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Berlin Museums: Building Connections at CTM16

Berlin Museums: Building Connections at CTM16

Picture of Julianne Cordray
Updated: 9 August 2016
Beneath the natural light filtering through the glass of the Deutsches Historiches Museum’s vast, high-ceilinged inner courtyard, the Communicating the Museum Conference (CTM) set an open stage for dialogue about the museum, through the museum, within the museum. We got a first-hand look at just how this year’s conference unfolded in the city of Berlin.

The well-attended, international conference – comprising both regular and first-time attendees — took place from July 12-15 and brought together a myriad of diverse perspectives on effectively engaging audiences, both inside and outside the museum’s walls. Recurrent and pertinent points of discussion included: making the most of Instagram in transmitting visual culture through contemporary modes of visual media sharing, recognizing the impact of travel bloggers in generating visitor interest, and exploring the potential effectuality of new digital media such as Pokemon Go.

Mark Goggin, Executive Director, Sydney Living Museums; Barbara Wolf, Deutsches Historisches Museum; and Corinne Estrada, CEO and Founder, Agenda and CTM | Photo by the Author

Practicing The Craft Of Collaborative Thinking

In an interactive workshop that took place during the conference’s second day, Jo Marsh, Director and Consultant of Jane Wentworth Associates, lead participants through the practice of initiating a productive dialogue within the museum, before extending the scope of brand communication outward to effectively reach an audience. As an expert in advising organizations in the generation and propagation of a clearly defined purpose and vision, Marsh elucidated on the essentiality of getting the whole team on board, interacting and thinking co-creatively, exchanging ideas and focusing those ideas towards the operations and aims of the museum.

To illustrate this point, Marsh engaged conference participants in a hands-on exercise through guided decision-making. Initiating the process, each group was given a phrase from which they were prompted to build and articulate their institution’s specific mission using assorted stationary and craft supplies. Sticking to their respective, allocated statements (some more abstract than others) were given to each group who grappled with how they should interpret and convey their message to the public. From table to table in the conference hall, each group’s effort was unique and innovative. The exercise was fun, playful and served its purpose in generating discussion amongst team members towards building an institutional foundation with a clear vision for future development; ultimately rendering the potentials of a space that fosters co-creative thinking. Working with materials and communicating visually also illuminated the significance of such basic means and materials in initiating communication, facilitating knowledge-sharing and igniting the creative process.

Team members working together during Jo Marsh’s workshop, CTM16 Berlin | Photo by the Author

Technologies Of Storytelling

In addition to participating in such group activities, I had the opportunity to sit down for one-on-ones with conference speakers. In a conversation with the head of the e-culture team at the Amsterdam Museum, Marijke Oosterbroek, and Arjaan Kunst, the operations director of izi.TRAVEL, the partnership between the museum and the digital platform was outlined, emphasizing the importance of continual experimentation and change in developing effective ways of reaching a broad audience with wide ranging interests. As one of the first museums in the Netherlands to digitize its entire collection, which is available for public access online, the Amsterdam Museum is well versed in initiating processes of change in order to sustain audience interest within a contemporary landscape.

One of the ways in which the Amsterdam Museum is utilizing digital technologies to engage diverse audiences and maximize visitor experience is by partnering with izi.TRAVEL. A platform that is available as an app and in desktop form for storytelling through digital media. It comprises images, video, audio, and quizzes that build on and interact with the museum’s diverse collection, adding a new layer and level of engagement. Recognizing that different visitors engage with different points of interest, the platform facilitates the formation and dissemination of various story threads that connect to diverse audiences on a personal and emotional level. The underlying concept of the platform, as well as the museum’s digital communication strategies, is that beyond straightforward transmission of information, an interesting, relevant story is crucial in capturing and holding attention.

Izi.TRAVEL allows museums to tailor experiences to a broader audience, engaging both tourists and local visitors spanning across different age groups and permeating various fields of cultural interest. Through museum audio guides and city walks, the platform builds on the connection between the museum’s history and that of the city (in this case Berlin), facilitating multiple experiences of the same space from different angles and focuses. Drawing on the history of the museum’s site – that of a former orphanage – Oosterbroek and Kunst brainstormed on topics of interest to the target group of millennials relating them back to the building itself. Real-life, universal stories about friendship and young love emerged through documentation of the orphanage and interviews with those who had once lived there, connecting with visitors on an intimate level. Through this project and similar developments, new modes of communication emerge in the form of personalized and collective histories that forge a connection, make an impression and immerse diverse visitors in the history of the museum, its objects, and the city.

Slide from Margot López’s presentation during CTM16 Berlin | Photo by the Author

Architecture’s Communicative Framework

Elaborating on the notion of the museum itself as a storytelling medium, Biomuseo Panama’s Communications Coordinator, Margot López, spoke to me about the key role of the building’s architecture in initiating communication and interaction with Panama’s landscape and visitors. A background in architecture has proven integral for López as the Communications Coordinator of a museum whose building, designed by Frank Gehry, is exceptional within the cityscape; a visual expression of Panama’s dynamic and vibrant history and culture, which illuminates the potential of architecture to initiate new ways of thinking and seeing. Architecture is not only a central component embedded in the museum’s mission, which is focused on sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, but facilitates interaction between people and their surroundings. Design and architecture is itself a communicative process, the awareness of which has guided López through her role in transmitting the museum’s specific message.

As a biodiversity museum, the building and exhibits are designed to maintain a connection between nature and the landscape outside with the history and information articulated within. Light and colour, both natural and fabricated, play a substantial role in creating an interactive experience. Described by López as a similar strategy to that of plants and animals that use bright colors and dynamic motions to attract the eye, the building provides a burst of color within Panama’s landscape, which calls for attention and piques curiosity. Once inside, natural light filters through each exhibition gallery, shifting with the time of day, and integrates visitors and the exhibits with the natural phenomena that envelopes them. Further disintegrating boundaries between inside and outside, the museum’s atrium is an open space devoid of doors and windows, which is traversed and occupied by local wildlife and forms a physical connection between city streets. The experience is that of a welcoming, open environment and a space to be explored at the visitor’s own pace. A museum rooted in Panama’s past and immersed in its present, the experience created, as explained by López, is a holistic one that builds connections both within and beyond its borders, converging in a view toward a shared future.