A museum gift shop has never been such an ideological battleground. At one end of the store in Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum is a display of souvenirs adorned with the gilded silhouette of the Stadtschloss, the city’s former royal palace, which was bombed to pieces in the second world war. Racks of silk scarves and Christmas baubles hang above rows of candles in regal colours, emblazoned with an image of the stately Prussian pile.
At the other end of the shop is a rival range of merchandise, themed around the former East German parliament and leisure centre, the Palast der Republik, which was triumphantly built on top of the ruins of the palace in the 1970s. With its sharp white marble walls, bronze-mirrored windows and space-age chandeliers, it was designed to showcase the wonders of socialism. You can buy keyrings and enamel mugs in a retro Soviet style, as well as a model kit of the building in Formo, the East German version of Lego, for €250.
It makes for a ghoulish juxtaposition. The Palast der Republik was bulldozed in 2006 and in its place now stands a bizarre reconstruction of the baroque royal palace, built at a cost of €680m to house the new museum. Now, 19 years after that decision was made by the German parliament, it has never seemed so misguided.
Like an imposing Disneyland castle minus the fun, the Humboldt Forum stands in the middle of Berlin’s Museum Island, its beige walls and freshly carved stonework gleaming with the unreal quality of a high-definition digital model. Pieced together from photographic records, it is a simulacrum for the media age: a reconstructed image of a palace, made from images, to project an image of an idealised past. The sense of encountering a stage set is confirmed when you turn the corner and find the eastern facade has shed the period costume altogether. It greets the River Spree with a stripped-back concrete grid, giving chilling echoes of the more recent fascist past.
The colossal complex has an unusual origin story, being an institution manufactured to fill a building, rather than the other way around. Conceived as a place “to tell the universal story of the human race from multiple perspectives”, it brings together the city’s Ethnological Museum and Asian Art Museum, along with spaces for the Berlin City Museum and Humboldt University’s Lab. The hope is that it will give the collections from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Oceania an equal stage to the works of classical antiquity on show in the museums next door. But the symbolism of rebuilding an imperial palace, crowned with a golden crucifix, as a showcase for colonial booty now seems almost comically misjudged.
“What’s done is done,” says Hartmut Dorgerloh, director of the Forum since 2018. “I don’t think the same decision would be made to rebuild the palace today. But we cannot change the architecture. Now it is here, it serves as a useful catalyst for discussions about our programme and the provenance of the collections.”
The original idea to rebuild the Stadtschloss can largely be credited to Wilhelm von Boddien, a tractor tycoon from Hamburg. Over the last three decades he has presided over an astonishingly successful campaign. In the 90s he erected a gigantic tarpaulin on the site, painted with the facade of the palace, to spark a public debate, and he finally convinced the government to fund the project in 2002 – on the condition that he would attract private funds to pay for the reconstructed palace shell. His association has since attracted over €105m in donations, including a substantial sum from the widow of retail magnate Werner Otto to pay for the golden orb and cross, a fitting alliance for this strange mall of heritage.
Dorgerloh, who grew up in East Germany, might have reservations about the endeavour but he argues that, now it is here, the imperial architecture makes the colonial conversation impossible to ignore. This was the building, after all, where Kaiser Wilhelm II resided as his troops committed genocide in Namibia and brutally suppressed an uprising in Tanzania in the 1900s. Restored statues of Prussian princes line its echoing white halls, while an inscription beneath the dome exhorts all on Earth to kneel before Jesus.
The architectural catalyst may be beginning to have an effect. In April the German culture minister announced that the long-contested collection of Benin bronzes, looted by British soldiers and sailors in 1897 and flogged to museums across Europe and America, will be returned to Nigeria from next year. The gallery that was due to show them at the Humboldt Forum stands empty, its wall text and display stand awaiting a redesign. Will this be the trigger that forces the British Museum and others to follow suit?
“We are at a turning point in Europe in understanding and negotiating our colonial past,” says Dorgerloh. “We are perfectly placed to reach tourists who might never have considered these questions. If you are interested in where your T-shirt and your coffee comes from, perhaps you might be interested in where these objects come from and how they were obtained.”
The building is dotted with installations that allude to these themes, including a giant black-patinated bronze sculpture of a flag at half mast, by Kang Sunkoo. Titled Statue of Limitations (a play on the legal statutes that block restitution claims), it bursts through the ceiling of an escalator lobby, while its upper half is located in Berlin’s so-called African Quarter, where the streets still have disputed colonial names.
The main collections are yet to be installed and it remains to be seen how the objects are presented. One star item, a 16-metre sailing boat from Luf island in the South Pacific, has come under the spotlight after a recent book connected the vessel (which the authorities have always said was properly acquired) to a massacre of the island’s population. In response, the director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation says the boat will now be displayed as a “memorial of the horrors of the German colonial era”.
However well intentioned the curatorial programme, the Forum’s partners still have the oddities of the building to contend with. The Frankenstein complex is the work of Italian architect Franco Stella, a proponent of stripped-back neo-rationalism, who was selected in an anonymous competition in 2007. The brief mandated the reconstruction of three sides of the palace, along with the dome and cross, but the rest was up for grabs. Stella was a surprising choice. More used to designing villas, he has never built anything on this scale, and it shows.
Entering the southern portal, a baroque gateway incongruously glazed with a modern revolving door, you arrive in a stark white atrium. The triumphal arch stands suspended in a world of concrete grids, like a lab specimen in a clinical vitrine. A giant totem pole of LED screens rises towards the ceiling, cementing the impression of an airport concourse. The surreal clash of baroque reenactments and modernist grids continues throughout, like a weird mingling of two fancy dress parties. Courtyards feature stone archways clasped between generic office block facades, while inside, classical statues line corridors designed with the wipe-clean look of a shopping centre.
“The interior is not so convincing,” Dorgerloh admits. “But it’s very functional. It gives us fantastic opportunities to bring very different kinds of exhibition design and scenography into it.”
Free of charge until November, when the main museum galleries will open, are the Berlin Global exhibition and the Humboldt Lab. The former is a dizzying pinball ride between colonial struggles, club culture, fashion trends and genocide, while the latter is focused on climate change and biodiversity loss, featuring spotlit objects in glass cases dangling from the ceiling on mechanical arms.
The competing demands of an 18th-century palace and a modern museum mean there are plenty of awkward junctions. Some floors stop short of the walls to avoid crashing into the tall windows, resulting in odd double-height spaces. The windows, meanwhile, are single glazed to be faithful to the original, so they have been supplemented internally with bulky secondary glazing to meet today’s environmental standards. It’s a common solution in listed historic buildings, where the windows can’t be altered, but to plan it from scratch seems absurd.
The whole experience makes it easy to be nostalgic for the Palast der Republik. The Soviet building’s ghost is present in “flashbacks” around the museum, including an original sign and some of the globe chandeliers, which gave the Palast its nickname “Erich’s lamp shop”, after Communist party leader Erich Honecker. Displays show that while the building may have been a symbol of a repressive regime, it was also a public palace of leisure, with a cinema, bowling alley and skating rink, as well as a disco with a rotating dancefloor. With growing ostalgie for East German culture and design, and rising awareness of the embodied energy of demolition, the building could have been a prime candidate for careful restoration and reuse. Instead, its memory has been confined to keyrings and replica chandeliers – available in the gift shop for €3,500.
But there is a twist. In a surreal provocation, an activist group has started a campaign to demolish the new-old palace and rebuild the Palast der Republik, with a five-point plan that precisely mimics the 90s campaign. “We want to help ensure that the conflicting history remains present in the centre of Berlin,” they write, “and prevent a decades-long debate from supposedly ending with the completion of the palace construction site.” Fundraising is under way for the installation of a bronze model of the Soviet building outside the Humboldt Forum, so perhaps we can look forward to taking to the rotating dancefloor again in three decades’ time, and purchase wistful trinkets of the Forum in the gift shop.