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Ralph Appelbaum Associates designs new museums at Humboldt Forum

The Ethnological Museum and Asian Art Museum are now open to the public

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Ethnological Museum Humboldt

Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), a multidisciplinary firm specialising in the planning and design of museums, exhibits, educational environments and visitor attractions, is celebrating the opening of two new museums at Berlin’s Humboldt Forum.

The Ethnological Museum (Ethnologisches Museum) and Asian Art Museum (Museum für Asiatische Kunst) were opened in an official ceremony with speeches by the German President Walter Steinmeier, the Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters and Nigerian-American author and social activist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Humboldt Forum is a new cultural complex for Berlin, with its East wing opening in 2022 as part of a phased approach.

The exhibitions, designed by RAA, took over 10 years of development.

Humboldt Forum ethnological museum

Showing collections in a new way

These two new museums are among the largest of their kind, and once fully opened in summer 2022, will cover more than 17,000 square metres, or over half of the Humboldt Forum’s interior.

The Ethnological Museum and the Asian Art Museum were previously located on the outskirts of the city, but now take their place in the centre of the complex, alongside an Education Centre, exhibitions of the Humboldt University, a sculpture gallery, an archaeological museum of the original Berlin Palace cellars and an exhibition of Berlin history. There is also a shop, café, temporary exhibition spaces and two courtyards.

Together, they contain more than 24,000 artefacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Approximately 10,000 of these are now on show with the opening of the first public exhibitions last month.

Asian Art Museum Humboldt Forum

RAA designed the museums to be a dynamic platform for intercultural discourse around historic and contemporary events and ideas. They are intended to inspire debates and critical thinking around colonialism, racism, discrimination and power relations, showing the collections in a radical new way.

The exhibitions themselves are organised by continents and geographical regions, and within these, they are also thematically curated – there are 40 distinct exhibitions, each with its own curatorial concept. Themes include ritual, issues around religion, the images that indigenous societies present of themselves, the importance of craftsmanship, and the relationship of tradition to contemporary art.

Meanwhile, designed meeting points within the museum provide space where groups can meet and where programming like small performances and informal talks can take place. Special spaces within the exhibitions are also reserved for temporary interventions by contemporary artists and guest curators.

discussion space humboldt forum

Space to discuss and reflect

RAA’s aim for the two new museums was to set the stage for change, allowing for new exhibitions, interventions and programming to be added in the future, serving as a framework and futureproofing the development.

The firm set out to create iconic installations, visual highlights and eye-catching attractions, as well as bringing in deliberate breaks, resting points for reflection, places to further immerse in subject matter and a built-in flexibility that allows for spontaneity and reaction to current events.

In order to ensure a multiplicity of voices within the exhibitions, RAA also worked with external consultants and allowed space for community voices and contemporary artists. The company has a great deal of experience in dealing with decolonial practice and transcultural cooperation, and was partly selected to design these new museums as a result of its experience working with communities in their pursuit of self-representation.

For instance, RAA previously worked on The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and the First Nations Museum in Oklahoma.

Ethnological Museum Humboldt Forum

Exhibition highlights

Visitors can enjoy a number of highlights, such as a multimedia skyscape under the Berlin Palace’s iconic dome, composed of stellar observations from ancient Chinese scrolls, alongside works from the Turfan collection. There is also a reconstruction of the Buddhist cave grotto ‘Cave of the Sword Bearers’, seven-metre high collection showcases in the Asian Study Collections Gallery and gold-walled galleries dedicated to ancient sculptural representations of Buddha, as well as Taoist, Hindu and Jainist gods.

Also on display are the studio works of Mogul miniaturist painters, symmetrically framing a historic plan for the grand Taj Mahal. There is a special gallery for the exhibition of recordings from Berlin’s ethnomusicological archives and a modern Japanese tea room, designed by Tokyo based URA Architects, providing a setting for the performance and viewing of traditional tea ceremonies. An adjacent gallery of Chinese court art features an iconic timber palace roof structure by Pritzker Prize laureate Wang Shu.  

Guest can explore a gallery dedicated to Cameroon’s grasslands cultures, featuring the throne of Bamum which was given to Kaiser Wilhelm II by King Njoya, as well as an adjacent interactive Junior Museum that looks at topics of racism and colonial injustice.

There is also a gallery dedicated to the South Seas, with ten-room height showcases for the large-format tapa and bark paintings. Two double-height galleries feature the sailing and navigation skills as well as house types of Pacific Island communities.  

South Pacific display Humboldt Forum

A hub for dialogue

“This Forum is designed not only as a place for science, art and culture to meet,” says Frank Walter Steinmeier, President of the Federal Republic of Germany. “It is to be a hub for international dialogue, for critical and self-critical thinking and for engaging with the world and with one another in the world.

“Museums which do more than display artefacts, which also make a serious effort to address the history of colonialism, must look different to traditional museums. Ethnological collections are no longer shown merely for their own sake – they address the history of our relations with their places of origin. Not least, they examine the legacy of these relations in the here and now, and that goes far beyond the question of how a museum should be designed.

“It is a question of our perception of ourselves and our responsibility in light of history. If we take seriously the aspirations of those who gave this Forum its name, then it must not only celebrate the idea of enlightenment – it must itself provide enlightenment.”

Lars-Christian Koch, Director of the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst adds: “We’re back on the Island; nowhere else in the world can you tour the history of world cultures the way you can, here on Museumsinsel. The links to the present day in these collections play a prominent role for us.

“The design of the exhibition is spectacular; many of our objects haven’t been shown for a significant amount of time, some not at all. We are well aware of the responsibility we have with respect to how our collections were formed historically. We have to turn them into something productive. Education and outreach are a major objective. Our work with children, teenagers, and families will partly determine the success of our exhibitions.”  

New Ethnological Museum Humboldt Forum

Bringing new relevance

“We believe that the Humboldt Forum has become an international weathervane for intercultural dialogue, bringing new relevance to heritage assets for contemporary discourse including the complex subjects of provenance, cultural patrimony and responsibility.

“The courageous incorporation of diverse and even sometimes conflicting cultural perspectives, and the employment of multinational curatorial and artistic collaborations reflects the complexity of the world we live in and gives us a powerful mirror to society and its constituents.

“Our histories, even if they are often difficult, are essential to confront before we are able to understand ourselves and create shared visions for the future. We hope that we have created a space for this process to flourish and bring people together in the heart of Berlin,” says Tim Ventimiglia, RAA Project Director.

Last month, RAA announced that it has worked with Lavazza on the creation of its new flagship store in Soho, London.

All images credit: Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss / Foto: Alexander Schippel

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charlotte coates

Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is blooloop's editor. She is from Brighton, UK and previously worked as a librarian. She has a strong interest in arts, culture and information and graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in English Literature. Charlotte can usually be found either with her head in a book or planning her next travel adventure.

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