ESSAY: RACISM’S COLONIAL PERPETUATION
The fundamental problems behind the Humboldtforum in Berlin
Saint Paul, Minnesota. June 10th, 2020. A sculpture of Christopher Columbus outside the State Capitol is torn down by a group of protesters. Similar Columbus statues receive this treatment in Minneapolis, and in Richmond.
The demolition of the conqueror's monument follows a series of interventions into public monuments that glorify figures related to colonial oppression. The actions are framed within the anti-racist protests responding to the violent murder of African-American George Floyd by U.S. police, filmed in a video where a white officer named Derek Chauvin was filmed pressing his knee on George Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds before he died. For the protesters, a critical review of colonial history is essential to achieve social justice in the present. Further rebellion actions have occurred all around the USA, UK and Belgium with sculptures of other colonialist figures including Edwan Colston, Frank Rizzo, Jefferson Davis, Christopher Columbus, Robert Milligan being torn down.
Berlin, May 29 2020. A golden drum topped by a 17-ton cross is erected as the crowning piece of a new building imitating the Royal Palace of the Emperors of Prussia in the centre of the city. At the base of the drum, an inscription in gold letters includes the following biblical quotation: "(...) for there is no other name under heaven given to men, than the name of Jesus, to the glory of God the Father, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow (...)"
The new building, an architectural replica of the original royal palace, which was destroyed in World War II, will host an exhibition including a selection of some of the over 200,000 objects acquired during colonial times that compose the collection of the Ethnological Museum of Dahlem. Legitimate provenance of the majority of such objects has not been proved, while many groups and organizations claim for their restitution. (1) The restaging of the exhibition of such collections of Non-European (and, therefore, in the vast majority, not Christian) cultures under the golden cross and quotation betrays the museum’s statement towards the perpetuation of eurocentric white supremacy: The legibility of Humboldtforum as a colonialist symbol gets reinforced by remembering that the palace hosted Wilhelm I. Hohenzollern, Prussian emperor whose government organized the Congo Conference, where in 1884 European powers formalized the division of the African continent into colonies. As a result, such territory remains today among the poorest regions in the globe, with among the most corrupt governments in the world. (2) A single example of the many consequences of Congo Conference: between 1904 and 1908 the German Empire assasinated over 120,000 Herero and Namaqua people in present day Namibia, the first genocide of the last century.
To understand the temporal proximity of such a date, let's take the figure of Georg Friedrich, current Prince of Prussia. Since the beginning, he had supported a faithful reconstruction of the palace, becoming a key figure on the fundraising campaign to rebuild its €100,000,000 baroque façade. (3) Although he is only 44, only 4 generations separate him to William I, initiator of the Congo Conference. For aristocrat Wilhelm von Boddien, aged 74, managing director of the association for the reconstruction of the Royal Palace, the generation gap is reduced to three. His grandfather could have been one of the three members of German nobility who participated in the Congo Conference.
Back to 2020, we realize how colonial history is echoing today, reverberating through its symbols in public space. While bottom-up demonstrations try to rethink our common memories of colonialist figures, the reinstallation of such symbols in public space encourage discrimination and racism against the people who still suffer the struggles of such recent history. Separated by 7118 km and 10 days, the destruction and reconstruction of colonial monuments mark the pulse of opposing cultural actions that deal with our pasts: while Berlin is building up an expensive replica of a colonialist symbol, black communities gather together around the world to tear down colonial monuments.
While the Humboldtforum uses golden letters to encourage us to bend our knees at the name of God, racialized bodies follow the example of American civil rights activist and football quarterback Colin Kaepernick (4) and kneel as a form of protest against systemic violence perpetrated towards their communities.
In the aftermath of the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, many organizations call for structural changes in every sector of society, including museums. In Berlin, where over 20% of the population was born outside Germany (5), many organizations and collectives have raised their voice against Humboldt Forum as a cultural project that promotes – instead of disabling – white supremacy. Since 2013, the African community fought against the reconstruction of the palace under the slogan “nohumboldt21”. They claim that Humboldt Forum is violating the dignity and property rights of communities in all parts of the world with its Eurocentric restoration. In an open brief addressed to the museum, they called out the institution acting in direct contradiction to the aim of promoting equality in a migration society. (6)
Most recently joining the conversation has been the latinx community in Berlin, who organize themselves around the motto: Devuelve, pe! (Give it back!). The platform originated from a group of artists enrolled in the Institute of Art in Context of UdK Berlin. They were entangled in a cooperation project with the Ethnological Museum related to Humboldtforum through which they confronted the lack of critical positioning of both institutions. Since then, they have opened up a parallel platform to address such issues and join forces with other latinx organizations in Berlin such as Bloque Latinoamericano or Sikuris Berlin.
While Germany had no official colonies in Latin America, their influence and oppression in these areas goes back to the scientific expeditions of Alexander von Humboldt, after whom the institution was named. Humboldt, as many other explorers and traders, plundered uncountable territories and sacred sites, donating or reselling artefacts afterwards to different German museums. In Berlin, the ethnological museum counts with over 56,000 objects coming only from the territory of present day Peru. Since 2019 the attention of Devuelve, pe!, has focused on problematizing the presence of indigenous human remains within the future exhibition. A mummy (mallki) plundered 150 year ago in Chuquitanta (Lima, Perú) is going to be exhibited in the Modul21 of the Museum, without permission from its community and without a clarification of its legal provenance.
On July 11th they will hold a panel discussion where they will address the restitution of the Mallki. They will invite to the conversation different voices from Germany, Perú, Mexico, Colombia , and Bolivia, who will share their experiences on the topic. It is in the fight for the recognition of the ongoing legacy of colonial violence, a history whose traces are being reconstructed now in the heart of Berlin, that this group hosts the event.