Berlin’s controversial new cultural hub

A key aspect of the exhibits is the history of the site: for around 500 years, the palace housed the Hohenzollern family, the rulers of Brandenburg, Prussia and, finally, the German Empire. The last resident was Kaiser Wilhelm II, not someone for whom many people – including Germans – feel affection. (In one corner of the Forum are some of the trunks he used when he was sent into exile in Holland.)

East Germans, who ruled this part of Berlin after World War II, believed the palace – badly bombed in 1945 – to be irreparably associated with imperialism and militarism. Rather than rebuilding it, they blew it up to replace it with a glitzy new Palast der Republik, which houses the Communist country’s parliament and a bowling alley and dance hall designed for the “Jugendtreff” (meeting of young people). There are flashbacks to these moments in another corner of the Forum, next to a camera that would have been used for surveillance.

So what to do with such a controversial site when, no matter what, you’ll be damned if you do, damned if you don’t? The solution found by the common German parliament – to the dismay of those with a soft spot for the former East Germany – was to topple the asbestos-riddled (and unspeakably garish) Palast der Republik and replace it with some something which resembled the old Hohenzollern Palace from the outside, but which inside would be a place of cultural stimulation and a forum for forward-looking debate.

It is certainly a forum for debate. Among the more controversial collections are those moved from ethnological and Asian art museums previously housed in a western suburb of Berlin. The works of art are undoubtedly breathtaking: intricate face sculptures and boats from the islands of Oceania; Buddhist cave paintings of the Silk Road; a throne strewn with pearls from the Kingdom of Bamoum in what is now Cameroon.

James C. Tibbs