Places of Reflexion

The experiences of the past few months have shown Jeanine Meerapfel, President of the Akademie der Künste, that personal encounters are indispensable for interpersonal exchange.

 Akademie der Künste, Front View
Front View, ©/image: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

ifa: How did the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) do during the crisis and how has it done since then? How has the current situation changed the work of the museum and its conception of itself?

Jeanine Meerapfel: We are currently manoeuvring through unusually uncertain terrain and developing various alternative plans – analogue, digital, hybrid – and we're determining the costs involved. The planning uncertainties we face in our organisational work is an experience we must learn to live with. Over the past few months, we've made great progress in digitising our programme. At the same time, our view of the relationship between the digital and analogue spaces has been refined and will have to be refined even further. For our exhibition practice, the reorientation – apart from the high costs – is still relatively easy to implement with an appropriately planned exhibition space, time slot tickets offered online to regulate the number of visitors, and the like. But the Akademie der Künste is not just an exhibition space; it's an artist community with over 400 members from every artistic branch. We have major concerns about the livelihood of many of our independent artists. That's why we are considering how the independent art and culture scene can be made fairer in the future.  

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?

Meerapfel: On the one hand, of course, the Akademie der Künste is now also increasingly using digital formats. For our current exhibition showing until the end of August, John Heartfield – Photography plus Dynamite, digital alternatives were created, including the online catalogue and a virtual exhibition entitled Kosmos Heartfield. Talks with Akademie members about their current work and the potential of artistic action in times of crisis are presented online, the Labor Beethoven 2020 took place as a virtual festival, and the Akademie even celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Käthe Kollwitz Prize online with an extensive collection of archival material of previously unpublished texts, pictures, and sound recordings. On the other hand, art also lives from the 'aura of the original', the materiality that cannot be transmitted digitally. When the first school class visited the Heartfield exhibition as part of our educational programme 'Kunstwelten' ('Worlds of Art'), the young people were fascinated by the materiality of the originals.
One thing has become clear in our experiences over the past few months: personal encounters are indispensable essential for interpersonal exchange. Neither a virtual world nor artificial intelligence can replace them. We will develop formats that, while adhering to the rules of hygiene, will continue to allow direct human encounters –ideally for an audience that is as diverse as ever.

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

Meerapfel: As an international community of artists, the Akademie der Künste serves to promote the arts. It represents the freedom and aspirations of art in the state and society. Through its programme of exhibitions and events, it familiarises the public with contemporary artistic positions. It contributes to the preservation of cultural heritage by maintaining, expanding, and making its archive publicly accessible. And it advises Germany in particular on matters of art and culture.

ifa: How should museums convey and reflect stories, images, and narrative patterns?

Meerapfel: Museums should be places where different social narratives are presented and discussed. The Akademie der Künste is also such a place. The freedom of art is particularly important here. Many artists reflect social developments in their works; they move outside established power structures and question them. The aesthetic view offers new perspectives and perceptions of the past, present, and future. Putting narratives into perspective and creating an awareness of the equal value or equal rights of alternative narratives should be a central part of contemporary museum practice.

ifa: How should museums convey and reflect stories, images and narrative patterns?

Meerapfel: The Akademie der Künste Archive is considered the most important interdisciplinary archive on modern art and culture  in the German-speaking world. Its central tasks are to acquire and register archives, collections, and works of art from all branches after 1900 that have artistic and cultural-historical importance, and to make them available to science and the interested public. The Akademie der Künste Archive can be used free of charge for scientific, journalistic, or private studies. The extensive database provides online information on the archival holdings. Additionally, the programme and archive departments develop exhibition and event programmes by presenting selected archival materials and artistic works on current topics or cultural policy issues. The cultural education programme Kunstwelten is aimed at children, young people, and adults. The programme draws upon the diversity and interplay of the art works and experiences of its international members and scholarship holders, the Akademie's own art collections, and its extensive interdisciplinary archive. Guided tours, introductory talks, workshops and artistic activities help make the themes and projects of the Akademie and its members accessible to others.

The cultural scientist Aleida Assmann writes: 'Cultural memory is like individual memory […] dependent on external impulses or "triggers ". That which is permanently stored in museums, archives, and libraries must be triggered on certain occasions. In other words, read again and again, exhibited, performed, staged. In short, reactivated.' (1) In 2021 the Akademie der Künste will celebrate its 325th anniversary. The anniversary, as a 'monument in time', as Aleida Assmann says, will be an opportunity for the Akademie to 'trigger' its memory. It is an occasion for things that have been stored, carefully preserved, but also forgotten or have disappeared to be displayed, recalled, highlighted, re-read, and questioned as to whether or not they 'speak to us'. What things are part of the cultural memory? Or what has fallen out of step? What is applicable to our present situation? Is looking back even useful for envisioning the future?

ifa: Do you see the institution as a place of political discourse?

Meerapfel: Ideally, I see the Akademie der Künste as a place of discourse between representatives from politics, the art community, and civil society. Political positions are certainly a part of the practice of art; political and social issues are inherent components of artistic practice.

ifa: How can museums work internationally, post-nationally and responsibly today?

Meerapfel: In principle, the answer already lies in the question of the task of museums to reflect on stories, images, and narrative patterns. A responsible museum practice must question established national perspectives, identify the blind spots in national historiography, and identify its own responsibilities. Moreover, as a starting point for an equal international dialogue, the various national and international narratives must be respected. The 'old white man' is still stumbling awkwardly through the current postcolonial discourse. Racism and anti-Semitism are still deeply rooted in our society. They are among the most important social problems we have to tackle.

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

Meerapfel: Museums should be places of reflection and of interpersonal encounters – also between people of different generations, social groups, nations, and religions. Ideally, we practice mutual exchange and dialogue, open doors to understanding other cultures, and open eyes and ears to experience poetic worlds.  

(1)    Aleida Assmann, Journal der Künste. Vol. 12, p. 17.

Prof. Jeanine Meerapfel is President of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin


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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