International Hub for Museum Research

Museums are to become places of discussion and social participation - new concepts to achieve this are being developed in a major project

114 million people visit one of the approximately 6700 museums in Germany alone every year. Often located in the heart of cities, museums offer a place for social encounter and visiting them is akin to attending a popular sporting event. “Museums as spaces of social cohesion” is one of the projects recently receiving 1.2 millions euros from the Berlin University Alliance (BUA), a group in the Universities of Excellence funding line of the German government’s Excellence Strategy. The project is a step towards establishing top-level research in this field long term.

The BUA is pursuing the topic of social cohesion as one of its Grand Challenge initiatives, the overarching initiatives for which the Berlin alliance was awarded the title of excellence. Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, the Museum für Naturkunde, and the Research and Institute for Museum Research at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin have joined forces in this interdisciplinary project, which aims to more closely integrate museum research within Berlin as well as involve international partners.

As an archive of humankind’s heritage, museums should be open to all - inclusion, exclusion, and participation are key aspects

In a close cooperation between TU Berlin and Oxford University, another transnational project recently began at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. This project focuses on the origin of stolen African artifacts, primarily from the colonial era, in European collections, and is equally funded by England and Germany with a total of 700,000 euros. Here, methods are being developed to differentiate between legal acquisitions and theft or expropriations. “As archives of humankind’s heritage, museums are also places of debate regarding the cultural interpretation of this heritage, as well as inclusion, exclusion, participation, and digital dissolution of boundaries. We want to understand the role museums play as institutions at the center of these debates on social cohesion,” explains Bénédicte Savoy of TU Berlin’s Chair of Modern Art History, who is heading the project. The joint project will contribute to Berlin’s development as an international hub for research on museums and society as well as teaching in this field,

thus laying the foundation for the partners’ ultimate goal: an Einstein Center for museums and society in Berlin. “A city like Berlin, with three Universities of Excellence, and one of the oldest, largest, and most traumatized museum landscapes worldwide, needs a research center for museums and social cohesion,” says Savoy. War and division and the different political systems the city’s museums have existed under in the past 150 years have shaped the museum landscape into what it is today. This makes it clear that museums are not just places of wonder and creative experience but institutions at the center of virulent social debates. The project's researchers believe that these protected spaces provide an opportunity to properly understand and develop acceptance of society with all its tensions and contradictions.

Students and citizens’ council take part in research

In order to find new forms of knowledge transfer, the researchers are including both a citizens’ council and, most importantly, students in their research. “Our concept of research-oriented teaching at TU Berlin means that we work with our students in project seminars on publications, public workshops, science slams, blogs, and exhibitions,” explains Dr. Andrea Meyer, research associate at the Chair of Modern Art History. A museums specialization was established in the art studies master’s program some years ago, allowing students to closely work with curators, conservators, and mediation, education, or visitor services of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. “The BUA project offers us the chance to build on these rich experiences and more closely link the research, practices, and teaching involving Berlin’s museums and make these more visible to the public.” In addition to new exhibition concepts, podcasts, an interactive online portal, and freely accessible research data are envisioned to guarantee sustainable knowledge transfer.

While one might expect the public to lose interest in actual museum visits with such a broad palette of other options to choose from, Bénédicte Savoy is convinced otherwise: “I am confident that people who love museums will love them even more when offered other ways to learn and gain knowledge.”

Original publication

This text originally appeared in German on 29 November 2020, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper TU Berlin supplement.

Author Patricia Pätzold