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As Germany heads to the polls on September 24, the country’s leading cultural organization is appealing for its own chair at the table – and a swift conclusion to Berlin’s controversial Humboldt Forum museum project.

Olaf Zimmermann is the director of the Deutscher Kulturrat (German Cultural Council), the umbrella organization of German cultural associations. It formulated a list of demands before the German federal election on September 24 and, and Zimmermann told DW, is strongly committed to creating a Federal Ministry of Culture.
Culture has a lot of untapped potential for social integration – including for refugees. Why does cultural policy play such a small role in Germany’s current election campaign?
Olaf Zimmermann: I don’t really see it that way. For example, Chancellor Merkel not only went to the recent Gamescom in Cologne, she also said that computer games are a cultural asset. The leaders of all the political parties were there, too. They also presented ideas related to cultural policy, such as state subsidies for computer games in the coming years.
Read more: Gamescom enters new political territory
So cultural policy does play a role, but more so when it concerns something hip and popular with the masses, and less so with cultural integration or education. Yet it’s all central. Politicians need to get more involved in this. The problem is also that the media barely covers cultural policy issues. If that were to happen, the politicians’ interest would also quickly change.
Could the fact that cultural policy issues aren’t coming up so much during the campaign because the players are weak?  
Olaf Zimmermann is the head of the German Cultural Council
I don’t believe they are weak. For us, looking back on the last 20 years, this has been the most successful year on a cultural policy level. That applies to our initiative “Cultural Integration,” which was even personally recognized by Chancellor Merkel. That also applies to the issue of gender equity in culture and the clear expansion of the cultural and political dynamics in the field of sustainability and climate change.
Read more: How Germany is boosting women’s careers in culture and the media
But the players I was referring to are the politicians involved in cultural policy.
It’s true, Culture Minister Monika Grütters is one of the rare top politicians who’s been vocal about cultural policy. Unfortunately, the response she’s been getting isn’t very strong.
When SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz presented his program on education, I expected the media to get excited, but not much happened. Even Minister Grütters didn’t react.
I believe that we need to be a lot more insistent and louder, which is what I’m trying to do with the German Cultural Council.
Let’s look a few specific issues, for example digitization. This is often mentioned during the campaign, for example at the chancellor’s summer press conference – but usually only in reference to expanding the cable networks. It is, however, associated with cultural aspects. What are you demanding from the parties?
Digitization is not only about the expansion of broadband networks. It’s already bad enough that we’re so far behind in this area. The digitization of all aspects of life changes our cultural environment. I recently experienced this personally when I didn’t have internet for a week at home. The internet and digitization have an incredible influence on the way I obtain information. We have to discuss this digital transformation on a cultural level before treating it as a technical issue.
Read more: Germany to invest 100 billion into national gigabit internet network
That hasn’t been done at all so far. Just through the way in which our workplaces and information gathering are changing, a completely new cultural presence will develop. It’s not just about questions related to copyright and the protection of privacy, but rather: How can we live in such disparate worlds, in which common spaces of experience are further breaking up and going in diverging directions?
The Humboldt Forum must open as soon as possible, says Olaf Zimmermann
Another issue has been the free trade agreement with the US – TTIP. People involved in culture in Germany clearly protested against it. What are you demanding from the new government?
Politicians need to recognize that cultural assets are not only economic goods. That means that there should never be just one single provider of cultural goods. The cultural field needs to remain diverse.
We also need to keep in mind the interests of others in trade agreements, for example of African countries. Think of all the displaced people coming across our borders into Europe. We need to create conditions that allow people to live in their own countries. That’s also an important task of free trade agreements such as TTIP and CETA.
Read more: Angela Merkel welcomes US offer to resume TTIP talks
Although Chancellor Merkel visits the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, does she or Martin Schulz, her rival, show any commitment to culture at all? What do you want from the next chancellor?
The next chancellor should clearly position themselves when it comes to cultural policy, and that has nothing to do with whether he or she goes to the theater. Cultural policy means building the right governmental structures. Technically, the chancellor is also the Federal Culture Minister. Not many people realize that.
Merkel appointed a state secretary who is responsible for implementing cultural policies – Culture Minister Monika Grütters. But this is one of the main tasks for Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz. We finally need a functioning Federal Ministry of Culture. It has to be extracted from the chancellor’s office and get its own structure that will integrate the cultural issues that are now handled by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Economic and the Interior.
But this is only possible if the chancellor wants it. We are calling for this step so that we in the cultural arena can finally become politically “normal.”
Let’s talk about Monika Grütters. She said in a recent interview that the Humboldt Forum and the Cultural Protection Law were the most important and successful projects of the latest legislative period. How would you evaluate her work?
Monika Grütters is Germany’s main voice for cultural policy
Monika Grütters has done a good job. She has gotten involved with many topics, continuously increased the budget, and her office has achieved more influence. That also applies to thehighly controversial Cultural Protection Law – we supported Monika Grütters in this protection of important national cultural assets.
As for the Humboldt Forum, I believe there is still a lot to do. If something goes wrong from the beginning, it’s hard to steer things back on the right track.
The Humboldt Forum is to be a world-class cultural museum housing exhibits from all over the world in the renovated pre-democratic City Palace in Berlin, which used to be the winter home of Prussia’s Hohenzollern kings. But there is a second point of conflict: The provenience of many exhibits from the colonial period have not been cleared up and some may have been unethically repossessed during the colonial era. 
We can’t do anything about the palace. It is now almost finished and no one will tear it down. But it is quite difficult to initiate an intellectual departure in a reconstructed Baroque palace.
Read more: Is Berlin’s Humboldt Forum shying away from colonial history?
That is the reason why the Humboldt Forum must finally open – the name of Alexander von Humboldt represents a commitment. He was a pioneer of his time. He was the first environmentalist and one of the first people to support sustainability and reject slavery.
Opening the Humboldt Forum means it must also be open to other groups, so they can finally join the discouse. Civil society, for example, has been almost entirely excluded. Neither cultural nor environmental nor development aid organizations have been involved in the debate in a reasonable way. The Humboldt Forum is run almost as if a village of museums were to open. That is not possible.
Shouldn’t the societies where these questionable exhibits come from also be consulted – I mean the societies, for example in Africa, that were robbed during the colonial era? 
Of course. The discussion about German colonial history is highly charged. That is partially self-inflicted. But again: In the Humboldt Forum, which Monika Grütters called the most important German cultural project, we must work with different standards than in an ordinary museum.
Aid during the pandemic secured, looted art debate organized, Humboldt Forum opened: Culture commissioner Monika Grütters takes stock in a DW interview.
As the head of culture policy in Germany, Monika Grütters is more powerful than anyone before her. But what will become of her office after the election?
The debate around looted art has intensified just as Berlin’s new museum opens. The museum has been criticized for the colonial-era African pieces in its collection.
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