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?
Marion Ackermann: Since the beginning of the year, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden has been caught between the extremes. After a record year with 2.6 million visitors in 2019 and only two weeks following the reopening of the Semperbau am Zwinger after a seven-year renovation period, we had to close our 15 museums in mid-March due to the Corona pandemic. On 4 May 2020 we started to open one museum after the other. Both when the museums closed and when they reopened, our thoughts moved between safety and security: How could we not only protect our collection but also our visitors and employees? Which museum openings lead to which security costs, and what can we afford in view of the lack of ticket revenues due to the strict hygiene requirements and the reduced number of visitors?
Since the closure until the end of May, we experienced a total income loss of 2.5 million euros – due particularly to the lack of tourism from Germany and abroad. Exhibitions planned for the long term also had to be postponed, the objects on loan were radically reduced then increased again, and as a government institution, our museum association as well as our educational and mediation work experienced a boost in digital processes. The gradual reopening as well as compliance with the hygiene concept made it possible to open the exhibitions Raphael – The Power of Renaissance Images in the Semperbau and 300 Years Keeping in the Present in the anniversary year of the Kupferstich-Kabinetts; it was also possible to offer interesting presentations in the Kunstgewerbemuseum and to present the large retrospective Ernst Barlach on the 150th Anniversary of his Birth in the Albertinum. Despite all of the adversities, we are confident in and happy about the solidarity displayed by the museum world.
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?
Ackermann: Although the closure of our museums means a grievous forgoing of the experience of the original artwork, we were able to react positively to the crisis. Firstly, we shifted our physical presence to the internet and expanded our digital content. In addition to live walks with curators, digitally transmitted exhibition openings and a range of online education and mediation services, the outcome also included two new exhibition formats. Firstly, upon the initiative of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, the online exhibition #wemask, which spanned across several collections, called for the donation of specially produced face masks through an artistically designed guide and combined this with a brief cultural history using masks in our collections. Secondly, we are currently revising our exhibition planning for the next three years. It is becoming clear that our reduced budget will allow us to plan fewer blockbuster exhibitions and also fewer special exhibitions overall.
We will address our local audience even more than before while also cooperating with institutions based here. At the same time, our online presence is intended to address a supra-regional audience which cannot visit our museums due to the changed situation caused by the pandemic. Right now, we want to intensify our international appeal. We must uphold the international spirit of our institution and collections against the tendencies of nationalism and racism. We hope that our visitors will show understanding for our regulations and the necessary measures that have been introduced for their protection, and we hope that they will not be deterred from visiting the museum in the future.
ifa: What concepts do you pursue with regard to accessibility to and participation in your holdings, to knowledge about and interpretations of them?
Ackermann: Digital media and global networks have strengthened the principle of 'sharing'. Democratic forms of knowledge-gathering have shown their particular value on the internet. Of course, we have to ask ourselves how accessible our knowledge really is, but we are playing a pioneering role in the area of Open Access in Germany. For example, the research, acquisition and inventory project 'Daphne' is reflected on the internet in our online collection and makes our research results immediately visible. The pandemic, in turn, is strengthening our knowledge transfer on the internet, starting with our mediation work and extending to online offers on social media, live broadcasts of museum events and congresses.
The idea of viewing our works of art and museum history in the sense of multi-perspectivity will play an even greater role for us in the future, whether it be access to craftsmanship in the creation of the works of art or transcultural and multi-perspective approaches in the comprehensive reflection of our collections. An example of this would be the way international colleagues, such as those from Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, view August the Strong.
ifa: Do you see your museum as a place of political discourse?
Ackermann: Society's topics are naturally reflected in the museum, making our institutions a platform for social discourse. In recent years, radical positions in the political landscape have influenced our everyday lives – Brexit as a shock to our European alliance and the growing influence of the German right wing, to name a few examples, simultaneously raise questions about our democratic values. As a public institution, we want to confront these tendencies and engage ourselves within the framework available to us. Controversial issues such as the presence of art from the time of the GDR have shown how we can deal fruitfully with highly political issues and create forums for constructive exchange, like the Agora of the Greek artist Andreas Angelidakis at the Albertinum. Even the pandemic has shown how close our everyday museum life is to political life and how our museum topics are political topics.
Prof. Dr. Marion Ackermann is the general director of the Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden
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.