of the director of AfricAvenir Berlin, “these objects are in the custody of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation”; this fact makes them ask: “How can these objects from Africa and Asia be Prussia’s cultural property?” Lawrence thinks this attitude in itself “is arrogant and in no way moves towards reconciliation”. He adds that if you want to reconcile with something or someone, “you must feel remorse” and by feeling it “(…) your attitude would be reflected in everything that you do, wherever you speak” continuing, “for this very reason, even the name [Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation] is an insult!” This lack of remorse from the institution and the will to indicate the way towards reconciliation from the activist groups was the seed for the creation of the Humboldt Forum movement [No Humboldt21!]. Lawrence explains:

We think that there should be genuine discussions; people should be involved, especially people in affected communities in Africa and Asia, because they have descendants that are still there, and they should be involved, they should sit at the table and take part in the discussion. The Germans just displayed the objects in this space without any dialogue… For me personally, for our association and for our alliance it is unacceptable. 

When I reminded Lawrence that most of the objects on display are ritual objects and architectural elements known to be of great value to communities, he comments that even that “is arrogant”. He adds: “So to be in denial, to ignore that certain objects could not be here because they have great cultural and ritual importance, to think that these objects were acquired in good faith is also an insult”.

Lawrence wished to emphasize that from what he had seen and heard so far, he hadn’t found any clear signs that the Humboldt Forum was moving towards decolonization. Instead he saw

(…) a defensive posture, which protects things as they are now, doing provenance research and stating ‘this way we can keep the objects here’. I found no interest in listening to communities and implementing what they hear. I hope this effort for decolonization will arrive but I have not found it yet. 

The set of actions that resulted in the No Humboldt21! movement  took place in 2013 based on the premise that questions the intended symbolism from the exhibition of ethnological collections (from Africa, Asia and America), which are largely the result of pillaging during colonial times4. For the group of collectives, identified in the statement published on the Internet, the Humboldt Forum “violates the dignity and property rights of communities in all parts of the world, it is Eurocentric and (…) it is a direct contradiction to the aim promoting equality in a migration society”. According to the same document, the museums of the State of Berlin “are not the legitimate owners of their holdings” obtained during colonial times; this gesture seems to want to redeem Berlin’s colonial past by showing it in the former royal palace, as well as in the exhibition “cultures of the world are discriminated against, being marked as strange’ and ‘other’”. At this point in the letter, the collective advises the involvement of specialists from countries in the global south in the presentation of the work, in order to promote equal opportunities, as a way of alerting others to power dynamics and promoting similarities between cultures. Activists still defend that the “’research of non-European cultures’ is not problematized” and point out that Alexander von Humboldt was intensely involved in the German colonial project, not being the best person to name a centre that claims to be intercultural, remembering, finally, that the “cultural treasures of the world remain for the good of the people of the north”5. While the planning of the demonstration was only in the hands of six main organizations that were in charge of coordinating the events, the statement had a significant participation of forty-eight organizations6.

This visit to Berlin made me realize the paradox inherent in Germany’s efforts to simultaneously become a society that welcomes immigrants and a nation-state claiming status as a global cultural power. From this pilot study I was able to carry out during the week I spent there, it seems to me that Germany is one of the European countries that bring together the largest number of activist groups contesting the current political and representational Eurocentric hegemony. As history has often proved, discourses at the margins influence that of the institutions, and thus perhaps we can hope for the wishes voiced by Lawrence when he expressed his will on moving towards North-South political and cultural reconciliation.

References

Goldenbaum, L. (2020). What is the Humboldt Forum? An Introduction. In S. Muller-Wolff (Ed.), Humboldt Forum: Short Guide (pp. 7-11). Munchen: Penguin Random House.

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