Berlin’s New Museum Displays Looted Colonial Artifacts in a ‘Modern’ Way

A Berlin museum opens fully to the public this week with a very modern vision of the exhibition of cultural objects from all over the world and the debate on the requests for the return of some of them to their country of origin.

The east wing of the Humboldt Forum contains objects from the city’s Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art. It will feature some 20,000 objects, including dozens of bronzes from Benin that were stolen from Africa during colonial times – as well as an exhibition telling visitors how most of them are about to return to Nigeria .

The east wing opened Thursday with a preview for journalists and will be open to the public from Saturday. The museum’s west wing – located in the heart of the German capital, next to the neoclassical Museum Island complex – opened in 2021. It also contains items from both collections.

The exhibits offer an overview of the cultures of the world and have been chosen to give a new dimension to the art of Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas.

During the development of the exhibition, German curators worked closely with teams from countries and regions where many of the objects originated.

“It was important for us to develop the stories of these objects in cooperation with colleagues from all over the world,” said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, an authority that oversees many Berlin museums, including the Forum. Humboldt.

“This house was created through dialogue and exchange,” Mr. Parzinger added. “Our commitment to openness and transparency, recognition of colonial injustice with resulting restitutions…will continue to define our work going forward.”

Earlier this year, Germany and Nigeria signed an agreement on the return of 514 items from the famous Benin Bronzes collection that were looted from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now southern Nigeria. by a British colonial expedition in 1897.

The artifacts eventually spread far and wide. Hundreds have been sold to collections such as the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, which has one of the world’s largest collections of historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin. Many of them date from the 16th to 18th centuries.

While the first pieces will be returned to Nigeria later this year, around a third of the collection will remain on loan in Berlin for an initial period of 10 years.

In one of the galleries, 40 Benin Bronzes will be presented at the opening. They include iconic cast bronze commemorative heads, carved ivory tusks and raised rectangular plaques.

A second gallery is dedicated to illustrating the restitution process. In video installations, scholars, artists and representatives of German and Nigerian museums, as well as the royal family of Benin City explain the history and meaning of the objects from several angles and give their point of view on the current debate on restitution.

Other artefacts on display include a 6th-century Buddhist cave temple from Kizil, located near Kucha on China’s Northern Silk Road, an exhibition of textiles and pottery from Central Asia, as well as buildings and traditional houses from different regions of Oceania. as the Palau meeting house from 1907, as well as a replica of an Abelam house of worship from Papua New Guinea.

Several galleries are devoted to art from the Americas. Highlights include large stone reliefs of the Aztecs and a 16-square-meter (172-square-foot) painted cloth with inscriptions by Mixtec, Nahuatl and Choco artists from the present-day Mexican state of Oaxaca, which records the events social. events spanning a period of more than 500 years.

In addition to the permanent exhibitions, there will be changing temporary exhibitions.

Among those presented at the opening of the museum is a collection of some sixty objects which was compiled by Francis La Flesche, an Amerindian ethnologist born in 1857 on the Omaha reservation in the Midwest of the United States. Mr. La Flesche collected the items, such as clothing, decoration and ornaments on behalf of the Ethnological Museum in the 19th century in the hope of thus preserving parts of his culture.

In total, the collections of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Arts include about 500,000 objects, which were previously displayed in museums in the Dahlem district of the city. Less than 3% will be exhibited at the Humboldt Forum.

Since the opening last year of the west wing of the Humboldt Forum – which is a partial replica of a Prussian palace that was demolished by the communist government of East Germany after World War II – more than 1.5 million people visited it.

Admission to the museum will be free at least until the end of this year.

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

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