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Concentrating (on) Collections / Positions

“Concentrating (on) Collections”: Rather than an Exhibition, a Collection of Concepts for Exhibiting

by Philipp Teufel

“Concentrating (on) Collections” almost isn’t an exhibition. It’s simply a small slideshow for the interested public, a collection of concepts, a laboratory report in the best sense of the term. A concept orients itself toward professional third parties. Here, the concept is to rewrite the grammar of exhibiting for the display and study collections planned for the Humboldt-Forum. At the same time, it’s a manifesto from the Humboldt Lab on the “Laboratory Concept.” The concrete recommendations it contains are of equal importance and significance as its ideas for design. “Concentrating (on) Collections” formulates questions about contemporary exhibition design for display cases and their integration into a museum exhibition; it gathers concepts and presents innovative ideas for a hybrid of storage facility and exhibition. What are the contemporary approaches, and what are the most suitable concepts for the material?

Concentrating (on) Collections Professionally

These questions remind me of the first instances when we, as future designers of the Humboldt-Forum, toured the storage facilities of the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Dahlem. It was a very special situation – what happens when different professions concentrate on the collections? What insights emerge among them? For the architects and designers at Ralph Appelbaum and malsyteufel, this was the first step in the process: going through the storage facilities, the stacks, and the display collections alongside the directors, curators, and conservators. By this point, it had already become clear that a curator, designer, architect, or conservator pays attention to different issues. What ultimately will interest later visitors: the arrangement, or the sheer number of exhibits in a particular collection spread before them like a tapestry of objects? Or will they instead discover the individual objects inside?
We are fascinated simultaneously by the detailed glimpse and by the whole, by stories and by images.

Collections and Objects Have a History – and Tell Stories

On these visits to the collection, the storage facility becomes a place of observation, selection, and conversation between different disciplines, objectives, and ideas. Often, as designers, we’ve found that the quality of stories told by the curators isn’t conveyed in the exhibitions. Sometimes, information about objects in the storage facility is only housed in the archival records. Or it resides solely in the heads of scholars (for more about this, see the Humboldt Lab project “Talking Knowledge”).

The Storage Facility or Archive as ‘Spatial Image’

Beyond the actual collections, we were impressed as designers by the overall picture: the storage facility is a self-contained, well-composed spatial image. Indeed, many artists and photographers have been fascinated by museum storage facilities, and have captured this in their chosen medium. Archival filing cabinets, shelves, pallets – such images are characterized by entirely unique forms of storage furniture. Even the clothes worn by conservators can be quite specialized. I’m thinking of Candida Höfer’s world-renowned photograph from the rooms of the storage facility at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. The two conservators, in their protective suits, look something like extraterrestrials, or forensic specialists in a detective film.

To Store or to Show?

Looking back over the history of the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, you find people debating how much space to reserve for exhibitions versus storage from the very beginning. At one of the former locations, on Stresemannstraße, these areas weren’t separated. In Dahlem, the storage facility was separated from the exhibition areas – a solution that seems unattractive from today’s perspective, as it withholds the majority of the collection from the public.

For us as designers, the objective was to present the collections at a level of quality defined neither by quantity of square meterage, nor by the exhaustive presentation of the collection holdings. To meet this objective, we have developed independent, clearly defined elements and spatial strategies to help the Berlin institutions establish a distinct individual presence. These elements and strategies create tangible space for new ideas and presentations of the collection in the future. They enable curators to discover their own approach within a coherent whole, while facilitating flexibility that can be sustained into the future. Among these components are the showcases and the study collections.

The Showcases

The Humboldt-Forum’s exhibitions and display-case zones will enable scholars, specialists, and members of the original cultures to conduct studies and research. They will also enable regular visitors to explore the collections themselves. Simply due to the extent of the collections – they are always growing – this presents a particular challenge for the storage sites, which at other buildings are reserved for specialists. Today, the Ethnologisches Museum’s collection alone comprises some 500,000 ethnological and archaeological objects. “Only” some 20,000 of these will be exhibited at the Humboldt-Forum.

For this reason, new concepts and strategies are needed. And the “Concentrating (on) Collections” project from the Humboldt Lab has supplied important foundations for their development. I read the project as a recommendation that we bring together the viewpoints of different experts, bring together the view toward object histories and the view toward the total spatial image.

Concentrating (on) Collections in the Lab

“Concentrating (on) Collections,” curated by Nicola Lepp and Nina Wiedemeyer, brings these important topics together as if under a microscope in the laboratory. The project poses a number of decisive questions for the further implementation of the project: Is everything of equal importance in a display case? Do exhibits in a display case lose their uniqueness? What happens when you walk along and compare the exhibits? To make a comparison, you need at least two objects – but how do visitors handle many hundreds of objects? Are there appropriate and inappropriate comparisons when an entire collection is exhibited?

Of central importance is that a collaboration takes place between those who understand the objects and their individual history, and those who see the whole picture and are capable of designing it. The curators come to notice that the things don’t divulge as much to everyone as they themselves perceive. The designers realize that the exhibits must be staged in a certain way for their appeal to unfold. How then should this mass of exhibits be made to “speak” in a showcase? How can new perspectives toward the collection be perceived spatially by visitors, through a communicative dialogue?

Together, curators and designers ‘layout’ the exhibits for visitors – in the dual sense of presenting and interpreting. “Concentrating (on) Collections” shows how, together, curators and designers can lay out “clues” for visitors to generate new forms of experiencing, seeing, and understanding, new forms of encounter between the subject and the object, new forms of promoting dialogue with visitors.

Communicating and Conveying through ‘Fields of Play'

The concepts recommended by “Concentrating (on) Collections” present different forms of emphasis, ways to demarcate boundaries within the density of the presentation – elements within the giant display cabinets signalizing that something unusual can be seen here, that a unique perspective is being offered. One concrete example is the recommendation that a ‘field of play’ be included in the presentation of the numerous buffalo robes from the North American Prairie and Plains collection. A specially placed box in front of the lower part of the display cabinet serves to mark out the field of play. In this case, the game found inside is intended for children, and consists of characters from the stories portrayed on the buffalo robes. This invites viewers to approach the objects through the stories depicted on them. The static abundance of the collection is made dynamic – analogue gamification. The game also draws attention to a unique, concrete feature of the collection: this buffalo robe, too, is all about stories. New ways of viewing the objects emerge. The game allows the exhibits to speak – viewers can make their own sense of what the collection says.

“Concentrating (on) Collections” isn’t an exhibition yet. But by 2019, there will be an exhibition that invites us to concentrate (on) collections, and this project will have helped inspire how.

Professor Philipp Teufel is the Deputy General Project Manager of Exhibition Design for the Humboldt-Forum, in cooperation with Ralph Appelbaum Associates. Teufel possesses over 25 years of experience in the field of museum and exhibition design. From 1985 to 1995, he worked in Frankfurt as one of the primary designers for various museums on Frankfurt’s Museumsufer (Museums Embankment). In 1994 he was appointed to the Fachhochschule Düsseldorf (known as the Hochschule Düsseldorf since 2015) where, together with Professor Uwe Reinhardt, he heads the Exhibition Design Institute and MA program of the same name. His most important museum projects include: the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt am Main, the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (known as Archäologisches Museum since 2002) in Frankfurt am Main, Historisches Museum Frankfurt, Museum Judengasse in Frankfurt am Main, the Neues Museum in Berlin (invited to compete in call for bids), Museumsinsel Berlin (Corporate Design and Signage System – competition), Geldmuseum der Deutschen Bundesbank in Frankfurt am Main, Polizeimuseum Hamburg (master plan), and the Haus des Waldes in Stuttgart. He is the author and editor of numerous publications dedicated to exhibition and museum design.