Museums are increasingly offering special events. Does this divert one’s attention from the actual content? Not in the least, we feel. A variety of activities, rather, create more points of contact for additional groups of people and ensure that the museum as an institution remains socially relevant.
Museum beer. Yoga at the museum. Partying at the museum. The museum out and about, in the city and in the mountains. Children spending a night at the museum. There is a long list to choose from. Traditional museums have recently become places where a variety of things happen. Programmes are filled with a broad range of activities and events.
This was not always the case. Once upon a time the main purpose of a museum was to store the past and put it on display in large showcases, often associated with a slightly musty image. However, a lot has changed over the past 25 years. Museums have opened up their concepts and have discovered new fields of play. Some have been accused of suffering from ‘eventitis’. Too many events, not enough content. Are the events all just window dressing with the aim of whitewashing the stuffy image of the museum? Aimless activism – much ado about nothing? Can a museum not just be a museum? Could we not be a little more serious and dispense with some of the noise and joviality?
Of course museums can offer that. They are, after all, places of learning. They convey knowledge and there is nothing wrong with being asked to use one’s brainpower every now and again. But a museum has much more to offer. It can do more than just exist and wait for the same audience of educated middle-class people to come and visit. If a museum wishes to remain relevant, it must expand its thinking and reach out to broader sections of society. Not just by extending the opening hours, but by expanding the museum’s attitude and openness, which offer points of contact to a whole host of people.
Open doors and an open mind
It is very obvious to us at the Museum of Communication that our work should have direct social relevance. This realisation is one of the criteria we use when selecting our exhibition themes and planning our activities. We want to offer new avenues of access. And we want to encourage new people to visit the museum. This begins with our attitude: we are not an institution that gathers information and then passes it on in handy little morsels, readymade and non-negotiable. Although we have a lot of knowledge, we are still interested in what visitors can offer us. This includes a lot of everyday expertise and sometimes a surprising amount of very precise specialist knowledge. And in turn we can learn something from them too.
The work that is done by our communicators goes to the heart of the museum’s ethos. They approach visitors with an open mind and meet them on an equal footing. They are hosts, not lecturers or museum attendants. As a host, one treats one’s guests in a personal and engaging manner. This makes for an encounter that everyone can benefit from.
Our cooperative attitude is enhanced by a targeted programme of activities, which open up new avenues of access. After all, it is the less conventional formats that introduce the experience of visiting a museum to new cohorts of people.
Trying new things shows our interest in people
Beer at the museum – yes please! Of course I can drink my beer at any bar in the city, but the museum beer as a format creates a new museum atmosphere. Colourful lighting, mood music and a drink in your hand – all this attracts a different type of audience and creates a new way of experiencing the museum. Suddenly the average age is considerably younger, and the atmosphere more relaxed. The same people could visit the museum in other circumstances too; but many only do so if the right event is on offer. It is a gesture that shows that the museum is interested in a particular target audience. You could also call it an invitation.
This is the reason why we do, in fact, need a multitude of different formats – on our own or together with other institutions. The Museum of Communication likes to fly a kite every now and then or even be a little extravagant at times. That is how we find out what points of access exist for the different target audiences and which ones actually work.
Offers such as museum beers, free admission to the museum, “The Art of Brewing at the Museum” and of course the Night of Museums and “Dark Gossip”, our night-time guided tours, are therefore essential parts of our concept. We are still a museum. Our contents are what we fill these vessels with. A critical stance is always part of it, in-depth engagement is welcome anytime. Exactly as it is during our normal opening hours. At the same time events such as these allow us to offer visitors an opportunity to experience the museum outside of what they would be used to, thus opening up new avenues of access.
The ideas do not necessarily have to come from the inside. We are happy to run with suggestions from the outside too. For instance, our next project: Good Night Ratatösk – spending a night at the museum! This was something that, over the years, children had requested every now and then. Sometimes your wishes can come true.
Nico Gurtner, Leiter Marketing & Kommunikation, Museum für Kommunikation