Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

Like stories, exhibitions unfold – beyond the dramaturgic conceptual work – their own life. Exactly as a text writes itself to a certain degree in a way difficult to rationalise, new connections and unexpected layers of meaning come to exist during the making of an exhibition. Right in the middle a fantastic idea is born and directs the line of argumentation in a different direction. Suddenly a context becomes visible that was hidden at the beginning. And it is the objects that are responsible for this. Because of their sensual quality and multifaceted character it is hard to force them into a corset of meanings. Besides, often astonishing effects are created during the growing of the exhibition into the space, effects that were not predictable during the planning phase. To accept this and not to deny it because of rational reasons, allows to unfold this magic fully for the visitors. Interesting, appealing exhibitions live from this in-between, this added something, this certain extra hard to explain. And therefore, apart from all achievement for clarity, magic is always at the heart of the matter.


Picture from The New York Public Library

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. (1905 – 1920). Brush the mystic: the Hindu basket Retrieved from


Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

Stories always contain an attitude regarding the topic. I want to express this as clearly as possible. To hold a clear position means to make myself vulnerable and attackable. This does not mean I become visible as a person, as Ariane Karbe. But I do get involved in my role as exhibition dramaturge and I do not hide behind the museum. The means to achieve this are various and depend from content to content. Thus, I don’t deny my enthusiasm for an issue but use it as an engine to attract the audience’s attention. There is nothing wrong with a strong handwriting – as long as you say clearly that it is your handwriting and not a truth produced by the museum. It depends on each project if one or several perspectives are discussed. By making my approach transparent, I enable the visitors to positon themselves and to pass criticism. Thus I take the audience serious.

Next time: Magic!


Picture from The New York Public Library

Science, Industry and Business Library: General Collection , The New York Public Library. (1859). Fantasmagorie page 383 Retrieved from


Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

My work as exhibition dramaturge is to compose the information units into comprehensible stories that also attract emotions. I develop the stories based on scientific research but understand myself first and foremost as communicator. Emotions are productive in order to motivate the museum visitors to engage with the topics. I try to use dramaturgic devices as consciously as possible in order to create specific effects. Do I intend to puzzle, surprise or unsettle the visitors? Do I want to overwhelm them or to make them laugh? This may sound manipulative, but: it is impossible not to produce any effects. If you don’t want to create them intentionally, you run the risk of producing disappointment and boredom. People want entertainment, and that is an important aspect for my work. To find out how to satisfy this need by telling certain exhibition stories, without simplifying, is a thrilling challenge. An exhibition that resembles a Hollywood film, a soap opera, a poem – why not? While doing this, it is important to explore the borders between facts and fiction carefully. Every exhibition narrative, as objective as it may seem, contains a forming und deforming of the content. It is the aim of my research to explore the creative potential comprised in that – and my passion.

Next time: Attitude!


Photograph from The New York Public Library

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. Josie’s Legacy (cinema 1914) Retrieved from


Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

A worked through storyline is the backbone of every exhibition – this is my conviction. But to realise exhibition projects is a complex challenge. It is necessary to research objects and topics, to write texts, to apply for funding and to look for sponsors. And time is always scare. Often you forget the crucial point. Which story to tell? What is the central topic of the exhibition? Are all hypotheses well explained? In order to keep the essence of this multi-layered production process in mind it is helpful to focus on the structure. I understand exhibitions as arrangements of information units, they may be objects, texts or multi media stations. As an exhibition dramaturge I am responsible to select these units and to place them in the room. The arrangement of the units is essential to create suspense, for instance. At this point my work overlaps with the designers‘ work: they work out how to support the storyline visually and to translate it into the space. The more conscious I am as exhibition dramaturge about what to tell, the more successful this cooperation can be.

Next time: Emotion!


Picture from The New York Public Library

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. (1773). Cette planche représente la derniere couche des muscles…. Retrieved from

The Art of Exhibition Telling

I remember standing in the schoolyard trying to tell a joke to my sister and her friend. It was winter and we shivered with cold in our anoraks and pink-coloured mittens. I knew the joke by heart, I had practised it well, I loved the payoff – and to this day I have strong memories of their faces full of expectation. But I confused the plot hopelessly, and even before I battled my way to the end, the two of them took each other by the hand and hopped laughingly away.

Inspired by the Museumsakademie Museion21, I recently wrote my leadership values statement. My idea was to formulate as clearly as possible how I aim at influencing – thus I understand leadership – the museum world. However, what was meant as a reflection about my beliefs and principles turned out to be a formula, my formula for exhibition stories. I should not have been so surprised. Storytelling is the core of my motivation for my work – it is the heart. So the formula which I will present here bit by bit over the next days, is a lot about stories, a lot more about exhibitions and a good deal about me.


Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

This formula explains my understanding of exhibitions and therefore my self-understanding as exhibition dramaturge. Like stories, exhibitions should not only consists of information but also emotions, otherwise they resemble prosaic reports. The concept of an exhibition can, like the concept of a story, be planned up to a certain point (important!) but cannot be controlled from this point on (magic!). The audience is no factor of its own in my formula because as addressees of the stories they are contained in every aspect, they are the most important entity. The most significant challenge of my work and my central responsibility is to make the stories so comprehensible and attractive that the audience can easily and willingly grasp them.

Next time: Structure!

Pieces falling into place


‘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.

Painting by ARTROoM: Michaela Heidlas-May, Nicole Wächtler and Pia Grambart-Delalic

Painting by ARTROoM: Michaela Heidlas-May, Nicole Wächtler and Pia Grambart-Delalic

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.

A collection of crown caps and broken glass

A childrens’ collection of crown caps and broken glass

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.


Such bandages were installed at trees in Frankfurt by Stefanie Grohs and volunteers

Such bandages commemorating former KZ-inmates were installed at trees in Frankfurt by Stefanie Grohs and volunteers


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

A good position

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.

Missie at her former workplace, the Berlin Zoo ©Photo Zoo Berlin

Missie at her former workplace, the Berlin Zoo
©Photo Zoo Berlin

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