Our wonderful institution sets exhibits at the fore, where they can do their thing as showpieces, make an impression, and resonate. And they excel at it! Seeing and feeling are the most important tools any visitor can use to explore our museum. The rest happens on its own—of that we are certain. As trained museum employees, however, when we look at our collections it’s with a great deal of prior knowledge, or accompanied by many years of experience from our particular specialisms. But what is it like for our visitors? What do they expect from a visit to the world of art and nature here in the middle of Wiesbaden?
A dive into the Natural History Collections, both its domestic and exotic exhibits, usually goes off without a hitch, since it contains much that is recognizable. And yet many questions remain unanswered. Which animals are now on show in the lavishly designed dioramas? Do these animals also happen to live here in Germany? What do they eat? Do they hibernate? When did they become part of the collection? How old is the taxidermy? Were these animals ever really alive? As easy to grasp as flora and fauna may seem at first glance, the questions that arise on closer inspection are just as varied as the natural forms themselves. Visitors experience the same thing when it comes to art: a rush of colour with the Expressionists, the thrall of mimesis and (re)presentation with the Old Masters; in contemporary art, the tangible and the associative spur on our thoughts. It is quite easy to take a stance or a position on what we see. In the simplest case, this might be a ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, after which the eye continues to wander. But here, too, the questions flood in after that initial intoxication of the senses: What’s behind those mirrors in the Octagon? What is a visitation? And why is it called the Wiesbaden Visitation? Why is it that Beckmann paints cows? Can I really go inside of the Red Wagon? In order to offer answers to our visitors, we could provide lengthy curatorial wall texts, banners, or handouts. But this contradicts our guiding principle: to focus on the object and allow it to speak for itself.
Let it begin!
When we realized this, we knew there was really only one way for us to go: digital!
Here we can make our knowledge available close at hand without overloading the physical space and, above all, without disturbing or detracting from the effect of the objects themselves in the act of spectatorship. It’s up to each of our visitors to determine the amount and depth of the information that they want to take in—on however many objects they please.
We came to this conclusion in 2016 and developed the first Museum Wiesbaden app. From the beginning, it was clear that it should include options for both listening and reading. It was also crucial that we could display digital images, including for purposes of comparison. The app premiered during the exhibition Caravaggio’s Heirs. Along with our audio-guide devices, visitors took advantage of the offer in large numbers and used their own smartphones for a tour of the exhibition. Shortly thereafter, the next app was created in association with hr2-kultur and Frank Witzel, winner of Wiesbadener Literaturtage 2017. The Wiesbaden Visitation is an experiential tour that follows the writer on a very personal journey into the world of the Museum Wiesbaden.
These first apps were good, but technically they didn’t quite match up with all the offerings we had in mind for our visitors. Therefore, in a larger project funded by Hessen’s Ministry of Science and Art, we started developing a new museum app in 2018 with the Leipzig-based company Droidsolutions. This app can now really act as more than just an audio-guide that you load onto your personal smartphone. The app went live in conjunction with the opening of the new permanent exhibition Art Nouveau: Donation F. W. Neess. This exhibition is particularly suited to make the most of this new digital format. Since the objects were transferred from the context of a private collector to the museum environment, it was obvious that the original display arrangements should be largely preserved. Explanatory labelling or printing off reams of information in booklet-form would have interfered and indeed detracted from the overall impression of each gallery (which some of the artists and the collector himself had, after all, conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk). Besides the fact that handing out printed matter is anything but ecological, the digital format offered a great deal of room for experimentation: thus, rather than going for a one-size-fits-all approach, we developed several formats, in both German and English, and for the first time a tour meant for young people. In the latter, the element of drawing is key, something which has particular importance in our institution. If you approach the unknown by way of a drawing, you will find it easier to grasp. We showed this by example, animating drawings in order to playfully pick up on an object’s evolution.
In the app’s entries, visitors can learn so many more exciting things than they could have ever imagined: how many types of wood an Art Nouveau artist stocked in his workshop or how the art was influenced by the movements of nudism and vegetarianism. Why do birds of paradise dance in the first place? And why is our polar bear a particularly ‘lifelike’ piece of taxidermy?
These and many other ideas and suggestions, a treasure trove of knowledge, all exist in the minds that run and curate our museum. The app offers the opportunity to make many of these enriching thoughts available to our visitors, to satisfy their thirst for knowledge as much as possible. The way we see it, designing a tailor-made visitor experience is simply what we owe our guests and is part of the service of holding public exhibits.
To be continued...
We are far from reaching the end of things with our app. There are still barriers to the individual visitor experience. We would like to dismantle as many of these barriers as we can, and give our guests the best possible preparation for a visit to the Museum Wiesbaden. We would also like to make it possible to follow up after the exhibition visit by making much of the content available offline. So stay tuned to see what else gets developed and, above all: go digital with us at Museum Wiesbaden.
Rebecca Krämer M.A.