How A German Art Museum was Built from a Royal Palace

The Humboldt Forum opened recently in Berlin’s Museum Island, but it’s been a bigger topic of discussion than it would be normally.

You might think that this is because of its subject - the museum displays a thorough overview of the world’s art and cultures throughout history - but it’s a little more than just that. Its background and the way it was built makes it unusual. 

The 40,000 square metre museum was reconstructed from the baroque Berlin palace, which was an 18th-century palace that was the home of Prussian kings. During the Second World War, the palace was demolished and rebuilt as the Palace of the Republic. This palace served as the parliament of the German Democratic Republic (also known as East Germany), but that was eventually destroyed too in 2006 to build the museum that exists today, according to the Associated Press

At the head of the reconstruction project was Italian architect Franco Stella, who had a big job to do. Just to give you an idea of the scope of this project, it cost €680 million to build the new museum, which is about $802 million. Clearly taking inspiration from the location and from the palace’s history, Stella had a distinct vision when he was building the Humboldt Forum. He spoke about what it meant to him to work on this project and why he made the decisions he did while building. "I conceived the Humboldt Forum as a palace, with its six portals representing city gates, and its three inner courtyards servicing as city squares," Stella explained to Dezeen. "In other words, I envisioned it as a city in the form of a palace.” 

You see Stella’s design in the museum’s facades. Although three of them are replicas of the original palace, the fourth one is modern and designed by Stella. Reconstructing the fadades was no easy task; sculptors used an estimated 22,000 different sandstone elements to create them, as well as rebuilding 2,800 figures. 

The building has three courtyard spaces and four floors of space for its exhibits and events. It also has restaurants, shops, and office space. The main entrance brings you to an entrance foyer that is 35 metres high and is glass-covered. The museum’s third courtyard is filled with book shops and cafes, and the best part is, they’re open 24 hours a day. 

The Humboldt Forum has especially unique collections from two different museums: the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst. The Ethnologisches Museum has a special focus on the cultures of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific. It offers both insight into the past and present of those cultures as well as a critical assessment of the consequences of Europe’s role in its colonial rule. The Museum für Asiatische Kunst, on the other hand, focuses on Asian art, juxtaposing historical pieces with contemporary ones. This museum has 30,000 items in total, with a rich collection of art dating back from the 5th millennium BC to the present. They’ll be displayed in an area measuring more than 6,000 square metres, with objects like Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, ceramic art, East Asian paintings, and more. 

These collections are a particular highlight of the Humboldt Forum, but it’s not even all it has to offer. Although rebuilding the palace wasn’t a universally popular decision, the Humboldt Forum takes advantage of its location’s history by installing several permanent exhibits that tell its story. These exhibitions include original objects, a video panorama, and other interactive experiences. 

If you’re interested in visiting an exhibit and seeing the museum for yourself, you’ll need to book a free time slot ticket in advance (this is mostly due to restrictions caused by the pandemic). Either book tickets online or by phone (you can call +49 30 99 211 89 89 every day between 10am–6pm CET). 

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