Fire services were notified just before 10am, following reports of a loud explosion coming from the area. Locals took to social media to post photos showing thick columns of black smoke filling the sunny morning skyline.
“It emitted a lot of smoke, so it looked really dangerous,” remarked Michael Mathis, a spokesman for the museum.
One person was injured in the blaze, which was thought to be caused by the explosion of a propane gas cylinder. Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum is located within the former Prussian royal palace and is currently in a state of major reconstruction. The flames were rapidly fuelled by the building materials and two melting cookers for bitumen.
German Culture Minister Monika Grütters said in a statement, “the pictures of the fire above the castle portal scared us all.” Despite its size and ferocity, the fire seems to have caused limited damage to the €600 (£526 million) project. Investigating police later announced that there was no evidence to suggest this was a deliberate act of arson.
The museum’s opening had already been delayed by a year to autumn 2020, due to numerous technical issues and mass protesting. Berlin’s non-European ethnological collections and Asian art collections will be housed in the new complex, as well as a permanent exhibition on the city’s history, temporary exhibitions and a university-run Humboldt Laboratory.
Over the last few years, activists have fiercely rallied for the repatriation of many objects within the collection, including hundreds of Benin Bronzes that were looted by British soldiers from Benin City (Nigeria) in 1897. Other museums across the world are beginning to return the Benin bronzes in their collections, like the University of Cambridge’s decision to repatriate a cockerel sculpture in November.
“We’re also facing coronavirus, and what that means for the opening in September,” explained Mathis. Following the German government’s instructions, Berlin is also on lockdown causing all cultural institutions to close for the foreseeable future. Construction sites, however, have been allowed to continue building for the time being.
Culture Minister Grütters expressed her enormous gratitude to all those involved in taming the fire and “for being so level-headed and carrying out the evacuation very quickly.”