Objects In Flux – From Humboldt Lab Dahlem Towards The Humboldt Forum.

What connects a busy, touristic area opposite the Museum Insel in central Berlin and a leafy, quiet and southwest suburb of Dahlem, are vast collections of objects and artefacts awaiting to take the journey between the two respective sites. These collections convey valuable insights into diversity of non- European cultures and belong to the Ethnological and Asian Art museums in Dahlem. As part of a long-term relocation plan the assembly of ethnographic, archaeological and historico-cultural objects will be reorganized and introduced anew at the Humboldt Forum museum inside the Berlin Palace, currently in construction and planned for completion by 2017. Taking the primal spot at the heart of German capital means obligations and responsibilities for delivering new presentations of art and culture from Africa, Asia, Oceania, Australia and the Americas. Humboldt Forum is planned as a unique centre for art, culture, science, and learning with the aim to propose a multitude of fresh perspectives on the cultures of the world.

The journey to the new museum has been long and intertwined with political, historical and cultural implications. Many years of public debate preceded the final decision to reconstruct the Berlin Palace on its former grounds. Once the center of Prussian court and symbol of Imperial power, the original Berlin Palace was torn down in 1952 by East German government, which in its place erected the Palast der Republic in 1976, also demolished since 2006. After the reconstitution of Germany many contested that the reconstruction of past power inevitably implied that German national identity be identified in extremely one-sided way, by excluding the history of East Germany.

The streets of Berlin are intertwined with architectural ghosts with Berlin Wall being the most powerful symbol of the city’s complex and unsettled history. Humboldt Forum symbolises the desire to reconcile this history by reflecting on its cultural values. The intention is to bring together the city’s rich collections in a revived Enlightenment model where different civilizational narratives could be presented, explored, much in the tradition of Humboldt brothers.

It brought an opportunity to reconsider what should a new model for the museum of cultures for the 21st century stand for. Long-term collaborations were initiated between the museum curators, exhibition planners and architects on mediating the art and ethnographic collections in line with the current requirements and interests of the public.

Multi-faceted questions emerged that required experimentation and layered the foundations for Humboldt Lab Dahlem (HLD), whose task was to accompany, enrich, and challenge the exhibition planning process for the Humboldt Forum. Initiated in 2012 by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes and Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz it was based in the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem where it operated until the end of 2015. At the core HLD’s approach was the desire to combine theory and practice; the project took shape through a series of seven rehearsal stas, using a range of approaches to explore what the contemporary presentations of ethnological collections and collections of non- European art might look like. As an experimental program dealing with exhibition issues it allowed museum curators to cooperate with artists, designers and researchers in order to establish contact with different communities in and beyond Berlin. The aim behind approaching collections from multiple perspectives was to expand the existing areas of knowledge, find new connections between them and present them in a new and unexpected ways. Many projects worked on experimental exhibition formats and interventions in order to change the existing patterns of thought and question the established knowledge.

The rehearsal stages programme responded to a number of complex and challenging questions that arose; How to place historical ethnological collections in a vibrant relationship with the present day? How to open collections to multiple readings? Is it possible to create a dialogue with the cultures of origin and to make them palpable? Asking questions was a recurring task of the project and it organized many lively and discursive events such as readings, symposia and performances in combination with more concrete propositions taking the form of temporary exhibitions. Many of the Lab results influenced the planning of future exhibitions at Humboldt Forum and will be re-articulated in the context of new displays for the visitors.

Enchantment / Beauty Parlour installation.
Photo: Jens Ziehe
One success story is the Enchantment/Beauty Parlour from the Rehersal Stage 6 – an experiment that focused on experiencing the non-European worlds through the immersion in scent, music, color, shine, haptics and movement. The freestanding installation narrates the feminine sphere of Swahili culture through reconstruction of a typical beauty parlour where the bride prepares for a wedding ceremony. Guided by a voice of a beautician the visitors were welcomed to enter the fully equipped beauty parlour and invited to immerse themselves in the ritual while losing the inherent distance from a regular museum display. By inviting visitors to become the subjects themselves, the aims was to encourage them to ultimately distance their Self in order to experience Self as the Other. Enchantment/Beauty Parlour has been accepted to be part of the exhibition displays at Humboldt Forum and will be presented in the context of representing the aesthetics of urban Muslim societies from the East African coasts.
Chinese Emperor Throne
Photo: Jens Ziehe
Zhao Zhao, Waterfall
Photo: Jens Ziehe
Game of Thrones is another collaborative, multi-disciplinary experiment from the Rehersal Stage 2 and explores the ideas around contextualization and presentation of historical objects in museum exhibitions. How can their architectural context be reconstructed while maintaining multiplicity of perspectives? Four contemporary artists were invited – Konstantin Grcic, Kirstine Roepstorff, Simon Sterling and Zhao Zhao to create a one-to-one scale model of the original 18th century Imperial throne from Qing dynasty, held by the museum. They all brought their own references and aesthetic into play, exploring different topics such as iconography, craftsmanship, as well as power and violence. Although due to museum regulations, the Humboldt Forum could not acquire all four reproductions, the positive experiences that the Games of Thrones received influenced the actual planning process. This led to accepting the suggestions for the new presentation of the Chinese imperial throne for which Wang Shu, one of China’s most important architects, was invited to create an overall exhibition design.

Humboldt Lab Dahlem concluded with the exhibition The Laboratory Concept which critically analysed and discussed results of the Lab’s four years and was a retrospective, perspective and synthesis all in one. In the final exhibition various elements of the past exhibitions, as well as documentations of talks and performances represented partly planned and partly evolved modules of individual approaches. If it is yet unknown how many of the ideas developed during the Lab will be implemented at the permanent displays at the Humboldt Forum but the tangible results of the Lab continue opening a new set of questions.

HLD is a significant initiative whose experiments were developed directly from the need to experiment with the exisiting presentational structures in the museums. Inviting external collaborators brought new ways of thinking and fresh perspectives that addressed the difficulties and complexities of exhibiting the ethnological. Each rehearsal stage draw on the critical evaluation from both experts and general public with the resulting knowledge summarized so that it can be reflected upon during the design process. This long-term accumulation of knowledge will soon be put to test when Humboldt Forum opens its doors and the expectation are high for the new museum to forge new forms of collaborations and decipher the globalised world in which we live.