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The reason for this contribution is considerations on the panel discussion accompanying the current exhibition “Ich bin hier! Von Rembrandt zum Selfie” took place on 26 November at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe. Instead of retelling the event, I would like to give some thoughts on the digital museum.

Back then: The early days of the museum

Like many other things, the museum had to be invented. Looking back, there are many adversities that accompanied the process of differentiation of this institution. A detour led to today’s self-evident facts, which in turn are always available for discussion.

From the early days of the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, for example, it is known which innovations represented the provision of basic information such as the year of the artist’s birth and death; today this is a minimum standard. At that time Ludwig Frommel, the first director of the Kunsthallen, had received this suggestion while travelling in Rome and Vienna, before finally proposing it in Karlsruhe in 1841.

The Kunsthalle Karlsruhe is one of the oldest museums in Germany to have been founded as a result of an exhibition collection for artistic training. Initially, its aim was to provide moral and aesthetic education. The turning point in art history in Karlsruhe began late, not until Alfred Woltmann took office in 1870. The art historian Karl Koelitz did not establish a chronological hanging here until 1881.

The sources show that for a long time both the enjoyment of art and the study of the originals were hampered by practical problems: short opening hours during the week prevented large crowds of visitors. There was a lack of artificial lighting, with the result that the museum rooms were in the dark during the winter months.

Today: The early days of the digital museum

When I imagine the snow-covered skylight halls of the 19th century, I can see parallels to today’s questions: It is the digital aspect that lies largely in the dark. Just like electric light, which illuminates the museum evenly, or creates attention through lighting effects, digital space could offer an additional level of the museum.

Many museum actions reach into the digital sphere, a sphere that has become a major influence on our everyday lives. However, the fact that it is present does not mean that the possibilities of the digital have reached everyone. In my opinion, some current debates can be explained accordingly.

Aesthetic vs. historical education

One of these debates was sparked this year by the topic of art mediation. If one thinks of the public museum, the question immediately arises as to what kind of public the institution was accessible to. On the other hand, Hübsch’s Karlsruher Musengruß conveys a philologically more correct version in the sense of the time. It can thus be read politically as a departure from the Berlin model. This political issue is followed by the statement of the first director of the Kunsthallen, Frommel, according to which the exhibition of works of art should “exert a charitable influence on the beautification and civilization of life”.

In the Berlin museum dispute, on the other hand, two paradigms, that of an aesthetic and that of a historical approach, collided. The educational claim to produce art-historical knowledge and the mediation claim to motivate the public through various actions coexist or conflict – so my thesis – to this day.

While the scientific claim operates more on the positivist level, mediation is more at the root of an aesthetic education. This also became clear in the panel discussion “Selfies, Emojis und die Verwendung von Bildern in den Sozialen Netzwerken” (Selfies, Emojis and the Use of Images in Social Networks), which accompanied the current exhibition at the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe. Actions such as #MyRembrandt or #MuseumOfSelfie were denied any cognitive value. I can partly comprehend this criticism, but would like to introduce a different model of thought into at least two of the ongoing debates.

Digital Research

At the moment, museums want to occupy the digital space, but in my opinion they do so primarily for marketing reasons. Marketing, on the other hand, is necessary because of the competitive pressure under which the museums find themselves. In many cases, as the more successful campaigns show, mediation is actually the henchman of these marketing strategies. I can agree with the critics to the extent that in the end this is not actually a reflection on the work, but at best advertising for the institution remains on the net.

Conversely – so it seems – museums also primarily think of the audience with regard to digital space, whereby audience and media presence are almost synonymous. I don’t want to question the fact that the public is an insignificant factor, but I am of the opinion that it is the museums’ task to provide them – and by the way also the experts – with high-quality information.

But what if one were to start from the museum’s actual model of success, the core of museum work? In the long term, a historical order has established itself. What possibilities does the digital museum offer for this?

Not everything can be negotiated on the digital level, but especially when it comes – as in the case of the current exhibition “Ich bin hier! From Rembrandt to Selfie is a trilateral cooperation project, the digital space would offer an extended radius of action that could be thought of three-dimensionally and interactively. The project website is a first approach, but I don’t think it goes far enough. In this specific case, I would consider institutional background information to be relevant, such as questions concerning: do the works come from the depot or are they part of the exhibition collection, etc.? Precisely because works are shown outside the canon – “second guard”, as Kia Vahland called it in the SZ – historical exhibition practice would be interesting.

The #Selfierade to Wolfgang Ullrich’s catalogue text was also an interesting approach, but in my opinion one could also think of the exhibition catalogue in newer, i.e. audiovisual formats.

In addition to the spatial, the digital can bridge temporal distances: From the first three rooms of “Ich bin hier!”, for example, one could refer selectively to the exhibition “Bauen und Zeigen” (2014). Rembrandt’s self-portrait, for example, could be related to the history of the collection that was negotiated in the course of the exhibition “Die Meister-Sammlerin Karoline Luise von Baden” (2015).

In my opinion, not all information has to be prepared anew for each exhibition; knowledge that has already been prepared does not have to disappear. It could always be contextualized anew, the focus could shift. I am thinking of a complex information offer that offers visitors various levels. From basic information to much more complex backgrounds. What would be disturbing in terms of design on site in the exhibition display could certainly be implemented via digital offerings. In view of an impending museum infarction, self-reflection instead of blockbuster would be a veritable solution.