Education and Mediation Field Test: Public Museum Tours

19.08.2019Education and Mediation Field Test: Public Museum Tours

Does art have to be explained to be understood? For our field-test series on education and mediation, we looked at one of the most common forms: public guided tours. In this case, of the Nolde exhibition in Hamburger Bahnhof.

By Jonas Dehn

How does education and mediation work in a museum? Anyone looking for an answer to this question will come across a broad range of options for children, young people, students, and senior citizens. There are discussion and lecture series, behind-the-scenes tours of restoration workshops, and inclusive programs for people with dementia, and the visually or acoustically challenged.

Besucherschlangen im Hamburger Bahnhof
Besucherschlangen im Hamburger Bahnhof © SPK/Katja Strempel

But the best known and oldest type of art education is the good old guided tour. The principle is simple: A guide leads a group through an exhibition, explains what they see, and adds some background information.

On a hot summer day in July 2019, the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin (Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum for Contemporary Art – Berlin) is full of visitors as usual, and the line at the ticket counter goes out the door and down the steps. About 20 people, mostly women, are waiting in the lobby next to the counter for the guided tour. We are here, too, because we want to test the educational format known as the guided tour for ourselves, using a guided tour of the Emil Nolde – A German Legend special exhibition as an example.

Guided tours of the collections and special exhibitions at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) generally cost 4 euros in addition to the admission fee. In Hamburger Bahnhof there is no surcharge – visitors only pay general admission. Since the number of participants is limited, it is necessary to pick up a free ticket at the ticket counter or in the web shop first.

A Nationalgalerie (National Gallery) curator greets the group in the foyer and leads us through the halls to the special exhibition. We quickly notice why it is necessary to limit the number of people in a group: there is not much room for large groups in front of or between the exhibits inside the exhibition rooms. A solution for ensuring good acoustics is also necessary. Being heard without disturbing becomes more difficult as the group gets bigger. So we stand around the guide in a semi-circle and listen to her explanations.

The public tour format is classical, but it is also difficult to implement. Since the target group is generally not limited the way it is for specific programs (such as those for school-aged children), it is difficult to define what the participants need: How much do they know already? What special interests do they have in the subject? What can be said in a few words and what needs to be explained in detail?

Our expert found a good compromise. She summarized important biographical data and then related them directly to the exhibition themes: What were Nolde’s family background and career like? How did Nolde present himself and his development as an artist?

Emil Nolde, Kriegsschiff und brennender Dampfer, o. D. (vor/um 1943), Aquarell
Emil Nolde, Kriegsschiff und brennender Dampfer, o. D. (vor/um 1943), Aquarell, 14,8 × 24,4 cm, Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, Foto: Dirk Dunkelberg, Berlin

We learned about Ada, Nolde’s wife, who at an early stage joined him in believing that he was the greatest artist since Rembrandt. We learned about his self-dramatization based on the romantic image of an artist as a farm boy close to nature, who was not “spoiled” by academic training. He felt rejected early in his career and saw himself as a misunderstood artist; he was a practicing anti-Semite as early as the first decade of the 20th century.

The expert navigated us knowledgeably and skillfully along the exhibition’s thematic route. Currying favor with the Nazi regime while being rejected and classified as “degenerate art,” then after the war, creating the legend of the ostracized artist who completed his “Unpainted Pictures” while being barred as a painter – this narrative is supported by Siegfried Lenz’s novel Deutschstunde.

After an hour of intensive listening, our group had experienced not only an extremely informative tour of the exhibition, but also a good overview of the life and work of Emil Nolde based on the most current research.

The limit of what a tour like this can deliver is at the point where the participants need to make up their own minds. The curator ended the tour with the words: “It is entirely up to you to decide if you still like these works now that the tour is over. Whether or not an artist’s works can be viewed as separate from the artist is a hotly debated issue. But one thing is clear: We cannot act as if the work could exist apart from the artist.”

Zentraler Blick auf Menschen im Hamburger Bahnhof
BesucherInnen im Hamburger Bahnhof © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Nina Hansch

More Articles of this Dossier