How It All Got to Berlin: German Museum Collections in the Age of Empire

AHA Session 189
Central European History Society 9
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Clinton Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Celia S. Applegate, Vanderbilt University
Alice Goff, University of Chicago
Rebekka Habermas, Georg-August Universität Göttingen
Suzanne Lynn Marchand, Louisiana State University
H. Glenn Penny, University of Iowa

Session Abstract

The inspiration for this panel comes from the anticipated opening of a grand new museum and cultural complex (called the Humboldt Forum) in Central Berlin in 2019-20 by putting the collections of the city’s ‘museum island’ in historical context. As it is currently planned, the museum will house nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnographic collections in the completely reconstructed eighteenth-century Hohenzollern palace, whose rebuilding was enabled by the destruction of the socialist modernist East German parliament building. This move brings Germany’s colonial empire to the center of Berlin, and has been enormously controversial; curators, scholars, and political leaders have debated how cultural property acquired through imperial networks of expropriation should be displayed in the Humboldt Forum if at all. In early 2019 the controversy intensified in light of a governmental report by art historian and former Humboldt Forum advisory board member Bénédicte Savoy and economist Felwine Sarr recommending the complete restitution of objects in French museums seized during colonial rule. As historians of cultural politics in a transnational frame, the participants in this panel will address these debates by exploring the long history of the global circulation of cultural property in and through German states. The acquisition of works of art, material culture, and scientific collections from beyond Europe has been integral to German cultural life both within and beyond the formal structures of Germany’s colonial empire. Papers addressing changing relationship between collecting, the law, national and international politics, religion, and scholarly discourse will shed light on the historical logic of the Humboldt Forum and the debates it has generated. They will also suggest what in the end we might learn from the Forum when it opens: from the building, from its visitors, and from the objects it will put on display.
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