Berlin’s Latest Cultural Import

The building of the Humboldt Forum on the grounds of the former Berlin City Palace on Unter den Linden should be an exciting prospect. Scheduled to open in 2019, its organisers – the Humboldt Forum Foundation – have described it as the century’s most important cultural project in Germany. The Humboldt Forum aims to become a unique centre of art, culture and science that will inspire debate and analysis on issues of global significance. But this €590 million project is ambitiously far-reaching, prompting criticisms that its underlying concept is vague and confused.

Photo: Jason Bell

Yet the appointment of Neil MacGregor, the outgoing director of London’s British Museum, as foundational artistic director of the Humboldt Forum has encouraged critics to rethink their stance. From October 2015, the 68-year-old museum director will chair its Advisory Board, making recommendations on how to shape the new cultural institution. MacGregor’s appointment has been unanimously met with enthusiasm. State broadcaster ARD has described MacGregor as a “polyglot world spirit” who will make the Humboldt Forum “a stage on which the cultures of the world will present themselves”. For art expert and chairman of the Society of Friends of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Peter Raube, MacGregor was “born for this role” and choosing him was “a stroke of genius”.

Why, then, has MacGregor’s appointment provoked such excitement? For a start, he has an excellent track record of leading big cultural institutions, having been director of both London’s National Gallery and the British Museum. His tenure at the British Museum was particularly successful. When MacGregor was appointed in 2002, the museum had a deficit of £5 million. Not only did he wipe out its debt, but the number of visitors rose from 4.6 to 6.7 million per year, making it second only to the Louvre as the world’s most visited museum.

MacGregor’s achievements should not only be measured in numbers, however. The museum director is desperately academic. He studied French and German at Oxford, Law at Edinburgh University, Philosophy and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and he specialised in Renaissance art at London’s Courtauld Institute. But most impressive is his ability to maintain intellectual rigour whilst still attracting large audiences. His forays into broadcast media particularly illustrate this. His two BBC radio series, “A History of the World in 100 Objects” and “Germany: Memories of a Nation” were popular for being incredibly informative but also comprehendible to the non-expert.

There will be little doubts surrounding the appointment of a foreigner either. MacGregor has an acute understanding of German culture and history. Horst Bredekamp, art historian of Humboldt University believes MacGregor “knows, in a certain sense, Germany sometimes better than Germans.” Indeed, his 2014 BBC radio series and exhibition at the British Museum that ran alongside it, “Germany: Memories of a Nation” gave a considered and highly knowledgeable presentation of the country’s history.

MacGregor is enthused by the new possibilities that the Humboldt Forum’s rich collection offers. He wants to use its objects “to address the big questions of human existence and culture” and engage not just the Berlin public but the whole world. The aims of this ambitious cultural institution have not become any less vague or far-reaching with MacGregor’s appointment. But given his unrivalled expertise in museum curation, Berliners have much to be excited about.

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