Notes From Berlin – BER, Humboldt And Neil MacGregor

The BER airport scandal is still ongoing. The airport was due to open in 2010. A plane had been painted with the new airport name, Willy Brandt. It should fly the Chancellor and other dignitaries into the BER airport, which was to replace Schönefeld and Tegel airports. These two airports are still open, because the day before the scheduled opening of the BER, someone had to own up to the fact that the contractors hadn’t installed much wiring. The panels covered empty trunking. Repeated attempts to get the authorities to sign off the fire alarm system, failed. Poor decision making and massive corruption are considered the most likely reasons. Eventually, 2016 was announced as the (new) actual date. Punctually in January 2016, the media announced 2017 was definite. That means that the worst case scenario is December 2017, and that would make it 71/2 years late. The expected costs are eye-watering.

Berliners are a bit touchy about BER but have taken another remarkable event in their stride, and not without some pride.

Glaswegian, Neil MacGregor, ex-boss of the British Museum in London, has got the job of getting the Humboldt-Forum up and running. He gets his contract this summer- a much cheaper project than the BER, but the prestige is at least as big. The site chosen to house the new museum is that of the old Berlin Palace. Its history needs a short résumé.

Built in 1451, bombed in WW2, and demolished in 1950 by the German Democratic Republic Government for ideological reasons, and to make way for the PdR – Palast der Republik.

The Palast der Republik was a massive concrete, steel, glass and asbestos box, which served as the world’s biggest bingo hall – except that no one played bingo there. Instead, it housed the East German Parliament, two large auditoria, art galleries, a theatre, 13 restaurants, a post office, a disco, conference centres and a bowling alley. East Germans enjoyed going there for afternoon tea and then taking bits of the tea service with them. The beer glasses frequently went missing. I found a Palast der Republik beer glass in a junk shop in 2007.

The amounts of asbestos meant that it took longer to take down the PdR than to put it up. One could admire the building site from the ‘Humboldt Box’.

(Let me tell you about the Humboldt Box – the Humboldt Box housed the most boring exhibition in the history of exhibitions, and I never discovered its true purpose. The Box was a temporary structure and has now disappeared).

The walls of the new-build palace have risen like the proverbial phoenix, to replace the holes left in the ground by the demolition. From the outside, at least, we have the palace once again. The boss of the rebuilding project was determined not to preside over another BER fiasco. When politicians, historians and museums directors wanted to make late changes, they received a one-word answer. NEIN!

Then in walked MacGregor and presented his amazing tome about Germany and its history as a follow up to his Germany exhibition at the British Museum. Book and exhibition celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The book has recently appeared in German translation – Erinnerungen einer Nation, (Memories of a Nation). It has earned him an award and praise from Mutti Merkel for a new analysis explained with deep compassion. The book contains a wealth of truths, many of which were unknown, even to Germans. There is nothing apologist in MacGregors’s writings.

The Humboldt-Forum will open in 2019 but the Berlin press believes MacGregor will preside over a second-rate museum, which cannot compete with ‘the peoples’ museums’ (their words) of London or New York. I think they are pessimistic.

The site of the Humboldt Forum is on Unter den Linden and a stone’s throw from the Hedwig Cathedral, where the protagonist of my new novel, The Last Stop, learns of his wife’s revenge abduction by a criminal gang.


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