Unique in Berlin and Beyond

21.01.2022Unique in Berlin and Beyond

The Kulturforum combines unique potential with major urban planning challenges. Dagmar Hirschfelder, the new director of the Gemäldegalerie, comes to the job with concrete ideas for the location and the institutions based there.

The interview was conducted by Sven Stienen

A woman stands in a museum with paintings
Dagmar Hirschfelder, new director of the Gemäldegalerie, comes up with concrete ideas for the place and its neighboring institutions. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / David v. Becker

What opportunities and challenges do you see for the Kulturforum as a location?

I see a great opportunity in the fact that so many collections with such great diversity have been brought together in one place. We have a tremendous concentration of museums at the Kulturforum, with the Gemäldegalerie (Old Master Paintings), Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings), Kunstbibliothek (Art Library), Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts), Neue Nationalgalerie, and Musikinstrumentenmuseum (Museum of Musical Instruments). They sometimes overlap in terms of the artists and the contexts of works, but more importantly there is great variety, covering different periods and types of object. The Gemäldegalerie has many areas in common with the Kupferstichkabinett in particular, regarding artists, periods, and regions. So there is an extraordinary wealth of objects in the collections here, which makes it possible to undertake a wide variety of cooperative projects and joint exhibitions. This is already happening in many places – we don't need to reinvent the wheel – but I see many more opportunities of this kind opening up at the Kulturforum in the future. I am particularly interested in working with institutions that focus on completely different themes and periods to our own, such as the Musikinstrumentenmuseum and the Neue Nationalgalerie. I would like to work outside the box and tackle new topics that are hot at the moment, such as gender, cultural identity, the experience of foreignness …

Collection of modern buildings on a square
At the Kulturforum, unique potential and major urban planning challenges come together. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Maximilian Meisse

And what about the challenges?

It is quite a challenge to make the Kulturforum more attractive as a place and to draw visitors here, especially with the new building for the Nationalgalerie (National Gallery) still under construction almost on our doorstep. Unfortunately, the Kulturforum currently has the reputation of not being a very attractive place. That's not true at all, in my opinion: the accumulation of major institutions in architecturally outstanding buildings, and the long, checkered history of the place make it unique in Berlin and beyond. We ought to make all this visible, as the Utopia Kulturforum exhibition did, and exploit synergy effects. It would also be good to make the Piazzetta at the Kulturforum more lively by holding events – concerts, festivals, performances and the like – and thus to cultivate the outdoor space as a meeting place.

You are newly arrived at this location. Do you have a vision of how the Kulturforum could be in the near future?

I wish it would open up to a broader section of society. I would like to launch projects that tie into current, socially relevant debates and which appeal to young people as well. This is the direction that we need to move in, be it with interdisciplinary projects or by networking in the city. For example, I would like to work with the Berlin Biennale and juxtapose contemporary works of art with our own objects in order, on the one hand, to open up new perspectives on the Old Masters and, on the other, to encourage contemporary artists to address this canon in their own work. Many pieces of contemporary art have drawn inspiration – often quite profound – from the pictorial tradition, including the Old Masters. Of course, that's nothing new: Dürer, Titian, Rembrandt and their contemporaries also studied the work of their predecessors.

You mentioned possible cooperation among the institutions at the Kulturforum – where do you see a promising potential for synergy?

As I said, there are many starting points. Achim Bonte, the new Director General of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library), is a pioneer in the field of digitization, for example, and that is something from which we can all benefit. The long-term safeguarding and processing of digital data is an important matter for the Gemäldegalerie and the other institutions at the Kulturforum. We also need to become much more visible in the areas of digital outreach, social media and so on, where we can benefit greatly from collaborative joint projects such as museum4punkt0. However, this also requires more human resources and a more permanent basis for them. I have high hopes that the SPK's current reform process will bring progress here.

A woman stands in an exhibition room with medieval paintings
Dagmar Hirschfelder has been director of the Gemäldegalerie since November 2021 as successor to Michael Eissenhauer. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / David v. Becker
A large poster hangs on a building with a staircase leading up to it
"The Gemäldegalerie in particular can draw attention to the location in a special way with large, sensational exhibitions," says Dagmar Hirschfelder. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David v. Becker

How do you see the Gemäldegalerie's role in the ensemble of the Kulturforum?

The Gemäldegalerie possesses an Old Masters collection that is among the best in the world, even in comparison with institutions in London, Amsterdam, and Vienna. This gives it the potential to attract a great many visitors. That's why I think that the Gemäldegalerie can be a magnet, especially in combination with the Neue Nationalgalerie, the second large gallery for paintings at the Kulturforum. Nevertheless, we have to do more to make ourselves known, beyond the specialist community, to a broader section of the public internationally and to do justice to the collection. The Gemäldegalerie certainly has the clout to draw attention to the location by holding sensational major exhibitions. The other collections at the Kulturforum have a lot to offer too, of course, and I hope that there will be interaction between the various collections and that each institution will be successful with its own projects, which will have a positive effect on the ensemble as a whole.

What role does the Kulturforum play as a location in Berlin?

In addition to the Museumsinsel (Museum Island) and the Humboldt Forum, the Kulturforum is one of the main centers of cultural life in Berlin. At the moment, there's the idea of forming clusters as part of the reorganization of the SPK. If that comes about and there are clusters defined by content and location, the Kulturforum with its "polyphonic" nature will be an important voice in Berlin's cultural landscape. So it will be exciting to see how things develop, how the structure of the SPK will change, and how the individual institutions will work together to tackle the big questions that the cultural sector will face in the years to come.

Finally, a personal question: What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead?

I am really looking forward to working with the collection, and to the exhibitions that are coming up. In September, our big Donatello exhibition opens, which will be exceptional: it will be the first time in forty years that an exhibition on this scale has been dedicated to him. Donatello was one of the most important artists of the Italian Renaissance; he was a crucial influence on the sculptors and painters who came after him, as well as on the subsequent development of art.

Exhibition room with paintings
Exhibition rooms in the Gemäldegalerie am Kulturforum. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / David v. Becker

There are many other projects that will keep us busy over the next year. We are in the course of installing a new lighting system in the gallery, which will allow us greater flexibility in presentation as well as being more environmentally friendly and much better for object conservation. The building work will take place in four phases, so that three quarters of our collection will be accessible to visitors at any one time. I'm really looking forward to the completion of the first phase in April and to seeing our exhibits in a "new light."

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