A model of the city from 1688
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Michael Setzpfandt

We are citizens of the world

As director of the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, Paul Spies is in charge of the concept for the Berlin exhibition, which will be shown on the second floor of the Humboldt Forum. In this interview, the art historian, born in 1960, talks about the many interfaces that exist between Berlin and the rest of the world.

by Franziska Schönberner, Kulturprojekte Berlin

Mr. Spies, the Berlin exhibition explores the interfaces between the local and the global. Would you say that Berlin is a cosmopolitan city?

In Berlin, people have an ambivalent attitude toward this term. Many think that Berlin cannot compete in the context of other world cities – Moscow, Tokyo or Los Angeles. Berlin is not like New York: There are no skyscrapers and no ghettos here. Berlin is also not as centralized as Paris. People don’t drive to work in the center in the morning and then to the outskirts to live in the evening. One of the reasons for this is that today’s Berlin was not formed until 1920, when various districts were merged. Berlin is a conglomerate of small towns. But the quibbling with the term ” world city” [Weltstadt] is also an expression of Berlin’s modesty and embarrassment in the face of its own history. In Berlin, people get straight up nervous when someone utters the word “world city”.

The Berlin urban area through the ages, Berlin 1928, photolithograph; 63 x 47 cm.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

What would be typical for such a cosmopolitan city?

For me, a cosmopolitan city is a place where the world is present in very different ways. In Berlin, for example, a good two hundred different nationalities live together. On the other hand, Berlin also has a lot of influence on the other countries in the world. Political Berlin is one of the most important members of the European Union. What is decided in Berlin affects world politics. At the same time, however, the city’s residents are connected to the residents of other countries and cities. If you were to take a closer look at these relationships, you would see a huge network of global connections.

We are now talking mainly about the present. But to what extent is Berlin’s history also important for the history of the world?

Until the first half of the 20th century, Berlin was one of the largest cities in the world – an industrial city that was connected to the entire globe through import and export transactions. In addition, Berlin was a colonial power until the end of the First World War. So people here had intensive connections to countries in Africa and Asia. But then came the Second World War: at that time the city was destroyed and divided. It was probably not until 1989 that one can speak of the renaissance of the cosmopolitan city. In the meantime, the number of inhabitants has risen again to four million. Actually, that is a miracle.

How do you explain that?

You can’t explain it. Maybe there’s something in the air here: a spirit, a “genius loci”. It has brought all the start-up companies to the city in recent years – the digital media and the “creative class”. That has something to do with an atmosphere of freedom and innovation. And it’s due to a virtue that’s not typical of other German cities: you’re allowed to fail in Berlin. Great innovations emerge from this freedom to fail.

You just mentioned colonial history. To what extent is this also visible in BERLIN GLOBAL? To what extent is a visit to the Berlin exhibition linked to a visit to the Ethnological Collections on the upper floors?

The Berlin exhibition does not show ethnological objects, but can still address global contexts such as colonialism and postcolonialism in its various sub-aspects. We invite source communities to add their own stories to the Berlin Exhibition. On the upper two floors of the Humboldt Forum, additional rooms create the possibility for temporary exhibitions. Together with the curators of the Ethnological Collections of the National Museums in Berlin, we can develop interesting exhibition formats.

In such a cooperation, for example, a ritual object from North America will no longer be viewed only in the context of its function within an indigenous culture; we will also ask how this object came to Berlin.

In other words, it will be a matter of developing an understanding of the connections between one’s own history and the supposedly foreign. After all, we are all citizens of the world – citizens for whom locality and globality should no longer be mutually exclusive. The Humboldt Forum wants to enable such global citizenship.


The interview first appeared in the Humboldt Forum’s online magazine on May 6, 2020, as well as on the exhibition website BERLIN GLOBAL.