Alone in the printing museum. Analog visitors and digital users in times of Coronavirus

Dr. Susanne Richter, Museum of Printing Art Leipzig

Museums in Leipzig have been closed since March 14, 2020, and the Museum of Printing Art has become very quiet, both its collections and the current exhibition The Eye of the Photographer. Sometimes it takes a crisis for things to change. In recent weeks Leipzig museums have been extremely active reaching out to their users. They go online and show what they have to offer with photos, videos and live streams, making it possible to use museums in a medium other than the physical space that is their usual environment. As museums we show our relevance by preparing our content in digital form, offering new insights into our collections, offering educational activities and creative ideas which can be pursued at home, and providing guided tours through our currently closed special exhibitions.

In the Museum of Printing Art a lot of creative and innovative potential has also been set in motion in recent weeks. All employees contributed in different ways and discovered new talents along the way, whether in video-editing techniques, in the representation of our activities through film and photo, or in the moderation of filmed tours. Or they have finally been able to implement projects that had long been planned but which had not quite found their place in the rush of everyday museum life. This is how a cult wallpaper printed from huge wooden letters was created in the workshops of the museum. Two colleagues collaborated, each creating their own poster which they printed on a large format press. These now adorn the entrance area of the museum and what had previously been a rather dark hallway in the building.

The various stages in the project were photographed and filmed by other colleagues and prepared as a multi-part series for Facebook and Instagram. The large number of clicks which they have attracted has shown that the bridge between history and the present and between analog and digital works well.

So, can we say that the crisis has given an urgently needed boost of innovation in museums which are often considered to be conservative? Discussion of the potential of digital resources in the museum world did not start in mid-March 2020. Some large museums, such as the Städel Museum in Frankfurt or the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, have been pursuing a consistent digital strategy for several years. However, it is important that we be clear about what we mean when we talk about digitization: do we mean the provision of data concerning artefacts, etc., for research purposes, as with the German digital library in which museum collections are also involved; or are we talking about digital educational and educational programs intended to be used outside the museum and which turn visitors into users?

The crisis has revealed those museums which want to reach, entertain, involve, educate and hold on to their target groups virtually, and those which simply represent objects as in a digital display case on the Internet. Digitization is not an end in itself that is transformed or rendered more visible by the translation of an object into another medium. What are the benefits of digitalization, apart from the fact that objects are now available online to be accessed and researched by the specialist public from a computer without ever having visited the museum or the collection? Such accessibility is clearly a benefit. There can be no question about that! But effort and profit are often in stark contrast in this type of use, because a museum is not a library.

Rather, digitization should offer benefit to many users and should open up a new space for thought that reflects the attitude and self-image of the individual museums. If only because all digital resources, however well made, lack one aspect that makes museums and their collections so unique: the existence of the original object on site. No film contribution, no performance, no photo sequence can replace the original for users, but it can and should make them want to see the original. Because the place where the original is located offers more than the three senses that digital media have at their disposal. The original has a resonant space inhabited by other people, a space where there are noises and smells, where the gaze can wander and is not directed by a camera. In such spaces encounters between people are possible, the atmosphere of the place flows in and this creates an experience that is memorable rather than volatile like a video clip which gives way a new one posted the next day.

In the current crisis it has become increasingly clear that digital and analog worlds are conditional in museums and coming closer together than ever before. They are no longer perceived as opposites, but rather as partners who have a common goal: to interest people in museums and their collections, to inspire them, and to encourage them discover museums in flesh and blood. The additional benefit of digital activities being that they can be reused in the museum, as apps, on the website, for object documentation and, above all, as an additional aspect of on-site mediation, e.g. in the form of QR codes that make existing content immediately accessible to visitors at any time via smartphone.

Digital tours for users are currently a wonderful alternative, but they have so far not brought in a single euro for the institutions which offer them. And here we come to the crux of previous digital models which are available free of charge – a situation which is absolutely correct in the coronavirus crisis. Because one thing is certain, the currently high volume of clicks would be dramatically lower if they were linked to a payment model. The publishing and media industry has already had to learn that their content, as soon as it is subject to a fee, has significantly fewer users, unless it is unique and offers particular benefits. Museums should learn from this and focus on producing free, highly useful content in terms of creativity, entertainment, education and information, but always keeping in mind that this content must be designed and targetted if it is to generate on-site visits, to create a pull, an urgent desire to also visit this place called the museum.

Thanks to the coronavirus the signs are very good, especially for museums which are generally able to implement the current clearance and hygiene measures relatively easily. The German Museum Association has pointed this out with the result that museums are among the first cultural institutions to be allowed to reopen. If museums have focused on informative, entertaining and contemporary online activities in recent weeks, they should now be assured of a culturally starved audience who is grateful for a varied and authentic cultural experience. Museums are democratic and safe places of encounter, dialogue and education. It’s a good thing that they exist not only on the Internet but also physically nearby, and that for many people who are currently digitally oversaturated they offer a piece of the world that we otherwise often only discover when we are traveling. An ‘analog’ visit to the museum can also open up a journey into new worlds.

Dr. Susanne Richter is an art historian and is convinced of the importance of the museum as an institution. She is also committed to industrial culture and the intangible cultural heritage of printing technology. In recent weeks, she has rediscovered her landline phone as a means of maintaining personal contacts!

Photos: Museum of Printing Art Leipzig.



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