The Humboldt Forum: Lessons for Scotland and the world

Architectural model of the new building for the Humboldt Forum.

Architectural model of the new building for the Humboldt Forum.
Image: Wikimedia Commons (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)

Sometimes one is presented, unexpectedly, with visions of such ambition and worth that they leave you reeling. It seemed fitting on the first day of spring that we should be presented with one such vision by Professor Dr Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation at a workshop co-hosted by the Centre for Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh, the National Museums of Scotland and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

A clear, blustery morning on George Street is as good a time and place as any to hear about the transformative impact of the Humboldt Forum on Berlin’s status as another centre of enlightenment thinking. The Forum, now famously under the directorship of Sir Neil MacGregor, is a truly generational endeavour to transform the Museum Island in Berlin, the University and other civic institutions into a complex whose porous walls and unparalleled collections will aid a deeper understanding of the world’s cultures at a historical moment when the very concept of modern civilization is in danger of atrophy from the pressures of globalisation, new technologies, ecological trauma and financial and political crisis.

The grandeur of the Forum’s conception, its evolving ethos that values process over pre-formed assumptions, and the German state’s support for its completion come what may were, to use an over-used word, inspiring.

Delegates at the workshop came from Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh and parallels were quickly drawn between developments around Kelvinhall, V&A Dundee and the national cultural institutions in Edinburgh. Whilst scale and differing urban contexts offer different challenges (giving rise to not a little ‘Berlin envy’ around the room), the underlying commitment to the transformative effects and intrinsic worth of collections, museums and their related practices (including those of Edinburgh College of Art and the wider University) was widely shared and debated.

“All Free Men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin,” said John F Kennedy at another moment of crisis in 1963. It is perhaps no exaggeration to suggest that his words find some form of continued resonance in the plans for the Humboldt Forum.

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