Institute of Historical and Cultural Anthropology

Scenographic Museum Exhibitions – History, (Pre) Judgments, and Potential

Funding Deutsche Forschungs Gemeinschaft (German Research Foundation)

Prof. Dr. Thomas Thiemeyer


Alexander Renz, M.A.

Duration 07/2016-03/2020

The 21st-century museum is in the midst of an identity crisis: tight budgets, pressure to meet quotas, and competition with television, internet, and the multimedia spectacles put on by science centers and amusement parks are forcing museums to redefine themselves as public spaces and to try out alternative approaches to exhibitions in order to maintain relevance in today’s society. The new pressures coming to bear on museums raise the questions: What role could the European cultural institution of the museum in its traditional form play in the 21st century? How must we change our understanding of the museum in order to guarantee its place in the future?

It is in response to these questions that the project Scenographic Museum Exhibitions came to be. The project aims to bring the prominent new method of multimedia and scenographic exhibitions into sharper focus and to understand what the shift away from real objects towards multimedia experiences means for the institution of the museum.

What opportunities and risks are presented by the new, genre-crossing culture of multimedia exhibitions with their tendency towards the dramaturgy of films and the theater? This form of exhibition turns historically significant sites into stage sets and/or dramatizes the once static exhibition using rapid sequences of images, audio-visual media, open sound and interactive offerings. In short, it creates immersive spaces that are meant to pull the visitor into events in order to generate emotional closeness. Exhibition spaces are no longer reserved exclusively for objects from the collections but rather mix different media, objects and design elements into a single, cohesive artwork with multiple experiential levels. These scenographic exhibitions have precursors in the 19st and 20st centuries.

The project Scenographic Museum Exhibitions – History, (Pre) Judgments, and Potential seeks to explore the potential of the scenographic method of exhibition and to investigate the debates surrounding it in both the public and professional spheres by combining historic and contemporary museum analysis. The assumption of this research is that there exists among the cultured middle class (only?) in Germany a persistent prejudice against multimedia scenographic exhibitions that manifests in the museum and in contemporary cultural criticism through the suggestion that entertainment with mass appeal lowers the quality of an exhibition. This underlying discontent is wide spread in Germany despite the current lack of empirically resilient data that could substantiate it or place it into perspective. The goal of the project is to begin to assemble the hitherto lacking empirical substantiation; the project will therefore concentrate on analyses of (cultural) historical museums.
Overall, the project Scenographic Museum Exhibitions is meant to provide foundational research. The aim of the project is to find out how our understanding of legitimate culture and legitimate forms of the conveyance of cultural heritage have developed and changed through the example of the museum. The museum, as a classic institution of high culture which has, especially since the 1920s, increasingly offered exhibitions with popular themes, is an especially appropriate place to work out the negotiation between, on the one hand, education and culture and, on the other, entertainment and pleasure.

Project Structure
The project Scenographic Museum Exhibitions aims to systematically analyze the appropriation practices of visitors in multimedia scenographic historical exhibitions. It further seeks to gather the arguments of opponents and proponents in order to bring them into dialog with the historical roots of our understanding of legitimate and illegitimate forms of exhibition (somewhat dependent on age, nationality, milieu, or academic background). In accordance with these simultaneously contemporary and historical interests, the project is divided into two parts:

Part One: Scenographic Museums Today should outline the present state of scenographic exhibitions in three different countries. Specifically, it should show 1) how the public behaves in the exhibitions and 2) how this form of exhibition is discussed. The guiding question is: how do museum designers, museum critics, and the public judge scenographic exhibitions today? How do visitors actually appropriate or process these exhibitions?

Part Two: History of Scenographic Museum Exhibitions will aim to historically ground the contemporary research. It should determine which intellectual basics were established in the 19th century that have shaped our understanding of legitimate methods of exhibition up through the present and how these views changed in the 20th century. This part of the project also seeks to discover what is new about today’s formats and what refers back to precursors. This is important to investigate since the intention to communicate history in the most lively, up-close-and-personal way possible already existed in the 19th century in the form of “Period Rooms” (“Epocheräumen”) that attempted to bring particular historical periods to life again using different objects and architecture and furniture typical of the time.

Thomas Thiemeyer: Inszenierung, in: Ders./Heike Gfrereis/Bernhard Tschofen (Hg.): Museen verstehen. Begriffe der Theorie und Praxis, Göttingen 2015, S. 45-62.