Letter from Berlin: The South Asian and Turfan Collections at Berlin’s Humboldt Forum

Humboldt Forum (all photos in this article: Yorim Spoelder) Humboldt Forum (all photos in this article: Yorim Spoelder)

Following a long period of exile in the Western suburbs, Berlin’s Asian collections have returned to the spotlight. Since this autumn, they are on permanent display at the Humboldt Forum, a controversial new museum located in the heart of the German capital. The Forum, named after the Prussian polymaths Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, is conceived as the German equivalent of the British Museum, and houses, apart from temporary exhibitions and the Asian collections, Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.

Coming with a steep price tag of €680 million, the Forum was constructed from scratch on one of Berlin’s most poignant locations. Facing Schinkel’s iconic Altes Museum and hemmed in by the banks of the Spree, it stands on the former site of the city palace of the Hohenzollerns. A proud marker of the Prussian monarchy inhabited by a succession of Fredericks and Williams, the Schloss was first ruined by Allied bombs and then erased altogether by the East German authorities. On the empty plot rose a modernist pile to house the GRD-Parliament. This relic of the socialist era was, in turn, and in a decision still contested, bulldozed in 2006 and in its place rose, like a phoenix from the ashes, the Humboldt Forum modeled on the old Prussian Schloss.

humbold02Berlin’s Asian collections have a checkered history that reflects Germany’s tumultuous trajectory throughout the 20th century. The bulk was formed when the newly unified nation belatedly joined the colonial scramble. German imperialism did not translate into substantial territorial gains across Asia, but the Berlin-based Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde, an ethnological institution founded in 1873, acquired a collection of priceless Chinese artefacts in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising and built an extensive collection of South Asian art through savvy maneuvering on the international art markets.

Four archaeological expeditions along the Northern Silk Road (1902-14) made the German capital also the repository of one of the world’s largest collections of paintings, sculptures and manuscripts from modern-day Xinjiang. Tragically, some of the best-preserved murals from the Bezeklik Caves could not be dislodged from the museum’s walls and perished in the rain of Allied bombs during the Second World War. Many objects that survived the war unscathed subsequently disappeared or were taken as war booty by the Red Army. During the Cold War, the remains of the Asian collection were housed in a new ethnological museum tucked away in Dahlem, a sleepy suburb in the city’s western occupation zone. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, this off-the-map location retained only one advantage: usually one could roam the museum in blissful solitude.


Navigating the Asian galleries of the Humboldt Forum resembles a journey that starts in South Asia, moves on to the Silk Road, and culminates in a series of rooms displaying the Chinese and Japanese exhibits that range from a reconstruction of the Japanese tea ceremony to modern Chinese scroll paintings. A separate wing of the museum that has not yet opened to the public will house the Southeast Asian collection. This review focuses exclusively on the South Asian and Turfan exhibitions.

The South Asian gallery kicks off with a massive fragment of the gateway of the Sanchi stupa, one of South Asia’s first stone structures commissioned by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, and proceeds to tell, with the help of predominantly Gandharan statuary and reliefs, the life story of the Buddha. On display is one of the most impressive collections of Gandharan art to be found in continental Europe. The strong focus on the hybrid Indo-Greek legacies of Gandhara means that visitors are from the outset primed to think about the ancient cultural entanglements of East and West. One of the highlights is a stunning series of standing and seated bodhisattvas in grey schist that are displayed against a finely textured backdrop of gold foil. Wrapped in togas polished smooth as silk, and occasionally donning magnificent turbans, these statues powerfully convey both the spiritual and compassionate callings of those aspiring to attain Buddhahood. The exhibition also brings together a rare collection of stucco, clay and stone heads, representing a bewildering variety of Buddhist deities and monks, from Hadda (Afghanistan) and Taxila (Pakistan).

The theme of the next space is announced by a magnificent Chola bronze Nataraja representing Shiva as the cosmic dancer. The exhibits on display, mostly statuary but also including a few illuminated Sanskrit manuscripts and 19th-century Kangra-style paintings on cardboard, evidently belong to the Hindu universe, but one is hard-pressed to find a common thread tying them together. Statues representative of widely divergent regional styles and historical epochs are placed together in rather eclectic fashion; a 7th-century Vishna-Vaikuntha from the Swat Valley shares the stage with an 11th-century Lakshmi-Narayana from Kashmir and a 19th-century South Indian rendering of Vishnu as Mohini (seductress) from Thanjavur. This is neither helpful to convey a rudimentary understanding of the Hindu pantheon, nor are we any wiser about how different stylistic schools evolved and intersected across space and time.

A massive 19th-century Rajasthani temple cloth functions as a screen that separates the Hindu universe from a wide range of objects that represent the Islamic strand of South Asian culture. After navigating a series of architectural exhibits, including a small collection of strikingly beautiful blue-white glazed tiles used to decorate the surfaces of mosques and mausoleums in Sindh, we enter the world of the Mughal court. Short textual statements on the Mughal’s alleged “Lust for Luxury” evoke decadent potentates puffing their huqqas and making merry in harems. This adds a misplaced whiff of old-fashioned Orientalism to an otherwise fascinating collection of delicately worked brass bidri-ware from the Deccan, Mughal miniatures from the era of Shah Jahan, and an assortment of costumes.


The urbane and colorful world of the Mughals gives way to an exhibition space devoted to the Turfan collections. Once the eyes have adjusted to the gloom, they behold the engrossing multi-cultural and polytheistic world of the Northern Silk Road. The gallery’s innovative design is inspired by the rugged and austere landscape of the Tarim Basin. Alternating ceiling projections of mandalas, bodhisattvas and time-lapse footage of remote desertscapes transitioning from pastel-colored dawn to starry dusk, reinforce the sense of having entered another world. The exhibition centers around a series of wall paintings from Gaochang and Kucha, fragments of which adorn the walls or are, in the case of murals removed from the Kizil caves, displayed in a cavern-like setting that is meant to resemble the locations from which they were removed by roving German expeditions in the early 20th century. Most of the murals depict Buddhist legends, but some treat more secular themes.

One of the most striking fragments dates to the 5th century and depicts the legend of King Udayana, while a series of murals taken from the Kizil caves show dashing, life-size Tocharian sword-bearers donning Sassanian finery. The paintings offer fascinating glimpses of a lost cultural template in which Indic, Gandharan, Iranian, Turkic and Chinese impulses mingled to create a unique cosmopolitan oeuvre, but some of the murals come across as strikingly faded. As a helpful digital reconstruction shows, the original colors were much brighter, but the gloomy setting reinforces an impression of pastel dullness and the choice to hang some fragments rather high up, makes it sometimes hard to appreciate the actual representation amidst blurring contours.

The Turfan exhibition also features a collection of well-preserved clay sculptures from Shorchuk, the capital of the ancient Buddhist polity of Karasahr, and a small showcase with textual fragments, on palm-leaf and wood, that hint at the bewildering variety of religions and languages prevalent along the Silk Road. Somewhat disappointingly, only a tiny fraction of what the museum claims to be the world’s biggest collection of Manichaean book art, is on display.

Another highlight is a series of 10th-century Uighur banner-paintings, one of which portrays a deceased high-ranking official whose wasp waist is cloaked in a longish robe of an earthy, sandstone red decorated with stylized flowers. His face is framed by traditional headgear and a pair of determined yet sensual lips emerge, below a handlebar mustache, from a snow-white, meticulously combed beard. Another exquisitely preserved painting depicts three courtly figures draped in red gowns with rider-slits that betray the old Uighur nomadic ways. Their braided black hair, crowned with a mitre, is kept straight with red ribbons neatly tied beneath two-pronged silky beards in a fashion reminiscent of decorated Easter eggs.


While the Turfan gallery is in and of itself reason enough to pay a visit to the Humboldt Forum, a brief sketch of the broader context of the German expeditions would have been in place. Qing disintegration created a short window that allowed German, French and Raj-sponsored expeditions to engage in a highly competitive, free-for-all looting exercise in Chinese Turkestan. This lacuna might be partly remedied by a film that will be installed in the near future, although the matter-of-fact statement that artefacts were removed “with the knowledge and approval of the local administration” doesn’t bode well. Tellingly, the leading German archaeologist Albert von Le Coq had no scruples about writing above the entrance of his temporary Turfan lodgings in huge letters ‘ROBBERS’ DEN’.

Epithets with a similar ring have been used by critics of the Humboldt Forum who started a campaign to tear down the Schloss and return African, Asian and Oceanic objects classified as colonial loot. Such iconoclastic initiatives reflect contemporary debates about art restitution but also show that Berliners still have to come to terms with this controversial new institution in their midst. The choice to display Berlin’s ethnological and Asian collections in a neo-Prussian shell has baffled critics. Apart from the evident dissonance between form and function, the idea to create a simulacrum of a Prussian palace, rife with nostalgia for the Hohenzollerns, doesn’t chime with the Forum’s global outlook and mission statement to become “an open platform for critical exchange and cultural debate”. The Prussian ghosts hover not only over the building but also announce their presence in the galleries leading up to the Asian collections; the hallways are flanked by a phalanx of larger-than-life marble statues of Hohenzollern princes in lordly poses which, we learn, once adorned the prestigious main hall of the Schloss. These omnipresent reminders of a by no means untainted Prussian legacy make for an odd entrée to an exhibition featuring Asian art, and primes visitors to think of “the past” as something to be exalted, rather than critically probed.

Nor has the Forum’s progressive mission statement been translated in an innovative curatorial policy. The critical and reflective prompts that meet the visitor in the hallways of the Forum tend to disappear from view upon entering the exhibition space, and leave the impression of being merely rhetorical concessions to our current zeitgeist, rather than a starting point to reinvent the template of the universal museum for our times.

Furthermore, the decision to segregate the South Asian collections based on religion, a hang-over from the old ethnological museum, is ill-suited to bring out the more interesting and important stories that could be told with the museum’s holdings. The current design reinforces the impression of a stylistic and cosmological rupture, although both Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic traditions coexisted for centuries under different royal patrons and artists drew inspiration from overlapping, and often shared, cultural and aesthetic repertoires. In light of the ongoing religious compartmentalization of South Asia’s past in nationalist narratives, this seems a more timely and important story to tell than the current rehearsal of worn clichés about spiritual India and Mughal luxury.

The Forum, then, has tremendous unfulfilled potential. Its creamy baroque facades do not resemble Christo’s ephemeral wrappings that can be removed at will, but it is certainly not too late to improve the concept guiding the Asian exhibitions.

Yorim Spoelder is a Dutch historian based at the Free University Berlin, and the author of Visions of Greater India: Transimperial Knowledge and Anti-Colonial Nationalism, ca 1800-1960.