An interview by Diana Fehr / December 4th, 2020
Jan-Christian Warnecke manages historical exhibitions at the , while focusing to create better visitor experiences. Located in the Old Castle at the very centre of Stuttgart, the museum is looking after over a million objects and preserves essential facets of the region’s cultural heritage from its early beginnings to the present. The museum team is continuously working to meet the needs and expectations of their audience and to satisfy the high demands of a cultural centre.
Museo: When King Wilhelm I of Württemberg established the museum in 1862 it was considered necessary that the collection should be easily accessible and be as open as possible for the public viewing. So right from the beginning it was important for your institution to stay in close connection with the audience. How is this reflected in today’s time?
Jan: Visitors coming to our museum are interested in the history of the state or the country, and have a general interest in the 19th century or any other specific era of European history. This is due to the geographical setting of our Museum in the south of Germany and pretty much in the centre of Europe with links to the west, east, north and south. We have had migrations for the last 30.000 years meaning that our collections have a great variety, so that anyone who is interested in history has the possibility to connect with it.
But today we also have to achieve digital accessibility. Therefore, we have digitalized our collections and are working intensively on establishing links with universities and structures that carry out digital research. If you browse through our webpage you will find almost every exhibition we did over the last 14 years as a filmed or photographic documentary.
We also development a multimedia guide, a downloadable App that helps to navigate through the rather complex structure of our building and collections. So we try to integrate all technical abilities that are offered today to open up new ways of accessibility for the public.
Museo: Can you tell us more about your approach on how you create a better visitor experience and what museums in general can do to achieve this?
Jan: Yes, for example, we recently opened an exhibition on the subject of fashion where we have been working in close corporation with Lisa Baxter who is an expert on visitor experience. Unfortunately, we were only able to open ‘Fashion?!’ to the public for ten days, before we had to go back to the lockdown. But now you can find the entire exhibition on and on our website.
One task which almost every museum is struggling with today is how to reach the next generation. With ‘Fashion?!’ we have developed an exhibition, covering a historic dimension from 1950 until today, which is especially designed for this generation. Our target group has a high affinity to digital communication, but we didn’t know how to address them, how they think, what they feel, what they are interested in and what their habits are.
This is why we spent a lot of time on understanding and imagining this group. After we had an idea of who they are, we invited some of them to discuss whether or not our design approach works. But it didn‘t work very well. In consequence we had to redesign and change things at a very late stage of the process. But I think the extra-mile was worth the effort! During this short time of the ten days, people attended the exhibition who we had never seen before. Even though they entered with a slight scepticism we were able to create a familiar environment for them where they could just indulge into fashion. From that moment the museum worked again as a medium where we could tell stories through objects, as we now knew how to engage this audience, by using our skills of presenting, explaining and making objects interesting and putting them into a context that made them relevant.
Museo: What was your personal lesson learned from your last exhibition and your workshops with Lisa?
Jan: When I started to work with Lisa, I was very sceptical. I myself have a degree in communication and I am quite familiar with the methods and the limits of certain ways of coaching and workshop. But the thing about Lisa‘s approach is that she has very deeply thought about what it is that people actually feel when they enjoy an exhibition.
During my first workshop with her I took the role of a curious American tourist and I was shocked about what I could see from that perception. Until then I was convinced that we have a great museum, with an easy access that is welcoming and professional. Even though the museum I worked at for so long was perfect to me, it didn‘t work at all for the target audience. After this experience I understood that if you want to create a better visitor experience you have to match the needs of the audience and if you don’t match needs, there is no reason for them to listen to you. And if you don’t exceed the expectations then the experience is just an affirmation of what you already know. You need to really get into the different emotional sets, into the sets of needs of the different groups. Now we understand this better and that was the achievement of Lisa.
Museo: Covid-19 reinforced the disconnection with the audience, and museums now try to overcome them with their increased digital appearance. What do you think about that?
Jan: The pandemic situation is a tough stress test for all the cultural institutions. But I have my doubts on how far the intensified appearance in the digital world matches the needs of the broader public. I think a lot of it has to be considered experimental learning because for a number of reasons museums were not able to put enough focus on digital media throughout the last 10 years.
I don’t believe that all of the Apps that are now developed will later be considered successful. I rather see them as a situation where the civilisation itself is striving more and more for ways of communication in the digital world and where museums are now learning the techniques for that. In this historical situation we are now finding the paths to create a transition between the physical and the digital world.
But if I consider my own use of digital media, I am not willing to look at screens the entire day. This is why I also only attended one of the digital museum openings, and only because I was a part of it. I don’t have the time and don’t feel the necessity for all the fancy elements of the games and the funny discovery webpages. Probably because I am not the target group.
Museo: What do you think needs to be changed in the future within the museums to ensure a better accessibility and to improve the visitor experience?
Jan: The promise museums are giving is to awe you with something original, astonishing and unique, that you cannot see anywhere else. But the fact that you can now look up anything online within seconds makes this business hard. Nevertheless, museums still have to fulfil that desire and this is our challenge.
It’s no longer about providing information, but rather about connecting people with the reality and making them feel that awe again. I can give you an example of what I mean. We have a collection named „5.000 Year of Glass“, in which we exhibit some of the oldest glasses in the history of mankind and also display a Venetian glass of the 16th century.
At this point of the exhibition I am asking people if they have ever seen something like that before and what needed to happen for this piece of glass to still be here. Who might have saved it? And why was it so tremendously important for those people? That’s the moment when you start to get this feeling of awe and when you start to question: Why is this glass still here?
It is much more about opening eyes to these long lines – to why things are still here and are still relevant. This inevitably leads to a situation in which you have to talk about history and why we are where we are, and what has led us from there to here. So, I think the methods of mediation have to evolve into that direction. Getting information is no longer a objective, as information is always available and which leads to the assumption that it is devalued. Making people understand and recreate their feeling of being related to history, while giving orientation, will be our future task.
Museo: Was there a highlight for you in 2020 which keeps you going?
Jan: Yes and it was not only one highlight. My job is basically project steering, bringing things to the point where they are ready to work and this worked three times this year. Even if I already opened many exhibitions, I was still thrilled at the moment when we were able to open ‘Fashion?!’ and when I could see: “Ok this will be great, this will be much better than the things we usually do”. So that was a very good moment!
It is also thrilling to see our achievement within our graphic orientation system where we really made some effort to make it beautiful. But if I point at the absolute highlight of this year, it was when I bought my new guitar. It was absolutely irrational and I am happy that I did it. The good thing about positive feelings is that you want to experience them again and again, but you can’t always achieve them in the same way, meaning that you will continuously have to reinvent your approach.
Museo: Thank you for your time and sharing your thoughts with me.
Images: Landesmuseum Württemberg, M. Schwarz / Sevencity GmbH, Christoph Düpper, Hendrik Zwietasch, Pia Tholen / Foto: Diana Hasenfus, Kilian Glassner