We’re all here because of the power of a story well told.
Sometimes, that’s enough.
Frances McDormand, Emmy acceptance speech 2015
‘Under all this dirt the floor is really very clean.’ Thus a story of Lydia Davis begins – and ends. Such shortest short stories are the US-American author’s signature feature. I took notice of her writing when she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 and I bought the collection ‘Can’t and Won’t’. Reading the book I first was uncertain if I liked the texts, some amused me immensely, but many puzzled me. Something let me bear this uncertainty and the more I read, the more I enjoyed the stories. When I came to the last page, I loved the book. I could not say that I liked all stories or that I was overwhelmed even by a single one – but all in all they created a very specific story universe I really relished to tour.
This experience came to my mind when I visited the exhibition ‘Gallus – a quarter and a whole’ [Gallus – ein Viertel und ein Ganzes], a participation project of the Historical Museum Frankfurt. All inhabitants of the quite diverse neighbourhood called ‘Gallus’ had been invited to take part in creating this exhibition and to contribute their view on their living space.
Wandering through the exhibition I first felt confused. I knew little about Frankfurt and nothing about the ‘Gallus’. The fact that there was neither a general introduction nor precise directions how to handle this specific exhibition tried my patience sorely. Moreover, the single exhibit units were very different, whether in relation to the topic, the form of expression or the creators (artists, children, single persons, groups…). But at a certain exhibit, suddenly it clicked and all pieces fell into place. Whereas the contributions I had seen to this point all dealt more with the Gallus of today (like the collection of crown caps and pieces of broken glass found by children on the street or the painting depicting a huge sun symbolising warmth and optimism characteristic for this quarter), this one commemorated the inmates of a concentration camp located from 1944 to 1945 in this same neighbourhood.
The graveness of this contribution, the anchoring of the presence in this deeper historical stratum somehow helped me to locate all other parts: a system was established. Again, taken together the splinters turned into facets, a universe emerged which felt rich and interesting because of its diversity. I left the exhibition inspired and with a clue about what life in this Frankfurt neighbourhood is like.
Both events I experienced as highly satisfying – and for both events those moments were essential when the single pieces began to develop connections and formed thus a whole being more than the sum of its parts.
The question which intrigues me now from a curator’s point of view is how to support visitors not to lose their patience before reaching this point. In both cases external circumstances helped me to stay attentive: I read Lydia Davis’ book on a long train ride, I visited the exhibition with other exhibition makers with whom I wanted to discuss the exhibition afterwards.
But how to foster intrinsic motivation? Today a newspaper article fell into my hands which seems to comprise an important hint. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology, explains – based on her studies with children – that there are two different types of mindsets: the fixed and the dynamic one.
Whereas children owning a fixed mindset believe in the irreversibility of their intelligence and tend to react with frustration when facing obstacles, kids with a dynamic mindset view their intelligence as developable and hence they consider effort as an engine for improving it. One way to support a dynamic mindset (thus the article reads) is to praise a child for its endeavours.
In my opinion the interesting point is that solely teaching children the importance of stamina does not seem to be enough – teachers also need to impart the conception that intelligence is not something given but something to cultivate: that learning can be learned.
At this moment I have no idea how to bring together this insight with curating a specific exhibition. Teaching such a conception seems to be more the case for pedagogy, the task of schools, and not for a single exhibition. But perhaps there is a way to communicate, to make comprehensible, to break down this understanding in the frame of an exhibition. Anyhow, the question how to create an entertaining exhibition which has bothered me now for such a long time, is joined now by this one: how to support visitors in experiencing patience as promising?
Lydia Davis: Can’t and Won’t. Penguin Books 2015.
‘Gallus – a quarter and a whole’, curated by Angela Jannelli, Puneh Henning and Franziska Mucha, Historical Museum Frankfurt 24/04/2015 – 06/09/2015
‘The kiss of death for the girls’ [Der Todeskuss für die Mädchen], interview with Carol Dweck, DIE ZEIT 37, 10/09/2015
First photograph: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Further photographs: ©Ariane Karbe, published by kind permission of Historisches Museum Frankfurt
Missie would have liked to become an anthropologist. But life isn’t always easy and sometimes you have to take what you can get. She had discussed this in depth with her colleagues in the zoo, and they all agreed that even though freelancing was an option, working in an institution had it benefits, although freedom was not among them. Thus, when the job market had become tight, she had happily agreed to work in the Old National Gallery.
If she had only asked for more precise information about the working condition! Until this day she has not received a proper job description and has to improvise. On good days she tells herself that she works in fact as a kind of anthropologist because even though the visitors look at her, it is she who observes the others. Indeed, she has a perfect overview. On bad days she considers herself nothing more than a bad joke.
Then there are these rare, precious days when everything is just perfect: it depends on the current exhibition and on the specific visitors and their aura. On these days she persuades herself that she is after all a work of art which expresses perfectly the tension between animated body and dead matter. She has never told anybody these secret thoughts, not even her closest friends because she knows that they would laugh at her. ‘Missie’, they would shout, ‘a work of art! What an idea!’
Sculpture “Missie” by Anton Puchegger (1916/1917)
Photographs: ©Ariane Karbe, published by kind permission of Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Studying the phenomenon of suspense in cultural historical exhibitions lets me ponder a lot about the role of emotions for this medium. One central question bothering me is how to define the point when museum exhibits and settings end to be inspiring and begin to be manipulative.
One piece in the puzzle for gathering answers to this question I found while visiting the exhibition “Obedience” in the Jewish Museum Berlin. This “Installation in 15 rooms” was curated by film director Peter Greenaway and multimedia artist Saskia Boddeke. It tells the story of Abraham who was asked by God to offer his son Isaac to prove his faith. Abraham was willing to obey but was stopped in the last moment by an angel sent from God who was convinced now that Abraham feared him enough.
This story is told, step by step, in the first 13 rooms of the exhibition, presenting a mixture of objects, artworks and video projections, strongly staged. One special element is that the story has been translated into dance scenes which express and highlight the relationships between the different agents of the biblical drama.
Entering room 14 (titled “The Sacrifice”) I found myself confronted with three huge screens showing again some of these dance scenes, but mainly pictures of children from all over the world – suffering. Some of them were covered with blood, many of them were crying, some other were fighting with machine-guns. I was moved to tears and thought: “This is so unfair!” and “No child should suffer like this, nowhere, no reason why.” I was still deeply moved passing the last room which is totally covered by newspaper clippings, and huge red letters forming the question: “Or are you an Abraham?”
At the end of my itinerary I had a look at the visitors’ book and read the highly contradictory entries. Whereas one visitor criticised the exhibition as “Beeindruckungsmaschine” (sensation machine) another praised it as “very moving”; whereas the third called the exhibition a “masterpiece”, the fourth one called it “populist overpowering trash”. Only then I realised how strongly I had been manipulated by the presentation of the pictures and clips in room 14 and felt suddenly uneasy. I went back to the screens and asked myself what exactly was the reason for feeling so uncomfortable.
I could still agree with the obvious message of the compilation that to sacrifice a child for whichever reason is wrong. But looking at the presentation for the first time I had experienced it as so sad that this feeling had seemed to be absolutely consequential and therefore without any alternative. Reflecting this process now I realised that there WAS an alternative: there are people who are – for whatever reasons – willing to sacrifice children. I imagined such a person watching the pictures in this room and realised that, at least in theory, there was the possibility of a recipient not being touched by the scenes and not condemning them. In the course of this reflections the last room became more relevant. At the first glance I had found it quite weak because I had seen too many exhibitions where the curators had tried to build a (wobbly) bridge to the presence by using newspaper clippings. But now I thought that the question “Or are you an Abraham?” was not as rhetorical as I had judged it at first.
I understand now, looking at my visit with some distance, that the crucial point was not that no alternative feelings were provided, but that feelings were used as arguments. The pathetic presentation (the huge screens, the music, the red colour on the walls, the weapons, the artwork showing sacrificial lambs) of the images created such a strong sensation on my side that it immediately led to a certain opinion. This was the vulnerable point where no alternative was offered by the curators: feeling so sad lead to condemning what I saw and this connection felt (!) logical. Not the quality of the feeling seems to be the key to keeping the difference between inspiration and manipulation but the quantity.
Obedience. An Installation in 15 Rooms by Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway, Jewish Museum Berlin, 22/05/2015 – 13/09/2015
Thanks to the Jewish Museum for the permission to use the photographs.
It was an unimpressive little book which helped me decide which methodology to choose for my PhD research. I still hesitated to compare cultural historical exhibitions with Hollywood films because I feared that the differences between these two kinds of media would be too great. What if the answer to my question – is it possible to learn from Hollywood films in order to create suspenseful exhibitions – was negative? Could I take the risk to invest years studying this question and being left empty-handed?
This was the moment when I picked up the book “Fermat’s Last Theorem” by Simon Singh (1997). It tells the fascinating story about one of the most famous mathematic puzzles of all time. Pierre de Fermat “discovered” this mathematic problem in the 1630s and it took centuries to crack it. The problem itself is easy to understand, but the solution is incredibly complicated. It was the British mathematician Andrew Wiles who was finally capable to prove the theorem in 1993.
It may sound strange that a book about mathematics was such an important impulse for my research in museum studies but the salient point was Wiles’s attitude. When he began to focus entirely on the work connected to “Fermat’s Last Theorem” he hoped for proving it in circa ten years, but knew that perhaps he would never solve it. But he also knew that in mathematics addressing such a problem the interim results and secondary insights can be worthwhile.
Transferred to my research I understood that even though perhaps the answer would be no, there is nothing to be learned from Hollywood films for exhibition making, I would have studied the characteristics of the exhibition medium thoroughly and would have gained insights about how to apply dramaturgic tools to “telling” exhibitions.
Reading about the Japanese mathematician Yutaka Taniyama’s contribution to proving “Fermat’s Last Theorem” was the other impulse which encouraged me to follow the path taken. I learned that – expressed in my own words – connections between two at a first glance totally separated mathematic areas can be discovered by realising that an explanation for a problem in the one field, can also be the solution for a problem in the other field. This fact makes evident that there are “bridges” between the two fields and opens up new perspectives.
Transferred to museum studies you could call this simply interdisciplinarity. But in my case the crux was that the example taken from the book fuelled my curiosity enough to carry on and to look at my research question more open-minded. Perhaps I would find out nothing about suspense but about a totally unexpected subject and correspondence. We will see…
The last exhibition which really impressed me was one I found by accident. I was in Graz, Austria, to explore the Joanneum Universal Museum, a compound of different museums and collections. I was so focussed on visiting as many of these institutions in the few days I had that I almost overlooked the city museum. But on my last evening I walked by and decided to hop in just for a quick look. I was genuinely surprised to find there an exhibition about – vampires! Why, I asked myself (prejudiced), do they just want to jump on the bandwagon of the Twilight series, trying to attract young audiences? Perhaps, I answered myself (trying to be open), but what is wrong with this? Give it a try! So I entered.
When I read the introduction text it not only suddenly made perfectly sense to show an exhibition about vampires in the GrazMuseum of all things, but it also got so precisely to the heart of how I had experienced the city so far, that I was stunned. For understanding this you have to know that I had never been to Graz before and that I had come from Innsbruck which is in the West of the country. Going to Graz had taken hours and hours and sitting in the train I had felt like travelling with the Trans-Siberian Railway. After my arrival I could not stop thinking why nobody had ever told me how utterly pretty Graz was, I was overwhelmed with the city’s beauty. The only reason I could imagine for this fact was that not many people I know went there – because it is so far away. So the remoteness of the city had really bothered me.
Learning now that one of the most important vampire stories of all time (the novel “Carmilla”), written in 1872, played in the area of Graz and began with the words “In Styria…”, but moreover that even Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” had been situated originally also in Styria (Steiermark) and not in Transylvania, went together perfectly with my feeling of having been transported to the margins. This is the first reason why I liked the exhibition so much: being confronted with a surprising topic I really understood something about the city. Well done for a city museum!
The second reason came also as a surprise and was connected to the quite unusual presentation of the objects: newspaper clippings, copies and oil paintings hung side by side. No difference was made based on the value of the object or its aesthetic quality. The reason for the combination of the pictures was obviously the thematic classification. The most impressive example for this in my view absolutely refreshing approach could be found in the section about vampires and gender stereotypes.
This oil painting of Carl Riedel Baumeister depicts “Carl Ohmeyer and his spouse” and I wonder now, writing this post, what the couple would have said knowing that one day their portrait would hang in an exhibition about vampires! The unconventional dealing with the objects was stressed by the comic style illustrations of Anna Haifisch, painted directly on the walls. The presentation was by no means thus disrespectful – instead it invited me to look at the objects with fresh eyes and to ponder about their connection to vampires.
Both reasons made the exhibition a very good example for combinations which may seem at first glance strange but turn out to be well-founded and convincing and therefore strong combinations which have the power to not only arouse your curiosity but to keep you interested also in the long run.
“Carmilla, the Vampire and Us”, curated by Annette Rainer, Christina Töpfer and Martina Zerovnik, GrazMuseum, 30/01/2014 – 31/10/2014
All photographs: ©GrazMuseum
I like to browse from time to time through the internet, hopping from blog to blog, following the inserted links, searching for inspiration for my work. But there are only three blogs I have kept faith with for more than half and a year now, eager not to miss any post. I feature them here, not only because they impact on my professional opinions and thinking, but because – taken together – they can teach us something about good exhibitions.
Two of the blogs are museum blogs: The Uncataloged Museum of independent museum professional Linda Norris and Museum 2.0 of Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, CA. Both professionals‘ primary concern is to strengthen the connections between museums and communities. The third blog is Design*Sponge run by writer and designer Grace Bonney. The core of the blog are photographs and reports about people’s homes; another important part are interviews with professionals working in the creative industries.
Even though the three blogs are very diverse, they have something in common which is perhaps the most important reason for me to stay connected: all three bloggers express their professional voice in a passionate, courageous and generous way. Passionate, because you notice from every line they write that they really care about what they are doing and that they truly believe in their work’s importance for their audiences. Courageous, because they hold strong opinions, call conventions into question and do not shy away from addressing doubts and open questions. Generous, because they share their expertise without reservation and embrace the dialogue with their followers.
Inspired by Nina Simon who intends to explore what museums can learn from the web (hence “Museum 2.0”), I asked myself what can be learned from these blogs for curating. I came to the conclusion that I really would love to see relevant exhibitions with strong positions and a non-lecturing but sharing attitude more often. As a result: “passionate, courageous and generous” is my new motto for exhibition making.
Last week designer Guido Maria Kretschmer commented in „Shopping Queen“ (a TV-show where five women have to compete in finding the perfect outfit, equipped with a motto, 500 Euros and 4 hours of time) the choice of one of his candidates with „Well done! Black glasses always tell a story!“. I immediately called the story police. These sunglasses may look beautiful, remind you of Audrey Hepburn or protect you from sunlight – but they do not tell a story.
Of course, there are no story police and for good reasons: everybody is free to use terms like he or she wants to and how it suits his or her understanding of a concept. But as a curator I am very much interested in defining “stories” more precisely, because comprehending the nature of narratives seems to me a key to understanding the exhibition medium better. Indeed, the impulse to research exhibition narratives, came from my observation that every second exhibition had been declared to “tell a story”. I always was sceptical if this term was adequate to describe the exhibition medium because in my view an exhibition functions quite different from a book or film.
But instead of complaining about the inflationary and confusing usage of the word “story”, I learned to appreciate it as a great opportunity to learn more about stories’ complexity, thus “edging my tool” as an exhibition maker. And so, yeah, from this perspective, I would have agreed if the story police issued Kretschmer a caution. To explain why I want to leave the field of TV-entertainment and turn to another example: chocolate.
This picture I took in Brussels:
I think that it is useful to speak in this case instead of “telling a story” about “evoking associations”. To make this differentiation is from a curator’s view helpful because, first, one strength of the exhibition medium is exactly to use the associative power of objects – and one weakness is to tell stories. Second, you have to arrange and combine objects in a diverse way, depending on if you intend to tell a story or to evoke associations. Both is due to a core feature of stories and narratives: there are always two events added or linked and a process is involved. To put it differently: something must happen! Or how John le Carré describes it: “’The cat sat on a mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.”*
Looking at a truffle you may sense “satisfaction” or think of “cocoa beans” or “Valentine’s day” and in an exhibition you could support one of this associations by adding for example a red rose. But even though a visitor looking at these two objects may “invent” a story or remember an incident, on the level of the exhibition no story is told because no process is shown.
To “tell a story” with the chocs would be more difficult because an exhibition is a quite static medium. One possibility would be to show an empty box of chocolate and to place a set of teeth with inlays in the same showcase. O.k., this would not be the most exciting story, but I hope you get the point.
In my view, being aware of such a difference between treating an object as an “associations reservoir” or as an “element of a story” can be hugely useful in deciding how to place, present and combine specific objects in an exhibition.
I think that one (good) reason for applying the term “story” also to the sunglasses or the truffles is, that the transitions are smooth between stories and associations – stories can evoke associations and associations can be linked and used as story elements. Another one is that “story” is a very catchy concept whereas it is more complicated to put associations into words, also because often, situated between feelings and thoughts, floating between subconsciousness and consciousness, they defy any explanations.
So let’s send the story police home – for today.
* I took this quotation from Austin Kleon’s book “Show Your Work!” (2014)
Some days ago I had the opportunity to visit the Werkbund Archive – Museum of Things [Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge] with a friend who had never been there before. I cherished this opportunity because I like this museum so much and visited it so often that it is not easy for me to view it from a critical distance. Discussing our impressions seemed to me the perfect way to explore further what makes the permanent exhibition so particularly fascinating.
Even though my friend was also interested very much in the history of the Deutsche Werkbund and in the showcases which feature the ideas of this organization, we got totally lost in conversation about the showcases which function like an open storage. Side by side they deploy things in huge numbers, clustered under topics like “Tools” or “Toys”.
At one point my – enchanted – friend remarked that the exhibition is especially evocative, a comment I took up at the end of our tour. But what, I asked provocatively, makes the difference between this kind of exhibition and a flea market? Wouldn’t things presented on a stall have the power to evoke similar feelings?
No, she answered, because:
1. The sheer amount of things, cramped in the showcases, creates a condensed and very special atmosphere.
2. The clever arrangement of the objects invites you to wonder about correlations.
3. You know that you are in a museum, therefore you know that you are looking back.
For me the last point was especially striking as it corresponds well to an insight gained from my PhD research: that the format, the genre, the context cannot be emphasised strongly enough. A flea market you would visit in a totally different state of mind. The situation would not expect you to reflect, but in a museum the frame has a certain appellative character: watch and try to understand the (historical) meaning! And so we did.
So a huge part of our pleasure to inspect and discuss all these ugly, beautiful, useful and crazy objects in the Museum of Things, derived from our knowledge about what a museum is – and what it is not, usually. As you could find all these things also on a flea market, a special tension was created between our willingness (supported by the “serious” museum situation) to reflect on their meaning and, at the same time, our amused amazement about the venture to deploy them in a “serious” museum.