A controversial museum in Germany has experienced yet another hitch. A fire broke out on Wednesday morning at the forthcoming Humboldt Forum, a soon-to-open museum in Berlin bringing together several ethnographic collections that has experienced fierce opposition from critics.
The fire broke out around 10 a.m. local time and appears to have been caused by an explosion of two tar cookers at the construction site, according to a report in the New York Times. The fire, which injured one worker, sent a column of black smoke over the city, which, like much of the world, is currently under lockdown in order to fight the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. After the fire was contained, local police said that they were treating it as an accident.
The Humboldt Forum is a $700 million museum project that involves the reconstruction of an imperial palace along the River Spree that had been destroyed during World War II. The museum was originally scheduled to open at the end of 2019, but the museum announced last June that that timeline was increasingly seeming unrealistic. The opening has been pushed back to November 2020, though it is unclear if today’s fire and the ongoing coronavirus-related closures of museums around the world will impact this updated timeline.
Among the objects that are to go on view at the Humboldt Forum are the numerous pieces acquired during the colonial era, many of which have spotty provenance. These include examples of the so-called Benin Bronzes (which are also held in other European museums), a Chinese Buddhist temple from the 5th–6th century, and a throne from western Cameroon.
Critics of the Humboldt Forum have argued that, in the current moment, it is inappropriate for such objects to be displayed in a Western museum, particularly since it is unclear exactly how some of the objects arrived in Europe. In October 2018, the Times reported on protests against the forthcoming institution with protestors carrying signs that read “Tell the Truth About Germany’s Colonial History” and “Clear Out the Colonial Treasury.” Also around this time, one of the institution’s well-regarded advisory members, Bénédicte Savoy, resigned. Later that year, Savoy would go on to co-author, with Felwine Sarr, an explosive report that called for France to restitute many of its colonial objects back to Africa.