BERLIN — The Humboldt Forum, the problem-plagued museum housed in a reconstructed palace in the center of this city, has pushed back its opening date to 2020 because of technical reasons, officials announced this week. They added that “it was not realistic for the building to be ready for use by the end of 2019 as had been planned.”
The announcement, in a news release on Wednesday, followed an inspection of the building by the head of construction for the project and the president of the Federal Office for Construction and Regional Planning. A new timeline for the opening will be presented to the board of the museum’s foundation on June 26.
The museum, one of Europe’s most ambitious and expensive current cultural projects, has been burdened by construction problems and by accusations from academics and activists that it hasn’t done enough to determine the provenance of its objects that were acquired during the colonial era or to address whether it is appropriate to hold onto them. The opening of the permanent exhibition had already been delayed to 2020; the Forum was slated to open in stages, beginning with a temporary exhibition of ivory objects in November.
The exhibition was to include items lent from other museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. Last week, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that delays in the activation of the climate control system of the new building had led the other museums to decide not to send their ivory items for the opening exhibition.
Officials confirmed Wednesday that the “central cooling system would not be able to be activated until late July,” leaving little time for it to be certified in time for the fall opening. Representatives of the other museums did not respond to requests for comment.
It is the latest setback for a project that has been dogged by controversy since its conception. The Humboldt Forum is on the site of the Palast der Republik, the former East German Parliament, which was torn down after German reunification, to the outrage of many East Germans. The Forum is to open within a facsimile of the Berliner Schloss, the Berlin Palace, which was built by the Hohenzollern dynasty. The Schloss was badly damaged in the Allied bombing of Berlin in World War II, and demolished in 1950 by the government of Communist East Germany. Some see the decision to rebuild the Schloss as an attempt to erase Germany’s turbulent 20th-century history.
The Forum has also been the target of complaints from activists and academics who have said the new museum’s leaders have not done enough to explore the collection’s ties to colonial exploitation. Once complete, the $700 million Forum is to unite the collections of Berlin’s Asian Art Museum and Ethnological Museum, as well as exhibitions from the City Museum of Berlin and a project overseen by Humboldt University.
The debate has also drawn new scrutiny of Germany’s own troubled colonial past, which some scholars say has been largely overshadowed by the country’s postwar reckoning with the Nazis’ crimes.
Among numerous items from outside Germany, the Forum’s collection includes several hundred spectacular sculptures, known as Benin Bronzes, that originated in an area that is now part of Nigeria. The sculptures, which are actually made of brass, were bought on the open market after being looted by British troops. Scholars and activists have described the sculptures as “stolen art” and have called for them to be returned to Nigeria.
In an interview with The New York Times last year, Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, an anticolonial activist in Berlin, called on the museum to return to Africa the skulls of ancestors who he said were executed by Germans in Tanzania. “The people there are still in sorrow,” he said.
Jürgen Zimmerer, a historian specializing in colonialism at the University of Hamburg, who has been critical of the project, said in a phone interview that the museum “has a problem in that it has yet to figure out how to deal with objects looted during the colonial period.” Mr. Zimmerer argued that a “large social debate” was necessary in Germany about what the new building should be used for.
Initiators of the project have countered that the Forum is a positive symbol of Germany’s history of scientific enlightenment and exploration. In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung last year, the head of the Humboldt Forum, Hartmut Dorgerloh, acknowledged that “the discussion about provenance research has shown that social developments are changing the work of the institutions.”
The Forum announced plans for joint projects with Namibia as well as efforts to involve curatorial voices from the countries where these objects originated. Mr. Dorgerloh has said that where a claim for restitution has been made, it would be noted along with any object on display. He told the Berliner Zeitung that “while restitution is an option” for objects with colonial histories, “alternative” approaches would also be explored, such as loaning them out.
The Forum is one of several high-profile projects in Germany that have been dogged by delays in recent years, leading to public hand-wringing about whether German officials are capable of successfully carrying out large public construction projects. Berlin’s new airport, which was slated to open in 2011, is now scheduled to open nine years behind schedule, in the fall of 2020.
Some critics have argued that the delay in the Forum’s opening should be seen as a boon. “This is an opportunity,” Mr. Zimmerer said. “They should leave the building closed for another two years and invite everyone to participate in a competition about what to do with it.”
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