We are researching the relationship between museums and society. In four case studies, we are linking historical perspectives with empirical studies, inquiry-based teaching with intervention.

Case Studies

Heated discussions are currently taking place about the role played by museums in society. We want our research to make a contribution to these debates and create the foundations for a new, joint research center on this topic for universities and museums in Berlin. This project is interdisciplinary and combines historical perspectives with empirical case studies and practical interventions. It will examine four closely connected case studies:

Digital Image Worlds

This project examines the digital image worlds that are emerging around museums, focusing on the social aspects of interfaces. This investigation focuses on collection data, digital networks, and the different interfaces between communication and data exchange – from databases to social media projects.

It is about connecting the social aspects of these technologies with contemporary debates about the future of the museum as an institution while bringing the topics of data politics and data ethics into critical discussions about museums as social spaces. Many assume that new approaches are emerging in the digital space within the scope of the digitalization of the cultural field. This project questions that assumption and examines the social relations that shape museums in the digital context.

One important aspect of this is commercial platforms. In the age of smartphones and social media, digital networks have become a central, omnipresent social space. Platforms that are currently dominant like Facebook and Instagram are raising critical questions about data politics and data ethics, which our project relates to the data politics in museum work, both in terms of digitalization and database projects, and in terms of digital communication work.

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Museums as laboratories

The case study “Labs” studies museums as spaces of scientific and social experimentalization. Building on scholarship in science and technology studies (STS), it utilizes concepts related to time and temporality to investigate digitization and collection practices in and around the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin (MfN).

Along with other natural history museums worldwide, the MfN is currently making its historical collection of specimens digitally available. This digitization effort is presented as essential to understanding and comparing the state of biodiversity, both past and present. By digitizing large numbers of specimens, museums stress that we can gain insights into possible futures, as collections are believed to hold potential answers to the predicted effects of climate change.

Acceleration and speed come forward as central notions in the discourse around specimen digitization. On the one hand, the world is said to face the ‘rapid’ decline of biological diversity, with biodiversity being lost at ‘accelerating rates’. This loss is presented as an ongoing emergency that is gaining momentum, that must be ‘slowed down’. In order to slow it down, to keep climatic catastrophe at bay, digitization efforts need to speed up, or so we are told. With the rapid, industrialized digitization of objects, it is hoped that knowledge on changes in biodiversity will grow, offering ‘solutions’ to our catastrophic times. With the introduction of its “Entomology Conveyor”, an ‘industrial and automated’ approach to specimen digitization, the MfN is hoping to meet this demand, this need for speed.

Adopting the analytical lenses of temporality and speed, the case study investigates the politics of digitization. By taking into account both digitization with the Entomology Conveyor, which is set up in a public exhibition, as well as digitization projects that remain hidden from the public view, it offers a comparison between digitization as spectacle and the more mundane labour of making collections digital. How does this discourse of acceleration compare to digitization work on the ground? What is at stake in speeding up, and for whom? Seeing that digitization is furthermore presented as a means of mobilizing natural history collections towards preventing future catastrophe, it asks how imaginaries of (un)desirable futures are given shape. Thinking with time, the project seeks out entanglements between museums, technology, and society.

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This case study examines the environment (and environments) in museums and museums as environments. It connects perspectives on environmental, social, and collection history with the topical question of how museums shape their local and global environments and how these environments, in turn, change museums.

At the center of this case study is collecting as a social practice (of knowledge) and the question of what impact collecting has on local environments, knowledge, and forms of social cohesion. How do museums collect? What kinds of environmental knowledge do collections produce? And what ideas about “nature” do museums convey?

At the same time, the project examines museums themselves as environments. This means, firstly, museums as social environments: How do museums function as places and actors in urban society and in the global web of ecological, social, and political relations? And how do museums as workplaces, research sites, and exhibition spaces not only put community and exclusion on display but also generate them? Moreover, studying museums as environments means, secondly, taking into account the specific relationships and ecologies between human and non-human actors. To what extent can museums be described as hybrid sociotechnical environments, as lifeworlds, and as places of social interaction and intervention for various life forms?

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Affective spaces

The case study focuses on the diverse body of historical objects connected to the spread of Buddhism from India to the rest of Asia (Silk Road) obtained from South Asia and Central Asia on display in rooms 314 and 317 at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin. The objects may convey multiple meanings to diverse audiences, depending on different ways of seeing and perceiving. Exhibiting Buddhist art in museums or other secular spaces creates new contexts and conditions that often give rise to new meanings. The museum exhibitions has the potential to arouse visitors’ thinking on the concepts of cultural identities and histories in a third space (Bhabha 1996), in which cultural boundaries become blurred and fluid, as it challenges homogeneity in perception of ‘culture.’ Visitors have a role in co-creating the narratives and meaning making in the museum enshrining the potential of historical stories and affect to explore intercultural and transcultural relationships in contemporary society.

Aims and Research Questions

Map the emotional journey of the visitor in the room (for e.g. their cultural point of view, psychological point of view).

Create a post visit questionnaire to analyze visitor expectations and impact, which will have an open ended structure to invite visitors to assign meanings to the object, space, make their own observations, without an element of control (without encouraging or discouraging specific emotions) on the different kind of emotions the visitors experience during their process of emotional participation.

Analyze the findings to answer the following questions:

1. What role do emotions and affect play in visitor’s experiences in this particular museum setting?

2. Analyze the social connotations of emotions.

Inviting viewers to explore ideas, to make connections, and to assign meanings.

What does the exhibition want visitors to know, feel upon leaving the exhibition (curator’s perspective)?

Do museum spaces promote understanding and relationships between diverse ethnic, religious or language communities?

Visitors in room 317 at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst Humbolt Forum Berlin photo Ranjamrittika Bhowmik All rights reserved copy
Buddha Avalokiteshvara Eastern India 9th c basalt acquired 1908 from L A Waddell Room 314 Museum für Asiatische Kunst Humbolt Forum Berlin photo Ranjamrittika Bhowmik All rights reserved
Projections of Cave Paintings on the ceiling room 317 photo Ranjamrittika Bhowmik All rights reserved