Berlin’s delay-plagued Humboldt Forum opening pushed back again due to COVID-19

Fourth Time's a Charm?

Berlin’s delay-plagued Humboldt Forum opening pushed back again due to COVID-19

Humboldt Forum at the reconstructed Berlin Palace. (© SHF / Hi.Res.Cam/Courtesy Humboldt Forum)

After more than a decade of construction marred by controversies and hold-ups, it appeared that, as of October of this year, Berlin’s Humboldt Forum would finally open its doors to the public in stages starting on December 17. However, that plan has now been put on pause as the massive museum project described as the “largest cultural development in Europe and the most ambitious in Germany this century” will reportedly delay its opening once again due to an extension of the national coronavirus lockdown that will remain in place until at least December 22.

As reported by the Art Newspaper, this latest delay marks the third time that the opening of the 323,000-square-foot museum complex, located within the partially reconstructed Berlin Palace on Museum Island, has been postponed. The Humboldt Forum, viewed as a sort of German variation of the British Museum with that museum’s former director, Neil MacGregor, serving as its founding director, was originally set to open in late 2019 but pushed back due to technical issues relating to the HVAC system, and then delayed again in 2020 due to pandemic work stoppages.

Despite the latest delay, the museum, now fully finished and raring to go, has announced that the show will kind of go on with a December 16 live-streamed unveiling to enable the public to virtually view the museum’s interior and some exhibitions ahead of time.

“The extended measures are correct and necessary. And they present us all with special challenges,” said the museum’s general director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, in a press release. “Though a visit in-person will not be possible, we would nevertheless like to celebrate the completion of the Humboldt Forum. Unfortunately, we will begin with digital formats only, but these will be accessible to everyone and in several dimensions.”

The release does not specify a new opening date for in-person visits.

Owned and operated by the Stiftung Humboldt Forum (Humboldt Forum Foundation), brings together four institutional presenting partners working under one very large roof: Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), which is responsible for Berlin State Museums; Kulturprojekte Berlin (Cultural Projects Berlin); the Stadtmuseum Berlin (City Museum Berlin); and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Humboldt University).

Major exhibitions from these partners include the multi-floor Ethnological Museum and Asian Art Museum (Berlin State Museums), BERLIN GLOBAL (City Museum Berlin and Cultural Projects Berlin), and the interactive After Nature (Humboldt University), which explores “the complex interrelationships between environmental changes and social upheavals.”

In addition to the delays (and one construction-related explosion), the Humboldt Forum has long been steeped in controversy. A core point of dissension among academics and activists has been a perceived failing of provenance research to link the museum’s expansive ethnographic collections, which includes many non-European artifacts known to have been pilfered and looted, and Germany’s brutal colonial past. In 2017, art historian Bénédicte Savoy resigned from the Humboldt Forum’s advisory board over the issue. The setting of the museum itself, a reconstructed 15th-century palace symbolizing Prussian imperialism, has also proven to be contentious.

“This is a very important subject for the Humboldt Forum,” Dorgerloh told the Art Newspaper in 2018 in defense of the museum. “If we are going to present these objects, we must also tell the story of their provenance. We are working with the communities of origin, with international experts and with a critical public to consciously address this subject.”