SPOTLIGHT: Museum Island and Humboldt-Forum

Hermann Parzinger

President, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation

Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Von-der-Heydt-Str. 16 – 18 10785 Berlin Germany

Berlin, Germany 

Special SPOTLIGHT Presentation


Museum Island and Humboldt-Forum:
A New Centre for Art and Culture in Berlin



The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is by far the largest cultural institution in Germany and one of the most important in the world. It emerged from the cultural institutions of the former State of Prussia, which was dissolved after the end of World War II. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation includes museums, libraries, archives and research institutes of national importance and international reputation.

One of the most prominent tasks of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is the development of the historical centre of Berlin. The heart of it is the UNESCO World Heritage site Museum Island (Fig. 1), which spreads out into the Spree Island like an acropolis of knowledge and art with five outstanding museum buildings. The development of the Museum Island began in the early 19th century, and it was finished in 1930. After the destruction of World War II and the restorations during the GDR, a new epoch for the Museum Island started after German Unification in 1990. The ‘Master Plan Museum Island’ began in the late 1990s. It involved the complete overhaul of all buildings, the first-time restoration of the New Museum and the addition of the James Simon Gallery as the new entrance building for the Museum Island.

Of special importance was the New Museum, which we re-opened in 2009 after its heavy destruction in 1944 by an air attack on Berlin. Prior to the restoration it had stood as a ruin on Museum Island for almost seventy years. The concept pursued by David Chipperfield included the preservation of all structures and interior design that had survived from the time of Stüler, as well as the addition of new architecture that blends in harmoniously with the historical structures while at the same time clearly contrasting with them. The result was a new masterpiece of architecture, which received among many other national and international prizes the EU Heritage Award/Europa Nostra Grand Prix in 2010.


Fig.3 Cooperation with representatives from indigenous communities in the Amazon Basin. © SPK / / Inga Kjer


The restoration of the Pergamon Museum, which began in 2013, is currently ongoing. It will receive a fourth wing, and on the main level of the Pergamon, visitors will get the opportunity to make a true round tour through the history of architecture of antiquity, starting with monumental architecture from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, continuing with Greek-Roman antiquities (Pergamon altar) and ending with Early Islam.

Master Plan Museum Island is still far from being completed. Another challenge, closely related to it, is the rebuilding of the Berlin Palace, the future home of the Humboldt Forum south of Museum Island, which was blasted by the communist regime in 1950/51.There has always been a close relationship between the Palace and the Museum Island, because all museum collections originally started in the Palace. The new institution of the Humboldt Forum is named after brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt for their cosmopolitan thinking and their conviction of the equivalence of all world cultures.

The project of reconstructing the Berlin Palace was and is to some degree controversial. A main argument in its favour was the idea of closing the gap in the historical urban planning of Berlin’s historic centre by rebuilding the Palace. The Humboldt Forum in this new Palace is divided into various spheres. The ground floor will be a large event centre including temporary exhibitions, multi-functional rooms and spaces for performances, theatre and cinema shows, panel discussions, debates and academic events for the public (Fig. 2). Around the Schlüter Courtyard the visitors will find museum shops, cafés and restaurants.

On the first floor the Humboldt University will have a gallery for science exhibitions of continuously changing topics, and the City Museum of Berlin is preparing a larger exhibition on the history of the relations between Berlin and the world. The second and third floors are reserved for the presentation of the non-European collections of the Berlin National Museums of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation from Africa, Asia, Oceania, Australia and the Americas. They will invite to a journey around the world, drawing on the immense collections of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art, both of which are among the most important of their kind worldwide. In that process, we attempt to present the collections in a completely new manner by cooperating with specialists from the countries of origin in order to develop new narratives and share the power of explanation and interpretation (Fig. 3). Issues of colonialism and of the history of the collections as well will be treated. These new methods of cooperation and co-production shall bring us to a new understanding of the world and the entanglement of world cultures. Therefore it is so important to include the perspectives of others when presenting the collections of their past.



Fig.1 Aerial view of the Museum Island Berlin after the completion of its renovation and restoration. © SPK / Art+Com; Schloss: eldaco 2015


It will be particularly important to intersperse and enliven the exhibition floors at the Humboldt Forum with zones that will allow for educational elements as well as various activities originating from the respective cultural regions. During the planning process of the Humboldt Forum, there are already considerations about how to deal with the phenomena of contemporaneity. This includes the dialogue with works from contemporaneous artists, too.

The Humboldt Forum is intended to be more than a museum, a place of manifold encounters with the arts and cultures of the world. There will be a focus on special programmes for children and adolescents, with the goal of introducing them to other cultures of the world. Particularly in a city like Berlin, which is becoming increasingly multicultural, multireligious and multiethnic, it is of crucial importance to give people from other cultural spheres a cultural home and to share things from their regions of origin with them. That way, they will hopefully establish ties with the Humboldt Forum as a site of their cultures and histories.

When the Humboldt Forum progressively opens its gates in 2019 and 2020, a big vision of the 21st century will become reality – a vision that goes back to preliminary considerations more than 150 years before. As a site of the art and culture of Europe and their roots in the Near East, the Museum Island was already the big vision of the 19th century. The Humboldt Forum, featuring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia, Australia, Oceania and the Americas and connecting them with Europe, is our vision in the early 21st century. Jointly, Museum Island and Humboldt Forum will be an outstanding place for the cultures of the world. Both, Museum Island and Humboldt Forum will create a new cultural nucleus in the historic centre of Berlin, providing the visitors with knowledge about the world, because we are convinced that only knowledge and education are the strongest weapons against nationalism and racism and paving the way for tolerance, respect and a peaceful future of our society. This is perhaps the most important agenda of the Humboldt Forum.





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