The Humboldt Forum is a large-scale museum project in Berlin, Germany, which has its seat in the reconstructed Berlin Palace, located on the famous Museum Island. The Forum has its roots in the ancient Prussian Art Chamber (Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz), which was also located in the Berliner Schloss and which was established in the mid-16th century. Humboldt Forum will incorporate two of the art chamber’s successor institutions, the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art.
The project is named after the brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, two iconic German figures from the age of the Enlightenment who each made significant contributions to the advancement of a number of fields, such as geography, zoology, botany, meteorology, libertarianism, education and linguistics.
In 2017, the Humboldt Forum Foundation placed an open call for the realisation of site-specific works of art in two opposite stair wells on either side of the Schlüterhof in the reconstructed Berliner Schloss. As one of the entrees, Holger Nickisch proposed the following work, which can be seen as an expansion of his other vexillological works.
Before being free, it is necessary to be just
Title of the proposed work, a quote taken from Alexander von Humboldt´s letter to William Thornton, 1804
The proposal´s general concept emerges from the philosophies of the brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, and takes from a duality-principle: Two brothers, two stair wells mirroring one another on either side of the Schlüterhof, the two worlds of thought of the Humboldts: the introvert philosophical views of the humanist Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Alexander von Humboldt´s more extravert, archival approach of the world of species. Two art installations that mirror in form, and refer to the achievements of both brothers. The work reflects on the holistic thought and the defense of cultural values which signify the Humboldt brothers. From this viewpoint, it also deals with the significance and institutional role of the Humboldt Forum and the collections housed in the Berliner Schloss. The proposal attempts to bridge the mission of the Humboldt Forum, to be of national and international value as a centre for cultural encounters and dialogue between cultures of the world and science.
This is where we felt it unavoidable to adress the very relevant present-day discussion about the de-colonisation of (ethnologic) museums and institutions, and to point out the current ambivalence toward this responsibility. On the one hand there is the museum´s mission: to preserve artefacts from around the world for the generations, to catalogue and to present them to the world. On the other hand and with similar argumentation, there are the claims of nations from where the artefacts where once taken, who in many cases dispute the legality of how these artifacts were obtained, – as spoils of war, as taken hostage with political motive, or plainly robbed.
Viewed from the libertarian ideas of the Humboldts, another such ambivalence can be observed in the political development of society up until today: from the unification of the historic German „Kleinstaten“, on to the foundation of its national state, over to the present-day European Union and the hopeful possibility of a One Earth-nation, but back again under the recent populist appeal for a Brexit or a statement like America First!.
The prominent element in the proposal´s design are a series of handmade and embroidered flags that were bleached to near-white tones. These may symbolise division on the basis of nationality, but are much more intended as carriers of ideas about the thematics sketched above. The work consists of ten doublesided flags of 1.5 by 2.4 meters, hung on their short sides from a framework attached to the ceiling.
As the open call requested proposals for both stair wells, two variations of the work were submitted:
The first variation consisted of five flags adressing the theme of de-colonisation, by depicting on national flags of the states involved, the outline of artifacts of which the legitimacy of ownership is disputed and today remains unresolved.
The other five flags in the work refer to the humanistic ideal of political union, by pointing to the relevant successive stages in political developments starting from Prussia and the German union states, to the idea of uniting mankind under the single flag of One Earth. (The design of the latter arbitrarily uses an Earth-flag proposal by artist Oskar Pernefeldt.)
A second variation of the work shows five ´flags´ with tribal pattern designs as used by indigenous peoples. On each flag is a depiction of a species that became extinct in their habitat or are currently red-listed, – and which were originally documented by Alexander von Humboldt. This series adresses both declining biodiversity, and the simultaneous disappearance of (the lifestyle of) indigenous peoples, due to devastating changes in their living environment.
As Wilhelm von Humboldt in his turn was also very involved in linguistics and diplomatic work (he made significant contributions to the translation of Basque and Old Javanese, for example), the second set of five flags similarly deals with the disappearance of languages and cultural diversity on account of socio-economic effects and marginalising state politics. Quotations from Wilhelm von Humboldt´s works on libertarianism, education and linguistics are translated into a disappearing language and embroidered on the (officious) national flag of the respective culture.