It was recently finalized that my boyfriend and I will be moving to Wiesbaden, Germany in April, where we will be based for three years. I have been to Europe a handful of times, and loved it more with each trip. He has only ever had the chance to visit Europe in a military capacity. Now, we will be shipping our lives across the Atlantic Ocean for his job, which will allow us regular weekends and ample time for traveling and exploration. I am, of course, extremely excited by the idea of living in a new country and being challenged to learn and assimilate into a new culture. I am also, as one might imagine, slightly overwhelmed.
We have discussed traveling the world together for quite some time, so the fear of the unknown isn’t exactly what worries me. It’s more the fact that the career I have begun to envision for myself must now be reexamined through a European lens. The George Washington University Museum Studies Program has given me an incredible foundation for understanding the inner workings of museums and the challenges they regularly face, but being an American program, we have almost exclusively focused on institutions here in the United States.
As such, my education has effectively begun again – I must now become familiar with the challenges and innovations within European institutions so that I might more effectively find a place for myself within them. Thankfully, finding positive and exciting articles on European museum innovations and trends has been very easy. In an effort to further unpack some of the current challenges facing these institutions and the solutions they have created, I have begun a new research journey that has yielded several delightful and fascinating examples of forward-thinking museums.
Museum Island – Berlin, Germany
The island is home to several of Berlin’s most prominent museum institutions, including the Museum of German History, or Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM). These museums have been working in conjunction with one another to remain relevant to their surrounding community and visitors by taking on substantial renovation projects, highlighting the multicultural nature of their holdings, and allowing objects to convey their own stories while simultaneously relating them to concepts of German history and the challenges the country and its citizens have faced.
Two initiatives in particular spoke to me. First, every museum on Museum Island has committed to hiring a number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in order to strengthen their Arabic-language support and tour offerings. Not only does hiring refugees set a precedent for the employment of displaced persons in Germany, it also allows for refugees who are unable to work to access and interact with German cultural institutions and collections in a meaningful, conversational way.
The DHM in particular is also committed to universal and inclusive design. As such, it ensures that even its temporary exhibitions are accessible to persons with disabilities such as reduced or no sight or hearing. Because individuals with disabilities are encouraged to visit and partake in the universal exhibitions, they become an important return visitor audience that welcomes new exhibitions and additional learning opportunities. I imagine that such a positive relationship can only result in positive outcomes.
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews – Warsaw, Poland
This museum won the European Museum of the Year Award in 2016, and upon examining its website and its recent initiatives, it isn’t difficult to see why. Armed with a mission reminiscent of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, POLIN confronts the concepts of cultural interaction and conflict head on, offering a sobering, reflective experience on the dangers of judgment, fear, and complacency in the face of injustice.
The informational portals POLIN’s website provides are incredible digital opportunities for people from all over the world with Polish Jewish heritage to come together to learn about their ancestry, culture and history. The Virtual Shtetl struck me as particularly meaningful. A mix of modern information on small Polish villages and archival materials, it is a living, breathing, growing resource that can serve as a meeting place for those searching for information, a primary source library, and an opportunity to have long-unanswered questions answered.
I can personally make use of this website, as I know that my maternal grandfather’s side of the family were Jews from a small village in Poland. This portal will give me a more concrete understanding of my family’s origins and traditions, information that I consider rare and precious. It is a beautiful gift for an institution to give to its online visitors.
Art 42 – Paris, France
One of Europe’s newest museum-like forays into contemporary art, Art 42 is, and isn’t, a museum of street art. For most days out of the year, the space is actually Ecole 42, an alternative post-secondary school focused on group work and student collaboration, rather than regimented tasks, classes and grades. Two evenings out of the week, the school transforms into a street art gallery for which students lead tours.
Since the beginning of the Avant-Garde movement in Paris in the early 20th century, contemporary has struggled with the concept of mainstream art display being equivocal with success. In a sense, as soon as a work of avant-garde or anti-establishment art is displayed in a museum-like setting, it becomes a tool of the establishment, and its controversial avant-garde qualities are thus revoked.
Art 42 gives guerilla street art a chance to remain anti-society and controversial by housing it in a unique alternative school thought by critics to be too different to succeed. It also limits public access to the art, allowing it to develop hype without developing widespread understanding or popularity. Traditional galleries and museum environments simply cannot offer that sort of ‘for-cool-kids-only’ viral marketing. Lastly, Art 42 gives voice to unknown artists. It doesn’t privilege the display of art based on recognition. It focuses on the quality of the art itself, while also allowing those viewing it to feel however they want in a safe space free of established rules of style or notoriety.
The three institutions mentioned above are surely only a tiny fraction of the forward-thinking, community-engaging, visitor-thought-provoking, innovating European institutions I will have the opportunity to visit while I am Euro-based. They do, however, set the tone for what I am hoping to see more of whilst there: recognition of cultural diversity and the need for inclusion of all peoples, integration of digital platforms and resources into powerful in-person experiences, and challenging visitor experiences that provoke thought and further exploration of art or historical topics.
And now, the packing begins…
Featured image: my necessary, cheesy, badly angled D’Orsay Degas #museumselfie: a preview of things to come.