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The Humboldt Forum – a Palace for all Peoples

The beautiful Schlüterhof

The Berlin Palace (Stadtschloss) is back in Berlin, a least in part. The opening ceremony took place on 20th July 2021 and the golden cross on its enormous dome shines across Unter den Linden once more. It is now possible to get an idea of what the city centre of the German capital looked like before the end of the war and the GDR era.

The Dome, seen from the roof terrace

Without reunification, the palace would never have been rebuilt. It was badly damaged in the bombing raids of February 1945 and five years later the GDR government decided to blow up the remains that had been left standing. Originally the magnificent royal seat of the Hohenzollerns, the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace should perhaps be a celebration for everyone. But instead, opinions are very divided, and the project has been showered with scorn and derision right from its inception in 2006.

Remains of the Stadtschloss in 1945
The rebuilt palace façade facing Unter den Linden

Admittedly, there are many oddities. To start with, the palace is no longer called a palace. It is now the Humboldt Forum, named after Berlin’s two illustrious brothers Wilhelm (1767-1835) and Alexander (1769-1859) Humboldt, both true citizens of the world. Also, the interior of the building is ultra-modern and bears no resemblance to a palace, although the floorplan has been designed to allow for the future reconstruction of notable historical rooms. The exterior of the palace, however, has been reconstructed in its original style with the notable exception of the east side facing the River Spree. The authentically reconstructed facades include various remnant sculptures and stones from the original palace, and they look fabulous. By comparison the modern façade appears unnervingly stark.

Modern façade facing the Spree

The inner courtyard facades are all modern, except for the Schlüterhof, a courtyard named after baroque sculptor and architect, Andreas Schlüter. Here, three of the facades have been constructed in the original style. This is a beautiful space which has already been used over the summer months for various concerts and events.

The beautiful Schlüterhof

Another matter of great controversy is the Museum of Ethnology containing many exhibits (mainly from the collections formerly at Berlin-Dahlem) that have been trapped in a debate about looted art and colonialism. The Trustees of the Prussian Heritage Foundation have already agreed to start negotiations on returning the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.

The Benin Bronzes

Even the Unification Monument (Einheitsdenkmal) which will stand in front of the palace where the national monument in the form of an equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm used to be, has not escaped criticism. The design has been mocked as a giant see saw or banana skin and many people believe that the rightful place for a more fitting memorial monument is in front of the Reichstag building where reunification was declared in 1990.

Design for the National Unification Monument (photo: Wikipedia)

Finally, although the Humboldt Forum has now been officially opened, a debate is still raging about whether the Berlin Palace should have been reconstructed at all. After it was demolished in 1950, the GDR used the empty area as a parade ground and then in 1973 eventually set about constructing its own ‘people’s palace’ – der Palast der Republik. This huge modernist building housed the Volkskammer, the parliament of the GDR from 1976 to 1990. It also served various cultural purposes and included art galleries, a theatre, a cinema, 13 restaurants, five beer halls, a bowling alley, pool and billiard rooms, a rooftop skating rink, a gym, a swimming pool, hair salons, a discotheque, a post office and a police station. I never went inside the building, but my abiding memory of the Palast der Republik from the 1980s is the magical way that the Berlin Cathedral was reflected in its copper glass windows.

Der Palast der Republik in the 1980s (photo Wikimedia)

When Germany was reunified in 1990, the Palast der Republik became vacant and was subsequently closed after over 5,000 tons of asbestos were found in the building. In 2003, the German government voted to demolish the Palast der Republik and replace it with a reconstruction of the Stadtschloss. The Palast was removed between 2006 and 2008, and work on the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss began in 2013. During these years of reconstruction, I returned to the site again and again to watch its progress which could be observed from the Humboldt box, a temporary information centre with a viewing gallery on its roof.

View from the Humboldt Forum roof terrace in 2021

Some detractors of the rebuilding of the Stadtschloss believe that the Palast der Republik should have been retained because it is part of Germany’s history, even if it represented an undemocratic regime. In their view, the Palast der Republik was an improvement on the Prussian Imperialism represented by the Stadtschloss. Personally, I believe that much of the controversy surrounding the Humboldt Forum is not just about the reconstruction of a royal palace, but a reflection of the times we live in when we are seeking buildings to fill a spiritual void. The discussions surrounding the actual exhibits and whether they should be returned to the countries they originally came from is another debate entirely.

Original Stadtschloss angels in the Sculpture Gallery

So it was with much anticipation that I made my first visit to the Humboldt Forum at the end of October. I arrived by bus 100 which runs the length of Unter den Linden and was thrilled to see the finished palace exterior gleaming in the autumn sunshine. I started by walking through the Schlüterhof and was enchanted – although I didn’t like its one modern facade any more than the plain modern exterior facing the River Spree. Having walked around the outside of the palace, I ventured inside the main building to discover the collections currently open to the public. The atrium of the Humboldt Forum has a rather monumental and harsh feel to it, but I guess this will be softened once more of the rooms on upper floors are opened.  

Ticket desk in the atrium of the Humboldt Forum
One of the changing images in the ceiling installation in the Asian Art Museum

Entry to all exhibitions has been free of charge for the first 100 days since the building’s opening, but after 13th November there will be an entrance fee for selected exhibitions. You can book timed entry slots by visiting the Humboldt forum website at which also features the collections online. For my two visits last week, I had booked tickets for the Museum of Ethnology and the Museum of Asian Art, the Berlin Global exhibition and a temporary exhibition entitled “Terrible Beauty” about the ivory trade. They were all outstanding and I will be describing them in more detail in my next blog.

I also picked up a free ticket for the palace cellar which contains surviving sections of a medieval Dominican monastery as well as the foundations of the Berlin Palace excavated in 2008. The Sculpture Gallery is well worth a visit too. Here you can see original sculptures rescued from the palace ruins in 1945 and watch a fascinating video of the intricate work undertaken by stonemasons and sculptors in the reconstruction of the palace.

Original Berlin Palace statues

At the weekend there was a long wait for the lifts to the roof terrace, so I returned on Monday morning and there was not only a clear blue sky, but no queues at all. In future, timed entry tickets will be required for the roof terrace. There are several restaurants and cafés in the Humboldt Forum (one on the roof terrace) and museum shops with some interesting souvenirs. When I stopped for a coffee to watch the world go by, I sensed a happy vibe about the place. The Humboldt Forum is so easily accessible too – the main entrance is only a stone’s throw from the new Museumsinsel underground station.

Inside the exhibition on the ivory trade
A tempting coffee bar in the museum shop

The Humboldt Forum is a work in progress. I have only scratched the surface of this huge enterprise and am eager to see how it develops over the coming years. Many of its exhibition halls and meeting rooms are still empty and the area surrounding it, with its current lack of trees and vegetation, is rather bleak. But it has great potential for the future and the reconstructed palace building is strong and beautiful enough to be filled with wonderful exhibits and great ideas. Since the focus of the Humboldt Forum is global and the courtyards are open to the public day and night, I hope that it can literally become a palace for all peoples.


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