After nearly two years of delays caused by construction and COVID, Berlin’s Humboldt Forum officially opens its doors to visitors today, July 20. Located on the site of the former Berlin Palace (and the East German Parliament after that), the museum incorporates three reconstructed, baroque facades from the palace and combines modern structures by architect Franco Stella, creating one cultural mega-complex that aspires to unite science, debate, the arts, and culture.
The Humboldt Forum—named after brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, German scholars of science and nature—is one of the largest, most ambitious, and not to mention, expensive, cultural projects to ever be built in Europe, costing a grand total of $825 million. Germany hopes the investment will pay off by putting the Humboldt on par with other global icons of culture, such as the British Museum and the Louvre. The institution’s programming features both timely and historical shows, along with discussions, screenings, and performances on its various movie screens and stages. Six exhibitions kick things off, including Terrible Beauty: Elephant—Human—Ivory, about the complexities of the ivory trade, and Have a Seat, a kid-focused exhibition about the cultural aspects of sitting. The museum will open in phases: Its vast collection of Asian art, a display that includes 20,000 objects from the city’s Ethnological Museum and Asian Art Museum, will not open until September 22.
The Humboldt Forum has been criticized for that large ethnological collection because many of its artifacts were looted from African and Asian countries during the height of European colonialism. The Luf Boat, a wooden sailboat from Papua New Guinea, has become a particular source of contention—it was stolen from the Bismarck Archipelago during Germany’s 19th-century rule over the islands. The museum’s prized Benin Bronzes (lifted from the Benin royal palace in 1897 by British forces) were also controversial. However, in March, Germany agreed to repatriate the statues to Nigeria beginning next year, and the Humboldt will display replicas of the artifacts in their place. There was also local debate about erecting the museum on the site of the former Palast der Republik (the East German Parliament that took over the city palace) and erasing a troubled, but important part of German history.
Although all eyes are on the museum today, this isn’t technically the first time the Humboldt Forum is being unveiled: The museum held a soft debut last December via livestream. At that time, only the terraces and courtyards were open to the public because COVID infection rates were still too high to let visitors into the interior spaces safely. But now guests can explore the entire museum—and they can do it for free. During the museum’s first 100 days, admission fees are waived. Advanced booking is required and tickets are available online.