Exterior view of ZKM, Zentrum für Kunst und Medien (Center for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe

An Observatory, a Laboratory, a Learning Environment

For Peter Weibel, Chairman of the ZKM in Karlsruhe, a museum is not only a place of perception, it is also a place of production and an alternative to the mainstream. According to him, the museum’s obligation is to teach the public to think.

ifa: How did the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien (Center for Art and Media, or ZKM) do during the crisis and how has it done since then? How has the current situation changed the work of your museum and its conception of itself?

Peter Weibel: The ZKM has not been faring well during the Corona crisis. The regulations, instructions, and rules in place in the museum (social distancing, wearing masks, disinfecting, etc.) make the space unwelcoming rather than inviting. Because of the significantly lower numbers of visitors, the ZKM restaurant is also closed, which means there are no places to sit and have conversations. But unfortunately, we can't change the situation.

ifa: How do you address your public under the changed conditions? What kind of public do you expect and what do you expect from your public?

Weibel: The Corona crisis is an opportunity to reflect on the function and nature of the public, something I have been calling for in museums for quite some time. Grosso modo, the museum has a tripartite problem: press, public, politics. As a rule, politics stays out of the museum business as long as visitor numbers and the press are good. Since the emergence of social media, the press has been on the defensive. It's no longer the sole fourth power within the state. It's relativised by the fifth power, namely (a)social media. The structural change of the public, as Jürgen Habermas observed in his 1962 habilitation of the same title, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, has intensified in the digital age. As a consequence, the press and the public are playing a new role. The towering cathedral of the public sphere, which was apparently built by the press and in which everyone discussed everything, has collapsed and disintegrated into small niches or chapels where minority problems are negotiated. This means the link between public and press has been broken.  

The ZKM has exhibitions that don't get recognised by the press but which bring in approximately 15,000 visitors a month. There are also exhibitions for which the press sings praises because they're by marketable stars but which only see 2,000 visitors a month. Visitors don't get their information from the press anymore and they no longer trust the press' judgement. They're informed by word-of-mouth and through the internet directly. Digital technologies are the new media of publicity and of the public. The Corona crisis has made this clear once and for all. That's why the ZKM will expand its digital initiatives and become more and more a channel that addresses not only local visitors but also non-local visitors.

The ZKM has as little fear of embarking on something new as the public does. It also doesn't belittle its public with statements like, 'we have to pick up the public' where it supposedly is, but rather, the ZKM has the same high demands of the public as it does for itself – with success. For in 2019 the ZKM had 260,000 visitors in a city with a population of around 300,000.

ifa: What do you consider to be the primary social tasks of your museum?

Weibel: In an age when the generally accepted and popular trash TV in the US has produced a trash president and since we've been living in the post-truth era for quite some time, it seems to me that the obligation of the museum is not, as it once was, to teach the public to see but to think. Therefore, the ZKM is an observatory, a laboratory, a learning environment, and a Club Med at the same time.

ifa: What concepts do you pursue with regard to accessibility to and participation in your holdings, to knowledge about and interpretations of them?

Weibel: This is a time when the worship of mass culture and pop culture has reached unimaginable proportions. Magazines like Die Zeit acclaim a trash video by Beyoncé and Jay-Z as the best artwork of the year. The magazine Der Spiegel has transformed from an investigative news magazine into a pop postil that thinks it has to provide a career forum to all kinds of young, German-speaking music groups. That's why it must be the responsibility of the museum to answer the call of the great German mathematician David Hilbert (1862-1943): 'We must know. We shall know.' Therefore, in the future the ZKM will also be transformed into a learning environment that will use artificial intelligence in participation with the public.

ifa: Do you see your museum as a place of political discourse?

Weibel: In 2005 the ZKM presented the exhibition Making Things Public, a rendering of res publica, from which the term republic is derived. How are things made public? Since mass media (television, radio, newspaper) are making fewer and fewer statements about how, what, and why they make something public, which atrophies the republican discourse, the museum's new responsibility is to care about doing precisely this and to ask: How are things made public? How is the public sphere established? What reaches the public sphere? What is the public sphere? What is important for the public sphere?

ifa: Museums nowadays perform many functions. How would you define what the museum is or should be today?

The museum is a place of collection, which means it ensures that works don't disappear. These works construct history. The museum, therefore, has a contract with the previous generations. The museum also has a contract with the current generation of artists. That's why it presents contemporary works in its exhibitions. These works construct the future. The museum thus ensures that created works are seen and that created works don't disappear.

The ZKM is a museum, but it's also much more than a museum. Thanks to its programme of guest artists and the competencies of its employees, the ZKM also researches, develops, and produces new, innovative works that are then presented in exhibition halls and festivals around the world. The museum should therefore not only be a place of perception but also a place of production, an alternative, a heterotopia. In the digital age, the museum must also address non-local visitors, that means creating digital artworks for virtual worlds, online worlds, with digital artists. In this way, the museum becomes a broadcaster. The ZKM is already the better ZDF.(1)

(1) ZDF is a German public-service television broadcaster.

Peter Weibel is media theorist, curator, and Chairman of the ZKM in Karlsruhe


Under the title 'MuseumsNow', ifa asked actors from international museums about their current experiences, challenges and visions –  also against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic. The interviews and reports provide an insight into current museum practices and civil society actions of museums worldwide.

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