Speech by Minister of State Michelle Müntefering at the event “Humboldt Forum International”

30.10.2018 - Speech

You are all acquainted with the history of this place. It is a quintessentially German history, a story of oppression and resistance, the best of intentions and the worst possible consequences in all their inextricableness, as Achille Mbembe recently put it.

A Prussian castle and symbol of power – projected not only towards Germany, but also our European friends and – most terribly – projected towards the countries that Prussian and, later on, German imperialism and colonialism forced into dependence, exploited and enslaved.

A symbol of the oppression by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) regime, which had the castle demolished and a “palace” built in its place. It was called the Palace of the Republic in the name only, and was, in reality, a place where the few ruled over the people.

Yet at the same time, this place is a symbol of civility, civic engagement and the thirst for knowledge, as well as a symbol of art and science.

From the princes’ treasury to a location for soup kitchens and the first common room for female students, the seat of the Deutsche Kunstgemeinschaft, which sought to alleviate the suffering of artists, and to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Incidentally, the DAAD started life as a students’ initiative that sought to bring Germany back into the fold of the nations of culture and initially had its headquarters here.

This place is therefore also synonymous with art and science, civic engagement and solidarity.
And this is especially true of the women who left their mark here. There was Eugenie Schwarzwald, who took over the imperial castle kitchen and turned it into a community kitchen.

Marie-Elisabeth Lüders, Elisabeth Lange and Lise Meitner were all there at the inception of the common room for female students, which was named after human rights activist Helene Lange.
Not to mention Ingrid Dybwad, the “soul of the exchange service”, as she was called, and whose memory the DAAD, in my opinion, perhaps does not cultivate enough.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is the tradition that we want to call to mind today. A place of domination that the people made their own through civic engagement and resistance and in which art and science make Germany a part, a sentient part, of the international community.

Indeed, the question as to of the democratisation of knowledge remains.

Through free admission, of course. And it goes beyond this.

This is about profound understanding that art and science are places of freedom and need freedom in order to flourish.

And this is why one founding idea of the Humboldt Forum in particular is especially dear to our hearts at the Federal Foreign Office.

I refer above all to the idea of making this place an agora, a market place for encounters with the cultures of the world. Having laid my scepticism to rest, this notion impressed me back then as a young woman who had just entered politics when this discussion was getting under way.

A window of culture to the world.

That is a description of the project’s international aspirations, its interdisciplinary focus as a platform where the major issues of our age are negotiated through culture.

We know that we cannot respond to this at the national level, not alone. I would even go so far as to say that we are no longer capable of distinguishing the internal from the external. What we need instead is a perception of the world and the world’s perception of us – through the window of culture.

The Humboldt brothers helped to shape this lens above and beyond geographical, national and disciplinary boundaries.

And in our cultural policy today, the Humboldt Forum stands as an example of what we in the coalition agreement term the synergy between the external and the internal.

And, incidentally, also for the synergy between two women who you see before you today. And so I would like to take this opportunity to thank my colleague Monika Grütters most sincerely for her cooperation.

After all, she is shouldering the principal burden of the “internal”, which is indeed great.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am committed to an international cultural policy that focuses on cooperation and co-production, as well as exchange and open interaction. And to make this possible, we need free spaces that facilitate debate.

The Humboldt Forum – in both a physical and figurative sense – is intended to be one such free space. A place that brings the world closer to us, a place that is a platform for a critical examination of the pressing issues of our time – in a vein characterised by openness and cultural respect.

In so doing, we are focusing on international discourse, exchange and cooperation as we don’t want to come up with off-the-peg responses.

We don’t want to have the last word and want to allow many voices to be heard and also to invite curators from all over the world to work with us.

We want to facilitate participation and access, both in the digital domain and by allowing exhibits and collections to travel, not only throughout Germany, but also around the world.

In concrete terms, we can see this taking the form of joint temporary exhibitions that are already in the pipeline.

After all, it is not only governments that should cooperate, but also societies. Facilitating this is a key task facing international cultural relations and education policy.

Sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, one of my predecessors as Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, once termed this a “foreign policy of societies”.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Together with its intermediaries and partners around the world, the Federal Foreign Office will do its part to ensure that this project is a success.

I would like especially to emphasise the role played here by the branches of the Goethe-Institut, which facilitate encounters between people and offer platforms for dialogue and scope for ideas. With its over 160 branches in more than 100 countries, the Goethe-Institut offers a secure and politically independent environment for culture, education and cross-border exchange in the spirit of Humboldt.

This makes the Goethe-Institut precisely what its President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann once called the “external cultural network” for the Humboldt Forum.

After all, our focus in international cultural policy is on cooperation – and also co-production. We are not seeking to export culture and we are not know-it-alls, but we want to do better together with others.

And that is precisely what the Humboldt Forum stands for. According to the coalition agreement, it is intended to become an international dialogue platform for global cultural ideas.

This notion of cross-border exchange is a legacy of Alexander von Humboldt. We also call to mind his criticism of slavery in the then colonies.

And this leads us to a topic that is closely linked to the Humboldt Forum – Monika Grütters mentioned this just now – namely the question as to how we deal with cultural property from colonial contexts and how we enable access to this cultural property.

The coalition agreement – incidentally for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic –hands us a clear mandate to face this colonial past.

And both of us, Ms Grütters and myself, are pulling in the same direction here.

The principal task of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media in this area is to help museums and collections to investigate the origins of such cultural property and, in certain cases, to facilitate their restitution.

At the Federal Foreign Office, our main focus is on the dialogue with the societies of origin, as well as cultural cooperation and the establishment of cultural infrastructure, particularly in Africa.

In so doing, we do not want to proffer ready-made concepts, but to seek dialogue with partners in the countries of origin. We want to consider together how we can shape the way we approach cultural property from colonial contexts and enable access to this cultural property.

I firmly believe that we need to take fresh approaches. And we must learn to share. At the end of the day, we have to understand that we will only do well in the long term if others in the world are doing well, too. We’re still at the beginning of a common process.

The Humboldt Forum will be an important catalyst in this endeavour.

It will show how Germany’s relationship with the world has changed. We are doing this by engaging in public discussions on the origins of the exhibits and allowing many voices to have their say in the process to ensure that we don’t end up just telling the ONE story.

After all, Europe has long since ceased to be the centre of interpreting the world, as the President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, once aptly put it.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Achille Mbembe, the philosopher from Cameroon and a leading intellectual, once summed this up thus: “In various parts of the world, arts and culture are powered by transnational flows. (...) What we inherit is the world at large.”

And this is the mission that we all face. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to thank you, Excellencies and diplomats from around the world, for your ceaseless and outstanding work in the service of exchange and negotiation.

At the same time, I wish to express my gratitude to the staff of the Humboldt Forum and the institutions that support it.

With their experience, knowledge and commitment, they are all helping to ensure that this project has a positive impact.

The world is our heritage, our common heritage. If the Humboldt Forum becomes precisely this democratic realm for a vibrant culture of debate – at the heart of Berlin and with an international impact, then we will have achieved a great deal, namely an open window to the world.

I cordially invite you to join us in looking through this window to the world, be it from the inside or from the outside.

I would therefore be most delighted to see you here again, at the latest in just under a year’s time when the Humboldt Forum is scheduled to open.

However, Excellencies, until then you are always most welcome to join us at the Federal Foreign Office.

Thank you very much.


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