“We have to explain more clearly why museums are systemically important”

30.04.2021“We have to explain more clearly why museums are systemically important”

Museum researchers Kathrin Grotz and Patricia Rahemipour share their thoughts on pandemic-related closures, social cohesion, the cooperative project “Mapping the Social. Museums and Society” and the Institut für Museumsforschung (Institute of Museum Research).

The interview was conducted by Oliver Hoischen

Portrait of two women
Kathrin Grotz and Patricia Rahemipour. © SMB / David von Becker

Ms. Rahemipour, the coronavirus pandemic shows that museums are evidently not ‘systemically important’. How painful is that to you?

Rahemipour: The closures are difficult to take, of course. I like to quote a slogan that I saw in a bookstore in Prenzlauer Berg: “Books are food.” That's also true of museums. But as the past months have shown, not everyone sees it that way.

Are people being shortsighted?

Rahemipour: For anyone who works with museums or in them, it's quite clear that museums have an educational mandate. And in my view, it's wrong that – unlike the schools – they're not allowed to pursue it during the pandemic. The pandemic acts like a magnifying glass; it shows us the shortcomings. So we have to be clearer. We have to do a better job of explaining why we're systemically important!

A modern building adjoins an old one on a river.
Pergamonmuseum and James-Simon-Galerie on the Museumsinsel Berlin. © Ute Zscharnt für / for David Chipperfield Architects

Well then, what do we need museums for? What’s the scholar’s point of view?

Rahemipour: Museums have a variety of responsibilities. There are four things, in particular: collection, research, preservation, and education. Museums not only preserve cultural heritage; they also conduct research into it. And they share this knowledge with society. This is becoming more and more important, and rightly so. The idea is to enable people to partake in this knowledge, and to make processes transparent. Because museums face the challenge of having some effect on society through their work. They have to offer areas of social cohesion.

That's an ambitious standard.

Rahemipour: Yes, of course. That's why, at the Institut für Museumsforschung, we make a point of looking at these big-picture topics. Each year, we do a statistical survey of all the museums in Germany, and after that, there are always a lot of questions: Which segments of the population are even interested in museums? Do the visitors see themselves solely as consumers, or would they like to play a more active role?

And?

Rahemipour: The results show that we definitely need more knowledge. We have to create a foundation for the museums on which they can fine-tune their content and services and then adapt them in dialog with society. And that's why we're pleased to be part of the project, funded by the Berlin University Alliance, that is taking a comprehensive look at social cohesion and museums.

Ms. Grotz, can you describe the project for us?

Grotz: “Mapping the Social. Museums and Society” is a collaborative project in which two universities and two partners from the museum field are working together closely. We are posing fundamental questions about the social potential and the function of museums – and then developing responses from a variety of perspectives. Our project has an interdisciplinary structure and combines historical approaches with empirical case studies and practical interventions.

How many people visit museums?

Grotz: There have always been collective notions of what a museum is, how you should behave in one, and what you would expect from a visit. But this consensus has broken down: we know from empirical studies that one sixth of the population – at most – regularly visits a museum.

„Mapping the Social. Museums and Society”

In late 2020, the Berlin University Alliance selected six cooperative projects for funding until the end of 2023 as part of the “Grand Challenge Social Cohesion.” Among them is the project “Mapping the Social. Museums and Society.”

At each of the four partner institutions, a case study will be carried out by a post-doctoral researcher. Dr. Lukas Fuchsgruber and Dr. Mareike Vennen, who were involved in the application, will conduct two of the studies. The other two post-doctoral researchers are currently being selected, along with staff for the coordination office for a citizens’ advisory board and knowledge transfer. The project is still in the start-up phase. At the Institut für Museumsforschung, the focus will be on studying affect and experience in museums from the perspective of visitors and users. The other case studies will deal with the concept of the laboratory and experimentation in museums, with the connections between museums and their environment, and with the removal of the confines of museum spaces as a result of digitization.

That’s not much.

Grotz: No, unfortunately not. In the past, and up to the present day, museums have had an integrative effect socially, but they have also acted to exclude certain groups. We want to explore this paradoxical relationship between inclusion and exclusion in our project. At the same time, we want to help make it easier for museums to have a more focused dialog with society.

Everyone is talking about social cohesion. Is your project an expression of this big discussion?

Grotz: Definitely. There is a lot of interest in the topic at the moment – and not just in Germany. How do we want to live with one another in the future, and what holds us together as a society? Looking at the microcosm of the “museum” can definitely be very helpful for this discussion, in part because museums have always been places where social interaction occurs. Exhibitions routinely address controversial topics, of course. And museum collections create cultural references to other eras and societies. But the cooperative project is important to us for another reason as well: it allows us to reflect in a fundamental and innovative way on museums and society.

Will you end up making specific recommendations?

Rahemipour: The museum sector is much too diverse to formulate recommendations for specific action. But we want to know how a museum can generate social cohesion and what levers have to be used to promote it. The project is meant to be very application-oriented. The results will be published. And this research into the role of museums in society is only a beginning. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the institute, one goal would be to avoid closing the museums right away during the next pandemic – in other words, to allow them to perform their role with and for society in times of emergency especially.

That sounds like a long way to go.

Rahemipour: I am very open-minded about it. There is already such an incredible amount being done in the museums to open them up for contemporary public discourse. Unfortunately, we're not yet good enough at communicating that. There is still some way to go. We’re far from our goal.

But aren't there big differences among the individual museums?

Rahemipour: The museum sector in Germany is huge. There are almost 7,000 museums. So there's a great breadth and variety, but a great deal of potential, too.

Black and white image of a woman
The sub-project of the Institut für Museumsforschung within the joint project museum4punkt0 explores the possibilities and limits of digital mediation of immaterial cultural heritage. It asks what potential newer digital formats have not only to preserve and convey intangible cultural heritage in museum contexts, but also to further develop and creatively transform it. Fig.: Straw braiding, Italy, 1939. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum Europäischer Kulturen / Erika Groth-Schmachtenberger

Technology museums, for example, have long been able to create a special relationship with their visitors. They are more application-oriented – and have been for quite some time. In the 1920s, for instance, if you visited the maritime museum in Berlin, which no longer exists, children could touch everything and explore things for themselves. In art museums, that isn't quite so easy.

Ms. Rahemipour, Ms. Grotz, you recently took the helm together at the Institut für Museumsforschung. What have you got in the pipeline?

Rahemipour: The institute has been around since 1979, and it has traditionally performed a variety of duties both within the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz and in the framework of its national mandate. The most well-known of those is our annual comprehensive statistical survey, which will be forty years old next year. In general terms, I would say that the institute conducts research with museums and into them. One of our objectives is to show that this research is essential for a sustainable museum sector.

Two people examine nn object
Multimedia collections are the focus of the strategic partnership between Freie Universität Berlin and the SPK at the Forschungscampus Dahlem (FCD). © SPK / photothek.net / Inga Kjer

Grotz: The work in cooperative projects is an important driver of innovation for us. In addition to “Mapping the Social,” we are active in “museum4punkt0,” in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library) and in diverse EU projects. We are a member of the future Forschungscampus Dahlem (Dahlem Research Campus). As museum practitioners, we are setting new directions in the transmission of knowledge: we want to make the institute widely known – via social media, innovative formats, and by forming unusual alliances. The villa in Dahlem where the institute is based is the ideal place for that – especially when the pandemic is behind us.

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