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Concentrating (on) Collections / Project Description

Abundance as an Asset and a Challenge

by Nicola Lepp and Nina Wiedemeyer

The Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst possess vast collections, assembled over the course of centuries. To make as much of these collections publically accessible as possible, the plans for the Humboldt-Forum site call for tall, densely packed display cabinets. Three locations within the Ethnologisches Museum will feature display-case zones: the America collection, the Africa collection, and the South Seas collection. These display cabinets are each up to 30 meters long, and are arranged uniquely in each of the three areas. The cabinets will have a high recognition value and, for visitors, will clearly be perceived as a comprehensive whole.

Inevitably, the significance of the individual objects in such cabinets takes a backseat to the respective collection as a whole. Much more, what is being presented to visitors – and what hopefully excites them – is the abundance of the collections, in all their variety. Yet monotony is pre-programmed, to a certain extent, the more such a display-case zone is enlarged and extended. The abundance must be arranged with precision.

Ideas for Organizing the Display-Case Zones

What can the density and abundance of objects in the display-case units potentially offer to the public? What can be shown and conveyed in this specific space – as distinct from a thematic exhibition? What unique opportunities for presentation and storytelling do the display cabinets offer? And finally: what can showcases accomplish, and what are their limitations?

Based on a comprehensive study of the internationally widespread form of presentation through display cases, “Concentrating (on) Collections” recommends that the display-case areas in the Humboldt-Forum share an overarching dramatic composition. Probebühne 7 at the Humboldt Lab Dahlem was used to generate different recommendations for possible implementation, in the form of a slideshow. For this we concentrated on the various challenges, from a museum and media perspective, posed by condensed presentations and used these as the point of departure for generating ideas.

To arrange the display-case zones in a manner that is factually precise, aesthetically pleasing, and comprehensible for visitors, one of the central prerequisites is to clearly distinguish these zones from the presentation forms used by the actual exhibition. Therefore, a thematic approach seems to contradict the logic of a display case. While both permanent and temporary exhibitions, which organize objects according to cultural/geographic criteria or specific thematic connections, are obligated to approach the objects in a narrative manner, display-case zones depend upon the abundance of collections and objects. When planning such exhibition units, this means that rather than beginning with themes, one should think systematically about the objects and make both the collection itself and the act of collecting a primary theme.

The abundance of objects and their condensed presentation, therefore, unlike thematic units, should initially start by following the fundamental logic of the collections, whether organized by object species and material, by collector, or chronologically. Yet this alone doesn’t suffice to lend enough variety to the 30-meter-long cabinet area.

“Concentrating (on) Collections” therefore introduces a conceptual approach that is based on the idea of continuously suspending the presentation of the collection’s abundance – interrupting the presentation with questions derived systematically from the objects themselves. Inserted into the large exhibition spaces of the cabinets are small, medium and large frames or boxes in different forms and formats; these frames or boxes can pick up on small details, arguments, and connections between the objects. In the context of the large display cabinets, they function like special-exhibition sites in miniature, where individual questions and observations can be addressed paradigmatically as individual episodes on a larger stage. The units can comprise a range of media, but should always be derived directly from the descriptive context of the display case. These interruptions, commentaries, and buttresses permeate the presentation of the collection, and serve to interrogate, contravene, or scrutinize the exhibited objects. Here would also be an ideal place to incorporate findings from the Humboldt Lab’s Probebühnen or from contemporary research projects. A number of scenarios have been worked out as examples in the slideshow for Probebühne 7. The project is a work in progress that will be furthered through the composition of a manual on the subject as well as through future workshops.

Reinforcing the Logic of the Collections

Using the “abundance of objects” as the representative principle for the display-case units in conjunction with the commentating interruptions serves to take the objects’ polysemy into account and present them in all their multi-perspectivity. The process of abbreviating and smoothing content toward a specific meaning – a process necessary in the context of a thematic exhibition – is relativized in the display-case units and expressed concretely as only one possible perspective among others. At the same time, the display cabinets maintain a perspective toward the collections’ history that isn’t typically found in thematic permanent exhibitions. Thus, a strategic interplay emerges between argumentation and visual experience, between the presence and the meaning of the objects. From a practical perspective, the minimalist form of the interruptions allows curators to integrate new viewpoints and research findings into the exhibition with little expenditure or forethought.

Altogether, it’s even conceivable that the three planned display-case modules (Africa, America, South Seas) each maintain a different focus, so that an internal dramaturgy emerges between the modules. The display-case modules would then be received like an exhibition tour.

For staging the individual frames, it is of fundamental importance that the precisely developed content of the units is also designed in aesthetically compelling fashion. The units should invite viewers to look closer, to transfer the suggested viewpoints to other objects, and to ask questions. The attractiveness and popularity of a display case arranged according to the logic of the abundance of objects will be determined, to no small degree, by how carefully it is set up.

Prof. Nicola Lepp is an expert in cultural theory and exhibition curator and since 2015 she has held a professorship in cultural education at the FH Potsdam; she has been curating thematic exhibitions in various constellations since 2001. Among the most significant are: "GRIMMWELT Kassel," 2015; "Museum der Gefäße," Humboldt Lab Dahlem, Berlin 2013; "Arbeit. Sinn und Sorge," Dresden 2009; "PSYCHOanalyse. Sigmund Freud zum 150. Geburtstag," 2006; "Der Neue Mensch. Obsessionen des 20. Jahrhunderts," 1999; Her research focuses on the theory and practice of things as well as critical pedagogic and educational museum theory.

Dr. Nina Wiedemeyer is an art and media scholar. Since 1998, she has worked as an author and curator for museums and exhibition firms, including prauth (the exhibition project “Arbeit. Sinn und Sorge,” Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, 2009/2010) and exponenten. Since 2012, she has been conducting a post-doctorate at UdK Berlin in the graduate college “Das Wissen der Künste” with a project on the precarious theory of knowledge of the applied arts. Her last published work was “Buchfalten: Material, Technik, Gefüge der Künstlerbücher,” Zürich/Berlin 2013.

You can find further reading on this project here.