The Grohmann exhibition between experiment and tradition

Screenshot of virtual exhibition made by TU Dresden students. Copyrights Ferdinand-Möller-Stiftung.

The exhibition at the Lipsiusbau about the work and network of Will Grohmann, as discussed by both Isabel Dzierson and Sonja Ostendorf-Rupp, was an interesting example of both traditional and more experimental forms of exhibiting. As Isabel Dzierson has argued, the curators made use of new media in interesting ways. The most impressing of all was the 3D-reconstruction of the famous and influential Allgemeinen Deutschen Kunstausstellung of 1946 in Dresden. The question remains, however, if these technologies were truly incorporated or added afterwards, as an afterthought, as Sonja Ostendorf-Rupp so strikingly suggested.

The Australian scholar Paul Arthur argues that “it is important to recognize that some museums have been criticized for relying upon new technologies simply because they are available. This has been referred to as the ‘technology trap’ – that is, technological possibilities directing museum practice and so tending to supplant core priorities and policies.” (Arthur, ‘Exhibiting history. The digital future’, 2008). So the question might be rephrased as follows: is the exhibition Im Netzwerk der Modernean example of the technology trap? Or does it offer new ways of incorporating digital media into a coherent museological narrative?

Exhibitions are hybrid spaces and the rise of digital media has only made the field more heterogeneous. Some museums do not use these new technologies and seem to think that objects can speak for themselves. My visit to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister was void of digitalism, which I experienced as a small relief after a week of talking technology. I could look at the paintings that were discussed by professor Rainer Groh, who had thoroughly deconstructed some of them with his virtual camera, and could play back his lecture as I was gazing at the works of Bellotto. I did not need an iPad telling me what to look at, and could simply enjoy the museal peace that had entered my mind.

I did not understand why most of the visitors just walked passed in a hurried fashion, on the prowl for a Rembrandt or Vermeer, when I realized that Groh’s lecture had opened a small window in my head that connected my gaze with the outer cityscape, mediated by Bellotto’s artistic intervention. I wished everybody had had that same lecture – though perhaps condensed to 5 minutes instead of two hours. I could imagine a video screen explaining how you could look at this picture differently. Not in order to replace the original, but just to make it even more beautiful. As the physicist Richard Feyman once remarked when a friend asked him if he could still enjoy a simple flower: “There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

I did not miss digital media at the Alte Meister though, since there were many different media readily available. I noticed myself listening in on a museum guide, telling her crowd about a prostitute that Rembrandt had painted in his ugliest work I’ve seen so far. Nobody would even care for this painting if it weren’t for the anecdote the guide was telling. In another room, an elderly man was sitting on a chair, fighting with his audio guide. He didn’t seem to understand the stupid machine, and he probably would not have used a touch screen even if it were there.

We shouldn’t forget that an exhibition is a network of media that tries to disseminate knowledge, beauty or understanding to a larger audience. Digital media are not there to revolutionize this practice or to place something between the artifacts and the visitors. Rather, they are just another development in a long evolutionary line of museological technologies. Once they are truly integrated into the curatorial praxis, we will likely not even notice their presence, but rather intuitively understand their role and function as part of the tradition.

Until this is the case, however, there will have to be experiments that are to be critically assessed afterwards, which Sonja Ostendorf-Rupp  did very well. In my opinion, the curators at the Lipsiusbau tried to eat the cake and have it. They developed exiting programs and visualizations that offered the public new ways of understanding Grohmann’s network and influence. At the same time, these media were not trusted to lead the story. The museum narrative was divided into 10 rooms, and every room – beside the last two spaces – had a text that was both onscreen and on the wall. Why was it duplicated? It was not easier to read the text on the wall, since the letters were quite small and grey-on-white. And why did the last two rooms not have screens? Was there no more money? It seemed a bit halfhearted. And why was the screen that visualized Grohmann’s network placed outside the exhibition, outside the ‘sacred space’ and next to the café? When I was there, the only person using it was a little girl jumping in front if it in order to touch the screen. She was fascinated with what probably appeared as a mega-ginormous-iPhone.

Photograph of the touch screen at the exhibition, showing a newspaper article written by Grohmann.

All in all, the exhibition showed the potential of digital media. They did not function as audio guides, which tend to give you very little room to interact and select the information that you would like. At some screens you could access old newspaper articles that Grohmann had published during WWII. It was very nice to be able to go in depth, though you don’t really want to take up the time to read an entire article while other people are waiting to use the same screen. At the same time, you were not forced to make use of them, which is nice especially for digital non-natives. This also proves that the screens were not yet trusted to take over the role of sticky letters. As an exhibition, it was therefore very adequate, but as an experiment it did not go far enough.