The Berlin Humboldt Forum opens fully to the public this week with a very modern take on the display of cultural items from around the world and a debate on whether some of them should be returned to their homelands.
Dozens of Benin bronze sculptures are going on display for one last time in Berlin's new Humboldt Museum before being repatriated to Nigeria.
Taken during the colonial era from the African Kingdom of Benin, the move is part of the country's gradual reckoning with crimes committed by the former German empire including the genocide orchestrated by Germany in Namibia.
The east wing of the Humboldt Forum contains items from the city's Ethnological Museum and the Museum for Asian Art. It will display some 20,000 objects, among them dozens of Benin Bronzes as well as an exhibit explaining to visitors how most of them are soon to return to Nigeria.
While this exhibition has been described as the country's most important cultural project, Germany has faced criticism in recent years over the origin of many artefacts in its museums.
"These objects represented our ancestors, our fathers. So now that it is brought back to the kingdom, it is going to fill our vacuums that were left for thousand of years backwards" says Kate Aina Akhadelor from Benin’s National Museum.
The Humboldt Forum was opened to the public on Saturday following a ceremony.
The objects on display offer a glimpse into the world's cultures and have been chosen to place a new emphasis on the importance of art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas.
During the development of the exhibition, German curators worked closely together with teams from countries and regions where many of the objects originated.
"We have learned that restitution is much more than an administrative act, but a shared intercultural and at best a productive process of negotiation, and that is about personal references, about self-empowerment, about cultural identity and about dignity, says Hartmut Dorgerloh, General Director of the Humboldt Forum
“And we have learned to listen. You talk, we listen”, he adds.
In one of the galleries, 40 of the Benin Bronzes will be presented at the opening.
They include iconic cast bronze memorial heads, carved ivory tusks and rectangular relief plaques.
A second gallery is dedicated to illustrating the restitution process.
In video installations, German and Nigerian scholars, artists and representatives of museums and the royal family in Benin City explain from multiple perspectives the history and significance of the objects and give their views on the current restitution debate.
“It was important for us to develop the narratives of these objects in cooperation with colleagues from all over the world,” says Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, an authority that oversees many of Berlin’s museums including the Humboldt Forum.
“This house was created through dialogue and exchange,” Parzinger adds.
“Our commitment to openness and transparency, the recognition of colonial injustice with resulting restitution ... will continue to define our work in the future.”
The artefacts ended up spreading far and wide. Hundreds were sold to collections such as the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which has one of the world’s largest groups of historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin.
Many of them date from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
Berlin currently holds 530 items taken from the Kingdom of Benin but some sculptures will be kept on loan for research purposes.
Since the opening last year of the west wing of the Humboldt Forum — which is a partial replica of a Prussian palace that was demolished by East Germany’s communist government after World War II — more than 1.5 million people have visited.