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With the Expothek at Baden State Museum, Eckart Köhne has created a digitised exhibition that makes roughly 650,000 years of human history an experience to enjoy with the latest technology – with elements that can be chosen individually and detailed background information provided via tablet or directly from the museum’s staff.

By Helmut Maternus Bien.

Betrachtung der Exponate übers Tablet
With a tablet the exhibits of the digitised exhibition can be thoroughly examined. ©Badisches Landesmuseum, Photo: ARTIS – Uli Deck

This veritable centre of museum innovation in Karlsruhe can be found where the city’s fan-like boulevards converge at their vanishing point: the palace, which is used by Baden State Museum. Younger people and avid media consumers have come to know the palace as a projection surface for the Light Art Festival Karlsruhe, which took place on the facades for the first time in 2015 to celebrate the city’s 300th anniversary. The museum revolution has begun in the museum’s basement. Eckart Köhne, archaeologist and museum director, receives his guests in his office. Emperor Constantine suggestively points his finger to the sky from behind Köhne’s desk. It is a replica of the original in the Capitoline Museums at the Forum Romanum in Rome, an exhibit from one of the many exhibitions of ancient history that he has organised. A standout impression, one of many to come. We enter the basement. 

Here, Eckart Köhne and his team have just set up the Expothek. Expothek: it is a name that arouses little excitement at first. However, contrary to expectations, this sober, technical name denotes the rebirth of the old royal cabinets of curiosities for the people of the 21st century. The museum as we know it today developed from those cabinets of curiosities and wonder.

The museum of the 21st century

Prof. Eckart Köhne von der Expothek
Prof. Eckart Köhne of the Expothek makes history tangible. ©Badisches Landesmuseum, Photo: ARTIS – Uli Deck

While skeletons and stuffed animals may have dangled from the ceilings of the historic cabinets of curiosities, in Karlsruhe it is now headphones and VR goggles that are served up to immerse the guest in digital worlds and animated renderings that show how historical tools, icons, jewellery and clothing were used and the purposes they served. Anyone who feels disinclined for fear of the now-typical digital gaming fodder should be assured that these fears are misplaced with Eckart Köhne. All objects are connected to the original exhibits which are on show one room further.

The ambience here is similar to that of a chemist’s or modern optician’s shop. There are glass showcases lining the walls and displaying the objects inside. These objects can be scanned using a tablet; the guest clicks through the background pages and, on them, the museum explains everything that researchers have discovered so far. Collecting, preserving, researching: these core duties of a museum are all too often situated below the public’s attention threshold. Like an iceberg, only the tip is on display – the blockbuster exhibitions that fire the enthusiasm of donors. For the first time, Eckart Köhne has found what can be called a format that centres around these core duties. It is not an evolution, but rather a revolution that cannot invoke any predecessors. The museum is arriving in the 21st century of the Digital Modern.

Selected objects in the wall showcases have special markings allowing visitors to touch them. Similar to a library, these exhibits are presented to visitors by a curatorial assistant, an “explainer”. With gloves on, they can pick up the Roman oil lamp, fibula or Celtic sword, get a feel of it and view it from all angles with expert guidance. Digital transformation at this Museum 5.0 has not produced dull placebo content; instead, it inspires intrigued visitors to handle the exhibits themselves just as the academics do when they discover and describe the objects.

Digitised exhibition with global reach

Explainer erklärt Exponat
Knowledgeable “explainers” present selected exhibits to visitors. ©Badisches Landesmuseum, Photo: ARTIS – Uli Deck

Furthermore, the Expothek provides the option of scanning an object and having a digital copy of it created. Help for this was provided by the IT professionals of the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research (IGD). This not only created the perfect environment for replicating objects through 3D printing, it also offers opportunities for researchers across the world to gain access to the scanned objects and analyse them from all angles, at least on screen. Laborious journeys into archives scattered around the world can be avoided and research made affordable for students and researchers from less-wealthy parts of the world. Those seeking decolonisation with more practical benefits can only welcome the move. At its core, the idea is about sharing knowledge regardless of ownership and guardianship. A boost for research will be made possible when entirely new groups of researchers can become interested in researching the museum’s exhibits and unearth findings from new perspectives.

The Expothek also features media tables that inspire game-based learning activities or act as desks for guides; they present groups of exhibits to the visitors or display quiz programmes. The users test their personal knowledge and expand it in a playful way. The tables form a bridge to games that can go online, where interest in the Expothek can spread to new people. The long arm of the museum reaches as far as the home.

Museum à la Carte

The truly special feature of the Expothek, however, is the user ID card that guests are issued to visit the Expothek. Using these cards that resemble credit cards, individual services can be sought and requested in the Expothek and the visitor’s own learning and findings gathered in one place. Visitors can share them with their friends and archive them. In this way, the visitors become part of the museum ecosystem and also ambassadors of Baden State Museum and its Expothek – if they wish. 

There are 900 guests who have registered within just a few weeks. For the museum, its visitors are transforming from unknown entities to friends of the family. The plans for the next step even see the visitor card being used as a tool to let visitors curate their own virtual exhibitions and, in doing so, act as if they were staff at the institution. The way that visitor flows are analysed will change in the future. Anonymous visitor numbers will cease being counted, with the question of how many replaced by the question of quality. Gated communities are being created, and the museums are becoming gatekeepers for anyone who really wants it. 

Much more than infotainment

Geschichte mit der VR-Brille erleben
With a virtual reality headset, the digitised exhibition can be experienced immersively. ©Badisches Landesmuseum, Photo: ARTIS – Uli Deck

The Köhne Expothek is a quantum leap for digital transformation within museums. There are purists who view digital transformation as more of a participation gimmick and infotainment stunt, for which reason they hold great reservations about an understanding of the museum as a nostalgic discount shop for exhibits. Within the museum community, the understanding of digital transformation is all too often reduced to a kind of zeitgeist-inspired opportunity to lay modern advertising and argumentation materials on museum education or marketing departments. In Karlsruhe, a sensational attempt is being made not to substitute or even replace the museum with digital formats, but rather to elevate it to a new level that Swabian philosopher Hegel could barely have wanted to be better.

Karlsruhe is a fitting location for a centre of museum innovation such as this. After all, natural science is in full bloom in the city with KIT and the Center for Art and Media. Ever since Johann Gottfried Tulla, the first scientist of the Anthropocene who engineered and oversaw the Rhine River Correction, the future of a world made for people has run in the DNA of Baden’s big city, which tends to conceal its potential with understatement rather than boast about it. At the same time, the city has an equal amount in common with Boston on the East Coast. Eckart Köhne is also the president of the German Museum Association, which may be part of the reason why there could soon be a “Karlsruhe School” that works on digital transformation at cultural institutions earnestly and realistically, not with the bluster of a start-up. It is a place where the cultural restart proclaimed by Monika Grütters materialises as more than lip service.

A new paradigm in museum history

The museum is inventing a format that keeps pace with the modern era’s technological opportunities. The Expothek is a new paradigm in museum history. The museum is catching up with the libraries that people attend to acquire knowledge and also to work, even daily at times, and not only when they are bored, when teachers need to pass time or when groups of tourists need to shelter from the rain.

The museum is becoming connected to other creative communities and knowledge workers at universities. The museum is opening up and offering itself for ideas and concepts from others who are able to start something with the pooled and proven treasures for new stories they wish to tell their new listeners. The museum is becoming a third place where people with similar interests meet and discuss – they are museums, or rather museum temples, that create free spaces in an otherwise tightly scheduled and increasingly algorithm-controlled world.

Apply for your card. Head to Karlsruhe. A place where museum is done differently.

Visiting the Expothek

Baden State Museum is closed until, and including, 20 December 2020 due to the current pandemic. However, digital visits to the museum are still possible in the meantime via the Homepage of the Baden State Museum (in German language).

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