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!

Wake up!

The Book

Daniel Tyradellis‘ ‚Tired Museums‘ [Müde Museen] is one of those books I begin to read ready to highlight remarkable insights. But after the second page I put the pen away because I could underline every passage. I fully agree with Tyradellis’ main thesis that museums are (still) too often boring because it is not understood profoundly enough that exhibitions should be, from the bottom of their heart, communication. What makes the reading so exciting and what bears such a potential for change, is the philosopher’s understanding of ‘communication’ [Vermittlung]. According to Tyradellis, curating should not pursue the purpose to explain things but to enable visitors to THINK. By thinking he does not mean to ponder about the exhibits but to comprehend that knowledge is not self-evident but can be questioned – that different viewpoints are thinkable. To screen self-evidences is ‘the key to communication’ in exhibitions, according to Tyradellis (page 158). He writes:

The evidences of humans are the joint for the range of communication as genuine form of cultural work in exhibitions. At every time and in every society there are things and contexts which make sense and remain widely unquestioned. The thinking and feeling is in that case so immediate that no thought emerges at all that the contexts could be different ones. Things seem to be definitely the way they simply seem – evident. This holds not only true for the immediacy as such but also on a deeper level. Evidence is also a word for the point where you begin to stop asking. (Tyradellis: 152, my translation)

The author explains that such a ‘thinking in space’ is difficult for museums for historical, psychological and structural reasons. To me the latter seems to be of special interest. Many expert scientists – according to Tyradellis – aim at exhibiting ‘professional evidences’ and ‘heaving’ the visitor onto the correspondent level (page 149). Communication is delegated to designers and educators. Tyradellis is not the first to complain about these circumstances. But embedded in his argumentation this point gains explosive power because he sees that specialisation hinders a ‘dissociation of evidences’ (page 155). But it is the museum, as a ‘third place’, a place ‘in-between’, that could be an ideal place for forcing open entrenched ways of seeing:

Actually, there is none other social place and no institution which would have the ability to do this. This is down to the fact that the medium exhibition is potentially not only interdisciplinary and thus brings together different expertise; exhibitions are also intermedia, and it can belong to the curatorial tasks to force the games of truth of the particular knowledge to leave its own specific mediality. Due to this inevitable translation and exposition, evidences and specifications change their obviousness. The own thinking then represents itself differently.
(Tyradellis: 240, my translation)

But how can we curators question evidences? In order to find an answer to this crucial question I visited the exhibition ‘The Ties of Friendship’ Tyradellis curated at the Deutsche Hygiene-Museum Dresden. In his book Tyradellis only frames an aspiration, of course, and of course, it’s difficult to realise theoretical concepts and ideals with the highly complex medium exhibition.


The Exhibition

To anticipate the result: if I had not read the curator’s book I would have simply thought the exhibition appealing and well done. Especially the idea to offer different versions of the (excellent) exhibition texts depending on the questionnaire about friendship every visitor is invited to fill in at the beginning, is fantastic. Perhaps even more important for my positive response would have been the fact that many interesting and inspiring aspects were touched. But this is exactly why Tyradellis, in my opinion, did not succeed in unsettling evidences. A variety of perspectives on friendship is deployed, but the multitude neutralizes their explosive power. Or, to put it another way: some questions have the potential to comprehend one’s own point of view as one among many, but even though some are posed explicitly, the questions are raised too gently. No emotional impetus unfolds. And emotions could help the question to eat through one’s consciousness in a painful or, in the best sense, unsettling way.

Two examples: An impressive monument shows a dog. The question is: is it possible to befriend an animal? This is a really interesting question that challenges the whole concept of friendship! The monument is huge – but it is only one among many that show more types of friendship: friendship among colleagues, comrades, team members and even with God. Among all of them the peculiarity of the problem disappears. What is more, the monument says there are people who consider animals their friends, but the opposite (people who don’t accept animals as friends) is not shown on the same (visual) level. My conclusion: a more effective way to debunk evidences would be to let contrasts clash.

Animals as friends?

Animals as friends?

Friendship with colleagues...

Friendship with colleagues…

... team members...

… team members…

... or even God?

… or even God?










Another interesting issue in the exhibition is the border between friendship and love. Again: this is really challenging! In a time where ‘friends with benefits’ have become popular, sex as a unique feature of love is radically put into question. Notions and connotations about different (are they different?) types of relationships are shown on a map which I really enjoyed to study. But again, because of the variety of terms the questions were only touched upon not ruptured. I think a deeper immersion into one of the aspects and a bolder display of emotions would have been more promising.

To conclude: the exhibition presents evidences and states of knowledge and raises questions. The questions are potential starting points for challenging these evidences. But because neither the questions nor possible, different and controversial answers are shown in depth, the thinking wanders, even if in some cases with a stumble, over the aspects, but it does not pause long enough for getting aware of itself.

Is it perhaps time to curate more radically?


Daniel Tyradellis: Müde Museen. Oder: Wie Ausstellungen unser Denken verändern könnten. Hamburg: edition Körber-Stiftung, 2014

‘The Ties of Friendship’, curated by Daniel Tyradellis, Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, 18/04/2015 – 01/11/2015

Photographs: © Ariane Karbe, published by kind permission of Deutsches Hygiene-Museums Dresden


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

Feeling mousetrapped

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.

Installation 14 with a wall covered by weapons Photograph by Ariane Karbe

Installation 14 with a wall covered by weapons
Photograph by Ariane Karbe

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.

The screens with a dance scene and suffering children Photograph by Ariane Karbe

The screens with a dance scene and suffering children
Photograph by Ariane Karbe

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.

The last room of the exhibition Photograph by Ariane Karbe

The last room of the exhibition
Photograph by Ariane Karbe

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.

Strange but strong

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

Lost in Conversation

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”.

© Werkbundarchiv - Museum der Dinge/Armin Herrmann

© Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge/Armin Herrmann

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?

© Werkbundarchiv - Museum der Dinge

© Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge

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.

© Werkbundarchiv - Museum der Dinge

© Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge

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.

© Werkbundarchiv - Museum der Dinge

© Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge