The Secret Walls Gallery at Bonatzbau, Central Station Stuttgart.

The Crisis as a Period of Reflection

The Kunstmuseum Stuttgart is using the crisis to question concepts, rethink exhibitions and make stored collections accessible.

ifa: How did your institution 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?

Ulrike Groos: The crisis hit us unprepared – we had no equipment for mobile work and hardly any hardware for digital formats, which posed problems for us. These are very basic things and essential for day-to-day work, which came into focus with the shutdown. The whole everyday life of the museum was turned topsy turvy: the spacing and hygiene concepts have affected established procedures for dismantling and setting up exhibitions, international lending has changed, and couriers can no longer travel easily. If the crisis persists, and unfortunately we can assume it will, we must take into account when designing coming exhibitions that after the reopening visitors will largely not be there.

Questions we have long been asking ourselves are now of particular relevance: Can costly and time-consuming so-called 'blockbuster exhibitions' still be justified at present? Especially when only a few people go or can go to museums? Shouldn't we be particularly sensitive in designing exhibitions when the crisis is putting financial and health burdens on many people? Couldn't and shouldn't we use the crisis as a period of reflection and as an opportunity to rediscover the richness of our collections?

The last few months have also shown the fragility of the cultural sector. For those who don't have a permanent position in a museum, the lockdown soon came to threaten their livelihoods. We have to take the precarious conditions under which freelancers sometimes work better into consideration in future funding policy. More responsibility has to be assumed for those who work in the cultural sector, because they do essential work in communication and education – and this should be recognized with appropriate payment.

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

Groos: I am convinced that encounters with art can enrich our thinking: art shapes our view of the world and ourselves and can thus change relationships between people. Our exhibitions question the status quo, respond to current social developments, reveal new perspectives for our social interaction, and are therefore always part of a public and political discourse. Exhibitions can stimulate us to rediscover our past and present in new and different ways and to think ahead into the future. I'm thinking of our exhibition 'Der Traum vom Museum "schwäbischer" Kunst. Das Kunstmuseum Stuttgart im Nationalsozialismus' ('The Dream of the Museum of "Swabian" Art. The Kunstmuseum Stuttgart under National Socialism'), which takes a critical look at our collection in the Third Reich and at the same time thereby rewrites the history of the institution.

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

Groos: The Kunstmuseum Stuttgart is currently in a process of comprehensive digital transformation in which new services are being developed. One focus is to make stored collections accessible. On average, less than two per cent of the collection can currently be shown to the public in the permanent exhibition. Digitization alone will allow everyone – scholars, students, the generally interested, schoolchildren and children – to enjoy low-barrier access to all the objects and all the information about these objects.

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

Groos: The Kunstmuseum Stuttgart is a lively place, open and transparent for everyone – that's my vision of a museum. And it is a place that fosters creativity and aesthetic experience and expands our imagination. I see our museum as a diverse and cosmopolitan platform for learning with and from one another; it invites to encounters that inspire and excite, but also disconcert and leave visitors with questions.

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?

Groos: Sharing in and learning about works of art should be ensured and made possible in the short and long term in spite of the existing distance and hygiene regulations. The examination of works of art, with the originals before us in the museum, is still the sine qua non. At the same time, digital formats allow us to offer a diversified range of services, take into account different ways of approaching works of art, and offer individually tailored approaches to art.

In retrospect, it was important to respond quickly and creatively to the changed situation. Using sensory automation, we redesigned the test stations in the 'hands-on laboratory' for the Op Art exhibition Vertigo to be contact-free and therefore hygienic. During the shutdown, we already implemented a digital tour of the collection rooms and a video series with a look behind the scenes of our museum. This allowed us to stay in touch with our public in a new way.

In the near future, we look forward to visitors to the exhibition 'WÄNDE / WALLS', which opens on September 26th and traces the artistic preoccupation since the 1960s with the wall as a space boundary. The cooperative exhibition Graffiti in the Kessel in the StadtPalais – Museum for Stuttgart focuses on the development of graffiti in Stuttgart and thus the design of walls in outdoor space.

As early as August, at the start of the 'WÄNDE / WALLS' project, the Deutsche Bahn made the hall of Stuttgart Central Station available for a spectacular spraying action. This casts different perspectives on the medium of the wall. We hope for a broadly-interested and diverse public who will make new discoveries at the three exhibitions.

We are offering a varied accompanying and educational program with guided tours, workshops for different age groups, artist talks, lectures and film screenings under the currently obtaining coronavirus guidelines. And we have also developed other formats for our visitors. Short films will delve deeper into the themes of the exhibition, and artists who develop their wall works on site will have a chance to speak to the public.

Dr. Ulrike Groos is director of the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart


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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