Humboldt Forum: a network for the world?

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Aerial view of Museum Island with the Humboldt Forum to rear

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Section through Humboldt Forum

On 1 March, the Centre for Cultural Relations hosted a conference with the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the National Museums Scotland, on the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. The Humboldt Forum is Europe’s (if not the world’s) largest and most important museum project. It aims to have a global impact as well as transforming the cultural centre of Berlin. The Gründungsintendant (founding Artistic Director) is Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum and alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, who is leading the project as one of a troika with Professor Hermann Parzinger and Professor Horst Bredekamp.

The conference was introduced by Professor Chris Breward, Principal of Edinburgh College of Art, and by Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Professor Breward’s blog about the event can be found here. It was a great pleasure for us to welcome Dr Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation as the keynote speaker.

The Humboldt Forum is now being constructed in the reconstructed Berliner Schloss (Berlin Palace). It is dedicated to the idea of establishing a dialogue of the world’s cultures. It will do so by bringing museum collections of Ancient, European and other cultures together in the one building, and by providing a platform for examining social developments worldwide and contributing to conveying an up-to-date understanding of our globalised world.

The project had its controversies and was the subject of media comment and intense debate both within Berlin and beyond as can be seen for instance in the columns of the Frankfurter Allgemeine.

These controversies are of course, particularly sharp in the current climate where the migrant crisis is challenging the German post-war political consensus and Germany’s view of itself as a country with a cosmopolitan world view, welcoming to other cultures. The Forum has been hailed as a “Network for the World” particularly as it partners with the Goethe Institut and its 160 institutes in 100 countries to co-produce programmes with the Humboldt Forum around the world. This partnership places the Humboldt Forum squarely at the heart of Germany’s international cultural relations strategy.

Then there is the question of the project’s relationship to the City of Berlin. Professor Parzinger was clear that the key measure of success for the project would be the levels of participation of the citizens of Berlin. The original design of the Berliner Schloss has been opened up to encourage access, internal streets, and to be a venue for events. The City of Berlin will be included in the Forum, in an initiative led by the new Director of the City’s Museums, Paul Spies.  It will be important that the Humboldt Forum is not just for tourists, but is owned by the City’s people in a way that, for example, the Kulturforum, near to Potsdamer Platz, is not.

This all led to a series of very lively discussions with Scottish institutions many of whom were involved in similar developments, whether it was the V&A in Dundee, or the Kelvinhall project in Glasgow. There was a keen recognition that there was much to learn from the German approach which enjoyed cross-party support from politicians, was adequately financed, and saw a cultural project as an integral part of its long-standing policy of international cultural relations as a pillar of foreign policy.

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