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New Approaches to Ethnological Collection at Berlin Museum

A Berlin museum opens its doors to the general public with a highly contemporary approach to the presentation of global cultural artifacts and the controversy surrounding demands for some of them to be returned to their original countries.

Items from the city’s Ethnological Museum and the Museum for Asian Art can be found in the Humboldt Forum’s east wing. About 20,000 items will be on show, including some Benin Bronzes that were stolen during colonial times and displayed alongside an exhibit outlining how most of them would soon be returned to Nigeria.

In 2021, the museum’s west wing, which is situated in the center of the German capital close to the neoclassical Museum Island complex, was completed. Additionally, it includes things from the two collections.

A fresh emphasis has been placed on the significance of art from Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas through the selection of the pieces on show, which provide a survey of the world’s cultures.
Teams from the nations and areas where many of the artefacts originated collaborated closely with German curators during the development of the exhibition.

It was important for us to develop the narratives of these objects in cooperation with colleagues from all over the world, said Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. This house was created through dialogue and exchange, Parzinger added. Our commitment to openness and transparency, the recognition of colonial injustice with resulting restitutions … will continue to define our work in the future.

A deal was made between Germany and Nigeria earlier this year over the return of 514 items from the renowned Benin Bronzes collection that were stolen by a British colonial expedition in 1897 from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now southern Nigeria.

The relics were spread widely in the end. Numerous museums, including the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which houses one of the largest collections of historical items from the Kingdom of Benin, purchased hundreds of them. Many of them were made between the 16th and 18th centuries.

A third of the collection will be on loan in Berlin for an initial period of 10 years while the first items will be returned to Nigeria later this year.

At the opening, 40 of the Benin Bronzes will be displayed in one of the galleries. Famous cast bronze memorial heads, ivory tusks, and rectangular relief plaques are among them.

The restitution process is depicted in a separate gallery. German and Nigerian academics, artists, museum representatives, and members of the royal family in Benin City describe the history and value of the artefacts from various angles through video installations. They also offer their opinions on the current restitution controversy.

An exhibition of textiles and pottery from Central Asia, a sixth-century Buddhist cave temple from Kizil, close to Kucha on the Northern Silk Road in China, and traditional structures and homes from various Oceanian regions, such as a meeting house from Palau from 1907 and a replica of an Abelam cult house from Papua New Guinea, will also be on display.

The art of the Americas is included in a number of galleries. A 16 square meter (172 square foot) painted cloth from what is now the Mexican state of Oaxaca with inscriptions by Mixtec, Nahuatl, and Choco painters, which documents social events spanning a period of more than 500 years, is among the highlights.

There will also be varying temporary exhibits in addition to the ongoing permanent exhibitions.

A collection of about 60 items assembled by Francis La Flesche, a native American ethnologist born in 1857 on the Omaha Reservation in the Midwest of the United States, was among those displayed during the museum’s opening. In the nineteenth century, La Flesche gathered the objects for the Ethnological Museum in an effort to preserve certain aspects of his culture. These objects included clothing, home decor, and ornaments.

A total of 500,000 pieces, previously on display in museums in the city’s Dahlem neighborhood, are included in the collections of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum for Asian Art.

The Humboldt Forum will display less than 3% of the total.

More than 1.5 million people have visited the west wing of the Humboldt Forum since its completion last year, which is a partial reproduction of a Prussian palace that was destroyed by East Germany’s communist regime after World War II.

At least through the end of this year, entrance to the museum will be free.

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