The Spoils of Time- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

The stunning bronze head of a dead royal from the Benin Empire, now Nigeria, is stationed on one of the pedestals. Carved by the famous artisans of Benin city, a hole in its centre is filled with ivory tusks on which historical events are inscribed. Such busts and carved plaques were kept in the royal palace and sometimes gifted to important guests. This exhibit can now be seen at the $800-million Humboldt Forum, which opened last year in Berlin on the banks of the River Spree. The show combines the collections of the Asian Art Museum and the Ethnological Museums of Berlin.

Named after the Humboldt brothers— Alexander, a traveller and naturalist, and Wilhelm, the Prussian Minister of Education—the five-storeyed museum is called a Forum since the organisers see it as more than just a museum, but an experience. Close to five lakh objects of interest are housed within its precincts, a large part of which came to the city during European colonisation of Africa between the 15th and 19th centuries. The footprints of conquest and plunder are circuitous; British soldiers brought home the spoils of war, which found their way to auction houses and private holdings. These were sold by museums and private collectors across America and Europe. Today, however, looted art and artefacts have become controversial and their restitution and provenance are issues of debate across the world that goes beyond the Kohinoor.

The displays at the Humboldt Forum is a feast of form and period. They include intricately decorated commemorative plaques commissioned by kings. There are figures of animals and warriors holding spears. In addition to statuettes of gods and goddesses in a combination of metals, there is a priceless collection of pilfered wood and ivory artwork. One can see the famous Benin bronzes produced by the indigenous Edo people, which were seized by British forces during the Benin Expedition of 1897, when they plundered Southern Nigeria, famous for its metal casting guilds.

The committee in charge of the museum has recently restituted the Benin bronzes and those on display are on loan from Nigeria. Every object here has a story to tell: Jain art, miniature paintings and a carved sandstone panel from India, Buddhist objects of worship, wooden masks from British Columbia, an eight-headed dancing god from Cambodia, porcelain and lacquer work from China, folding screens and calligraphy scrolls, a carved wooden throne decorated with cowrie shells and glass beads in blues from Cameroon. Many items are stacked in tall glass cases like in a warehouse. A large 19th-century outrigger boat from Papua New Guinea takes a central position in a large display space.

One of the most striking pieces is from the Northern Silk Roads exhibition that sports objects German researchers Albert Grünwedel, Theodor Bartus and Albert von Le Coq collected on their expeditions to China. They had discovered well-preserved sculptures and wall paintings. The exhibition has a spectacular reconstruction of the Buddhist ‘Cave of the Ring’, bearing doves and fifth-century murals painted on wood; these were found by German researchers in a cave in the mountains of China’s Turfan
region in 1902.

Well-curated exhibitions have delightful surprises like the temporary exhibition at the Humboldt Forum devoted to the Naga traditions and Indian tattoo artist Mo Naga. He is committed to preserving the centuries-old designs and the stories related to the traditional tattoo art in the Northeast. The sprawling forum is more than just a space for art, culture and history. It houses event spaces, research facilities and restaurants.

The Spoils
the courtyard

The layout resembles the former Berlin Palace with six entrances, an open courtyard and a huge foyer. Italian architect Franco Stella has combined Baroque with minimal modernism; three of the four outer walls were reconstructed from sandstone from old photographs of the previous building that existed here for reference. Hundreds of masons, stucco artists and plaster moulders replicated the decorations, cornices and columns to almost exact detail. The minimalistic design of the eastern side of the building, which faces the River Spree, is a stark contrast to the Baroque. Only time will tell if it succeeds in being inclusive and lives up to its name of being a Forum, not just a museum.

Coming into being

The location and site of the Forum have a long and convoluted history. It was originally the Prussian king’s palace, burned in an Allied air raid during World War II and then blown up in 1950 by the East Germans. In the 60s, the Palace of the Republic, a modernist cuboid, was built here and after German reunification, it was demolished (as the place contained asbestos). Humboldt Forum was built instead. as a museum.

Related Articles

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker