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Pre-Show. Identities on Display / Project Description

The Foyer as an Experience

by Martin Heller

The very first event of the newly installed Humboldt Lab was a workshop that took place in Dahlem in June 2012. With the title “Asking Questions” it was concerned with subject matters that arose directly from the experience with the museums on site. Among the participating designers was Barbara Holzer from the office Holzer Kobler Architekturen. She was particularly intrigued by the large, empty and somehow inhospitable foyer, which visitors to the Dahlem Museums had to negotiate before they could decide whether to first visit the Ethnologische Museum (to the right) or the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (to the left).

This disparate entrance situation showed clearly that the foyer was organized very differently in terms of functionality in pre-unification times, when the Gemäldegalerie also belonged to Dahlem. At the same time the significance of such entrance areas came up in the discussion and, in general, the question of first impressions as an exploratory meeting. The opportunity for the museum to address essential emotions, and convey certain messages, to the as yet impartial and open visiting public was also addressed.

The Exhibition Before the Exhibition

Out of that emerged the “Pre-Show” as one of the first projects of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem. “Pre-Show” was an attempt to design a temporary installation that would greet and impress the visitor and be a first statement on behalf of both museums. It would also function as an adieu when they leave.

During the brainstorming process, an in-house workshop prepared by Holzer Kobler Architekturen for the museum management and a number of curators, played an important role. They discussed matters of content, as well as the didactic and scenographic possibilities available for such a project, in order to build a bridge between the daily life of Europeans outside the museums and the innumerable unknown “alien” cultures and time scales inside.

The workshop itself reflected related narrative elements from the fields of the arts and media (intro, trailer, titles, prolog, overture, teaser) and examined these, on the basis of examples, in terms of usability. The different justifications for such choices were discussed extensively: just as a pre-show in an amusement park or the overture in an opera function as obligatory introductions for all visitors, so do teasers and similar marketing instruments offer particular experiences that are disconnected from the real narrative for which they are signposts. Barbara Holzer and Tristan Kobler also showed artistic works in which similar interests are manifested – for instance in works by Olafur Eliasson, Mike Meiré or Karin Sander.

During the follow-up of this presentation, a whole range of themes and content issues came up, about what would be suitable as a joint and effective emblem for both museums. The longing for the unknown and “alien” belongs in there just as much as the wish, already to be made clear in the entrance hall, that in order to understand the Dahlem collections and exhibitions, every form of Eurocentralism has to be banished. Very quickly, though, it became clear that the museums wished to place their visitors at the center – a demand that also defines the Humboldt-Forum’s planning work.

Time Limited Exhibit: “Identities on Display”

From such preparation work Holzer and Kobler developed three concrete proposals for projects, out of which one of them won the clearest approbation by the Humboldt Lab management: an experiment that arose in collaboration with the artist Karin Sander and that was named “Identities on Display.”

The basic idea was extraordinarily simple: the visitors would be invited to deposit their clothing and bags, not in the usual cloakroom, that was almost invisible from the entrance area, but to place them in full public view, in glass cabinets.

For this purpose Holzer and Sander placed in the foyer 26 specially made lockers, over two meters high, with three sides made of transparent glass. A basic model was made for single visitors; another was designed for couples or small groups. But there were also lockers made especially for school classes or groups of children. The key in the lock could be removed by inserting a coin, which could be retrieved at the end of the visit.

Two complementary effects were in the foreground. The first was that the foyer was transformed from being a no-man’s-land to a kind of landscape, which made a rapid traversing impossible, and visitors, instead, were gently guided around the transparent hindrances. And the second effect was, that every visitor was obliged to make a decision to place their possessions on display, or to use the traditional cloakroom and remain anonymous, even before entering the actual exhibition space.

The reaction was, as expected, varied. Some didn’t understand the invitation or rejected it; some seemed to consider the new cloakroom lockers a result of building renovation work and accepted it without a second thought. If the weather was inclement or the museum was full, more jackets, coats, umbrellas and such had to be stowed, and the demand for the glass lockers was accordingly high.

As a rule, though, the public played the game with a great sense of fun. That can be seen from many examples, in the careful arrangement of their own items, which revealed an awareness of being exhibited. An awareness of their own identity as part of a heterogeneous group, with a similar motivation and led by a similar sense of enjoyment, based on a social group understanding, and they were happy to take their place in that context – without demanding special representation or a reward.

A Successful Experiment

It was this low threshold that made the “Pre-Show” so attractive. As recipients of the museum’s exhibiting and communication efforts, it provided the visitors with a representative corporeality, which manifested upon entry, and disappeared again upon leaving the Dahlem collections.

No more, but also no less. And it was amazing that after only a short time the installation by Holzer/Kobler and Sander had already lost its provisional character, and became accepted as a part of the museum itself, and above that, was involved in numerous events. The emptiness at the end of the “Pre-Show” left a number of colleagues with a small sense of loss, a sort of phantom pain, as if the museum had lost its visitors, although that was far from being the case.

Martin Heller is a member of the management board of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem and responsible for the conceptual content of the Humboldt-Forum.

You can find further reading on this project here.