[Blog post originally appeared on the MuseLab blog April 1, 2016.]
In March, I was fortunate to be a part of a new conference, organized by the Liebniz Research Alliance, “Historical Authenticity,” on exploring authenticity in museums. Called “Museums- Places of Authenticity?” The conference drew more than 150 people from around the world to come talk authenticity-turkey. I myself presented a paper, “Visitor perceptions of 'The Real Thing' in museums,” about my ongoing research on ‘The Real Thing’ in museums. It was a lot of fun commiserating with so many experts focused solely on a specific concept. I’ve never been to a conference where the use of Benjamin’s “aura” is just a given and no one needs to explain it.
While I was there—as in any of my conference adventures—I took it as my duty to explore local museums. I visited seven museums and heritage sites in Frankfurt and Mainz, as well as other heritage sites along the Rhine river valley.
I stayed fairly local to southwest Germany, mostly Frankfurt and Mainz. The museums I went to were:
Natural History Museum Senckenberg
Museum für Kommunikation Frankfort
Städel Museum (art)
Museum für Antike Schiffahrt (Ancient Shipping)
Below I will share with you just a few memorable tidbits from my exploration.
The Museum für Kommunikation Frankfurt was a fantastic museum. It was modern, yet housed everything you could imagine on the development of communication methods over time— from the telegraph to the computer. Interestingly enough, this museum about a very slippery not-so-physical concept—communication—was loaded with physical objects. This image above is among my favorite of their exhibits. It was one of two interactives where you use one of the telephones to call someone on one of the other three phones and watch the machine in the background do all of the work—the dialing, the ringing, the answering—fascinating! The one pictured was manufactured in or around the 1970s, but the other, similar, interactive nearby utilized technologies from much earlier, but following the same concept. The two interactives were set right next to each other so that visitors could quickly compare the change in technology over time. It was a little hard to do alone because I had no one to pick up the receiver on the other end, but I still found it to be very effective and engaging.
The temporary gallery (which was a whole floor!) of the Museum für Kommunikation was about the advertising industry and how it communicates to the public. As part of this, museum visitors were invited to make requests to the advertising industry. The museum asked the question: “What requests would you like to put to the ad-makers who help influence our buying choices now and in the future?” They then made a “wall” of the responses—a beautiful yet simple design. It was a nice example of infusing participation and design.
Continuing the theme about advertising, the exhibit also had this interactive using marketing technology that was supposed to “read” features about you at the moment you reacted to the exhibit. This entire museum only offered German language so I am not entirely sure what it was about, but a good test that an exhibit is communicating it’s main message is that if I still understand their point(s) without any comprehensible labels, they must be doing something right. I had fun with this one. Now I have to figure out why I’m so high on Erstaunt (which I later found out means, “astonished”).
At the Senckenberg, an eclectic mix of a very modern approach alongside some very traditional methods, I came upon this tiny little corner of an exhibit. Hidden away (but not as hidden as I think it would be if found in the U.S., where it would likely not even be shown), this exhibit showed the stages of human development from conception to birth. The reason I was surprised by it is because all the boxes you see here contained real fetuses (be warned that there is a photograph of this below). It was beautiful to see the process so lovingly put together in this very effective (information-wise) exhibit. In this natural history museum, I can imagine it might be a stop for (older?) school kids; this is in a university museum and I could hear all the school groups in the halls while I was there. It made me question some assumptions I have (and didn’t realize I had until I saw this) about U.S. museums and particularly: would we even do an exhibit like this? It was concise, yet powerfully effective.
More at the Senckenberg—I think this was a travelling exhibit but it had all the earmarks of the participatory process. Visitors left comments (above photo) about multiple topics and there was a green screen where you could insert yourself into pictures with “wild” things, like this beetle. Scary! I only just escaped his pincers. In a safer zone, I also got to be the stamen (or maybe I was a pistil?) of a flower.
I am a lover of all things medical history as well as giving visitors behind-the-scenes exposure in museums. This exhibit at the Senckenberg hit both of those; it was a recreation of natural history storage in a museum from the “old days” (again, all in German, so I’m not certain on the time period). All of the specimens were real and interesting but (to some) gross, wonderfully “gross”.
The Städel is a lovely art museum, but very classic in its approach to being an art museum. While walking through the large, colorful galleries, I suddenly found myself in a hallway (or a room afterthought) where there was an entire batch of paintings flipped around. Love! The idea was to show that there can be equally fascinating things on the backs of paintings (not unlike the “Inside Out: Revealing Clothing’s Hidden Secrets” exhibit currently in Kent State University Museum). This was doubled with a lesson on how the objects have been tracked and cataloged over their lives and how museums have cared for them over time. I stayed a long time in this hallway and probably took several pictures of every single one of these paintings.
Mentioning the Städel would not be complete without a peek at Warhol’s version of Goethe, Frankfurt’s most famous historical character. The fun part of this is that the original painting, from which Warhol drew his image, stands on the opposite wall from this painting. Cool.
There are so many other photos I could share with you about my experience from this corner of Germany’s museums. It was a delightful experience to see them all and I was impressed with much of what I encountered. I look forward to visiting another region of Germany’s museums someday. From what I heard at the conference, it looks like Berlin is the next place to explore museums. (Hint. Hint. Someone have a conference there please!)
Pondering curiosity, wonder, meaning, and the foundations of museology.