Thomas Thiemeyer is Professor of Museum Studies at the Ludwig-Uhland-Institut für Empirische Kulturwissenschaft, the department for Historical and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Tübingen. From 2003 to 2006, he worked as a curator at HG Merz, an architecture and museum design firm, where he aided in developing the concepts for the Mercedes-Benz Museum (2006) and the Porsche-Museum (2009). From 2006 to 2009, he completed his PhD under Gottfried Korf on the topic of the presentation of WWI and WWII in museums [Fortsetzung des Krieges mit anderen Mitteln. Die beiden Weltkriege im Museum (Continuing the War with New Instruments: The World Wars in the Museum), Schoeningh 2010]. From 2009 to 2012 he coordinated the museum studies research project wissen&museum (Knowledge and the Museum), a cooperation between the German Literature Archive in Marbach, the Ludwig-Uhland-Institute, the Kunsthistorisches Institut, and the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien. In 2011, he became a junior professor at the Ludwig-Uhland-Institute. His research and teaching focus on museum and archival research, memorial culture, and cultural theory. He is currently supervising three projects, one on scenography in exhibitions (funded by the DFG, or German Research Foundation), one on how German museums deal with collections from the colonial era (funded by the Exploration Fund), and one on the remembrance of the Shoah in Israel and Germany (funded by the Baden-Württemberg-Stiftung). His latest book, 'Das Depot als Versprechen – Warum unsere Museen die Lagerräume ihrer Dinge wiederentdecken' ('The Storeroom as Promise – Why our Museums are Rediscovering their Objects’ Storage Spaces'), will be published in 2017. Recent publications in English include “Cosmopolitanizing Colonial Memories in Germany”, in: Critical Inquiry 45 (2019), pp. 967-990. Full text: https://doi.org/10.1086/703964.
The research project The Depot as Promise inquires into the value of museum collections and stores for today’s museums. It focuses on a variety of museums with differing specialisations, all of which explicitly make their stores a central theme in their exhibitions. Using a cultural studies approach, it seeks to fathom what makes the store (warehouse, stacks, archive) so attractive for the museum today – as metaphor, method or place – that it finds itself re-worked and re-presented in exhibition formats such as viewable storage areas, or in newly assembled ‘study collections’ for the public. It also seeks to comprehend how these approaches alter exhibition didactics and forms of display within the museum. What ideas about the store and collection do exhibitions transmit? And how does the process of translation from stored object to exhibited object take shape?
An exhibition based upon the store itself is particularly suited to serve as an empirical basis for such an investigation, because it reflects and brings into contact two spatial orderings that are traditionally separate. During this transformation, the potentials and limits for the display of collections become clear, as do the shifts in the capacities for understanding in both the exhibition and collection spaces.
A re-emphasis on in-house collections and stores can be observed within an increasing number of contemporary art and life museums, which manifests in study collections, archive displays or viewable storage areas (one of which, for example, features in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin’s newly designed Humboldt Forum in the Berliner Stadtschloss, or City Palace, scheduled to open in 2019). Early examples of such collection and store displays can be seen in the Musée national des Arts et Traditions populaire in Paris (‘Galerie scientifique’, 1972) and Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology (1976). The historical context of the present boom in this kind of exhibition format lies in a new understanding of the object, from the 1980s onwards, which does not reduce the effect of objects to any prior knowledge on the part of the observer, but instead treats them seriously as objects of knowledge that can, through close observation, be made accessible and associatively arranged in order to arrive at completely new forms of understanding. An epistemological model returns thus to a discourse that originated in the cabinets of arts and curiosities of the fifteenth century and displayed objects of art, nature and history on an equal footing, linking them associatively (for example in the Musée Sentimentaux de Paris 1977, de Cologne 1979, and de Prusse 1981). Around the same time, within the field of cultural studies, there developed a new interest in the archive as a place of knowledge production (Foucault, Derrida) and in the materiality of communication (Kittler). In subsequent years, numerous museums integrated these currents and exposed their collections – including their organisation and logic – in exhibitions. Meanwhile, many museums re-considered the collections in their stores and publicly began to focus on these treasure cabinets of cultural tradition (for example, the series of exhibitions put on by the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, ‘Notes from the Archive’). These exhibitions, known as ‘Schaulager’, ‘visible storage’, or ‘study collections’, simultaneously put the classification, the organisation, the look or the methods of the museum store on display.
The goal of The Depot as Promise is to consider not only the relevance and actual function of museum collections, but also the underlying promise that stores and archives augur for Europeans of the twenty-first century. Where does this new fascination with the store, its organisation and its secrets come from, and how does such fascination alter museum exhibition practices? Secondly, it seeks to clarify what changes objects undergo in their transfer from storage to exhibition space, and how their meaning changes through new spatial contexts. What distinguishes these two spaces of the museum (storage and exhibition)? What informative potentials do they possess? In short: the project seeks to better understand the production of knowledge within the museum, and to grasp the meaning of collections for today’s museums. A theoretical foundation of these topics seems more necessary than ever, in a time where the museum poses central questions about the sense and purpose of an institution that was once legitimised through a belief in the original and the informative and cultural value of cumulative tradition: a conception that is today no longer self-evident.