Berlin’s Saviour

"The Humboldt Forum is a spectacular idea. But it will take the right intellectual architect to pull it off. We will have to trust Neil MacGregor"

Berlin, the most provincial of major European capitals, has found its saviour. When the news broke last month that Neil MacGregor was to leave the British Museum  to come to Berlin to chair Europe’s biggest museum project, the £500 million Humboldt Forum, the German press went uncharacteristically wild. After months of excited anticipation and rumour, MacGregor appeared to be the German fantasy of an Englishman of the old kind (the fact that he is Scottish didn’t seem to get in the way of this): extremely cultured, thoroughly well-mannered, and, most importantly, superbly suited to explain Germany to its own people.

In a world where art, politics, and cultural heritage meet, Germans had been desperately looking to find someone to guide them through the challenges as well as the misery and despair of positioning German art in a global perspective, while also answering the eternal question of what “German” really ought to represent.

The site where the new international centre of culture is supposed to rise from the sandy grounds of Berlin is named after the Humboldt brothers, Wilhelm and Alexander: 19th-century polymaths prominent among the intellectual founders of the modern museum. MacGregor can be trusted to honour this tradition and to refresh it for our age, at least judging by his track record of organising hugely successful exhibitions that are elegantly highbrow, maintaining an intellectual standpoint while opening it to a wider audience.

As any cultural transplant will know, an outsider’s perspective is often more interesting and relevant than that of the insider. Having just lost an Olympic bid to Hamburg, and still unable to open its long-planned international airport, Berlin will be thrilled to welcome this deus ex machina from London, while Germany will be lucky to have him to shake up its zeitgeist a bit.

This spring, all one can see is a building site in the area by the River Spree where the Humboldt Forum will be built. The new building will stand on the site of the old Hohenzollern Stadtschloss, demolished to make room for the Palace of the Republic, the GDR’s parliament. The latter, too, was demolished in 2008, despite a campaign to keep this brutalist building with tan-coloured windows open as a monument or even an art space. Indeed, the hedonistic post-Berlin Wall period saw quite a few exhibitions and parties there.

So Berliners feel rather emotional about this site of mixed heritage that combines Prussian elements with those of the Enlightenment and the sense of a happy ending to at least one chapter of 20th-century German history. The area is now part of a carefully reconstructed historical centre, with the grand Unter den Linden boulevard on one side, and the museum island just around the corner. It is almost the geographic middle of the city and the reminder of a more self-assured pre-Nazi Berlin. The city today is never just beautiful, as Paris or certain parts of London can be.

The planned building itself is not without controversy. Designed to be a mixture of the old and the new, three of its facades, as well as the courtyard, will be direct reconstructions of the old royal palace, while the rest of the building will have a modern design. This composition invited a good amount of ridicule at the time — it was subject to a vote in parliament in 2007 and sparked a huge debate. Some newspapers objected to rebuilding the royal palace and hosting a heterogeneous collection of “world cultures”, which they saw as a clichéd pastiche of the Enlightenment spirit. Nonetheless, the plan has gone ahead and most Germans are now reconciled to the notion of a building that should symbolise the cosmopolitanism of Berlin at its best.

In theory, the Humboldt Forum is a spectacular idea. But it will take the right intellectual architect to pull it off. If he gets it wrong, the whole thing may look like an expensive exercise in PR. We will have to trust MacGregor to use his experience at the National Gallery and the British Museum to avoid that trap and get down to the detail of creating a world-class cultural institution. After all, the Humboldts — who investigated everything under the sun, from remote continents to exotic languages — believed in the importance of precise observation of detail and understanding the world as a whole. Not for nothing did Alexander von Humboldt entitle his last and greatest work simply Kosmos.

It is quite a twist of fate that this chunk of German intellectual history now seems so appealing, and that this area of Berlin feels relevant again. The Humboldt Forum may serve as the manifestation of the fact that, after the horrors of the past, for 21st-century Germans cosmopolitanism is de rigueur. I for one will be happy to see my home town rendered less provincial in this manner — even if it takes a Brit with German sensibilities to make it happen.

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