“Only connect and both shall be exalted” is the essence of the Humboldt Forum. When E.M.Forster famously used these words he was linking prose with passion. But they could also be applied to Berlin’s new museum project whose aim is to connect humans with each other’s cultures and with the natural world around them. Making such connections was the life work of the von Humboldt brothers, after whom the Humboldt Forum is named. Wilhelm (1767-1835), a diplomat, studied over 70 languages and was fascinated by how each one expresses a different way of seeing the world. He helped establish Berlin’s first museums and its university. Alexander (1769-1859) loved to travel. He studied volcanoes, collected plants and was one of the first people to describe the world as an ecosystem in which everything is interconnected. He also observed how humans affect climate.
The fundamental principles of the Humboldt Forum rest on the enlightened thinking of these two extraordinary brothers who argued against colonial economic interests, slavery and exploitation, and were advocates of justice, cultural diversity and environmental responsibility. These themes form the basis of the institution’s work and were very evident in two exhibitions I visited there at the end of October. I mentioned them both in my last blog. The first was a temporary exhibition, “Terrible Beauty”, which focused on the ivory trade. Some of the exhibits, many quite exquisite, showed how humans have been fascinated by ivory, going back as far as 40,000 years ago when mammoth tusks were collected to create art and musical instruments.
But ivory is also inextricably linked with the exploitation of both people and nature, the threat of elephant extinction, poaching and organised crime and this was clearly explained and illustrated as well. “Terrible Beauty” only runs until 23rd January so if you can’t make it, follow this link for more photographs and further information: https://www.humboldtforum.org/en/presse/dossiers/terrible-beauty-elephant-human-ivory/
“Berlin Global” is a much larger permanent exhibition developed together with the Stadtmuseum Berlin Foundation. It is described as “a unique multimedia and interactive experience focusing on interconnections between the Berlin and the world”. There are seven main themes associated with the history of Berlin: Open space, Borders, Pleasure, Fashion, War, Interweaving and Revolution and they all show how historical events in Berlin still shape the world today. The walls in the entrance area were designed by How and Nosm, an urban graffiti artist duo based in New York. They painted, sprayed, and modelled the four walls to highlight colonial divisions of the world, studies of connections between humans and nature, and controversial appropriations of objects from other cultures. Collage-like scenes contain symbols that show the world as something shared: clasped hands, broken chains, and doves of peace. But in seeking to dominate the world, western powers have created divisions and hierarchies that continue to cause problems across the globe. What we need now is 360 degree thinking.
Many global problems could be solved if everyone takes responsibility as a world citizen. The exhibition invites each visitor to create or join networks to make a difference. I was given a wristband and as I went through each exhibition area, there were interactive stations where I could use the wristband to register my opinion on a whole range of issues. The basic questions can be summed up as: How do we want to live together in the world? How does this world influence us? How do we want to shape it? At each transition to a new area, I had the choice between two doors, each of which stands for a different answer to overriding questions. The answer chosen when passing through each door is registered and evaluated. At the end of the tour, I received a printout of what concerns me most – “Equality” – and could log in to look at a summary of my choices. There is also the opportunity to meet people for an exchange of opinions.
I really enjoyed this exhibition, and not just because it is interactive. It totally captures the unconventional nature of Berlin and how it has changed and re-invented itself so many times. Although the exhibition is arranged systematically according to themes, it approaches them from unusual angles, making the visitor view the information critically and in new ways. For example, it re-examines the peaceful revolution of 1989. When the Wall fell, it came as a surprise. Reunification did not always go smoothly. As well as national euphoria there were also racist attacks and today there are still traces of division in Germany.
The section on “Pleasure” was particularly engaging. Berlin has always thrived on communicating with the world. Music and dance, theatre and cinema draw on a wide variety of influences and inspire a cosmopolitan outlook and bring people together. From tango to techno from swing to hip hop Berlin dance floors play music from all over the world. Dances from South and North America like the tango and the cakewalk were popular in Berlin before the First World War and jazz came to Europe between the wars and brought the Charleston and the foxtrot. After the war USA influence brought the jive and hip-hop. Berlin has also produced music cultures that spread across the world, especially the techno and rave scene started in the 1990s. But entertainment can also draw boundaries and separate people from each other, create different scenes and subcultures. Exclusion happens when stereotypes replace openness and curiosity about new cultures. Or when political regimes decide what kind of entertainment is desirable – as the Nazis did.
A popular source of news and entertainment at turn of 20th century was the Kaiserpanorama, invented by Berlin businessman August Fuhrmann. This big wooden drum, which stood in many European cities at the time, could hold up to 50 coloured stereoscopic images. New series were shown each week for a small fee. I often used to visit the Kaiserpanorama in the Märkisches Museum (now the Stadtmuseum) and loved to sit and watch historic pictures go by in 3D. There is a haunting immediacy about them that brings the people in them back to life. The pictures in the Kaiserpanorama at the Berlin Global exhibition were fascinating. Apart from pretty snow scenes there were also arresting images of an Imperial visit to Africa, showing German colonies from the perspective of the white rulers, and fostering a sense of superiority over the rest of the world. In the photo below you can see the wooden Kaiserpanorama on the right in the background. Centre stage is one of Berlin Global’s prize exhibits – the original steel door of the legendary Tresor Club from Leipziger Straße – a perfect symbol for the fact that even places of entertainment have their own borders.
Emigration and immigration are two central topics at the Berlin Global exhibition. When the Nazis came to power, many artists – Jews, communists, liberals and others – were sacked as “undesirable elements”. Banned from working and persecuted, thousands were forced into exile and most of them faced immigration rules and restrictive labour laws which made it difficult for them to settle into their new countries. Many had to find alternative work, but others manage to use their professional experience to win influence in film production in Hollywood. Over 60,000 Jewish Berliners were unable to escape Nazi persecution and were transported to concentration camps. There are currently 8,567 Stolpersteine (brass cobblestones) embedded in Berlin pavements outside the homes of people who were murdered by the Nazis.
Today, half Berlin’s residents come from somewhere else, either other parts of Germany or other corners of the globe. Some of them came to Berlin out of choice, but many never wanted to leave their homes. Feeling connected to Berlin and elsewhere can be enriching, but it can be painful too and Berlin reflects this reality of a globalised world.
The final section of the exhibition focuses on clothing and fashion. Berlin is known for its diverse lifestyles and as in other large cities, people dress in very different ways. But clothing is more than individual expression, it also a product of the fashion industry; big profits ad low prices come at the expense of the people who sew the clothing – once this was done in Berlin, but now in Bangladesh, Ethiopa, Romania. Clothing can be political too as the photo display of imperial military uniforms alongside the factory workers’ clothing in the GDR cleverly demonstrates.
Berlin Global’s message is that the German capital belongs to dense networks that span the globe. Its history has left its mark on other countries and cultures and in turn been shaped by world events. People who inhabit or visit Berlin may be interwoven with the world in diverse ways, but everyone can learn from its past and make conscious decisions on how to act best for the future of the planet.
You can take a virtual tour of all the rooms in the Berlin Global exhibition at https://berlin-global-ausstellung.de/en/ and read an in-depth interview with the director of the Humboldt Forum at https://www.frieze.com/article/humboldt-forum-controversial-new-museum-project-opens-berlin#
This photo shows a display which caught my eye and cleverly juxtaposes Berlin’s past with its present, perfectly conveying the idea that we should “only connect”. The glass display case in the foreground contains a scaled-down model of the famous Schadow sculpture (1795) of the Prussian royal princess Luise and her sister Friederike. On the wall behind it is a painting (1984) by Matthias Koeppel of Annette and Inga Humpe, two sisters who influenced Berlin in the1980s. They adopt the same pose as the two princesses in the Schadow sculpture and in the background is Queen Luise’s mausoleum. The portrait’s title is “Requiem for Luise.”