An interview by Diana Fehr / Feb. 2022
“Prof. Dr. Markus Hilgert, Secretary General and Board Member of the German Kulturstiftung der Länder (Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States), holds numerous honorary positions at both the national and international level, including being an active member of the Board of the German UNESCO-Commission, the Culture Advisory Council of the NFDI4Culture Consortium, the Foundation Board of the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH), the Advisory Group of the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund and the Finance and Resources Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Hilgert has been a visiting professors both in Germany and abroad and currently teaches as an honorary professor at the University of Heidelberg, the University of Marburg and the Free University of Berlin.”
Museo: In your of the “Germany in Europe” project of the Global Ideas Center in Berlin, which is funded by the Mercator Foundation, you rightly emphasised that Germany provides one of the richest and most diverse cultural offerings in the world. At the same time, you criticise the German cultural sector by stating – and I quote here: “In the cultural sector, we have so far paid far too little attention to the relevance and transformative power of Digitalisation. Our theatres, our museums and even our world heritage sites, as well as our schools and universities believed until very recently that we could simply cling to the status quo.” Who are these harsh words aimed at, and what do you personally want to achieve? Has the German cultural sector really missed out on the opportunity to digitalise?
Hilgert: With this statement, I am addressing all those who hold responsibility in the cultural sector, both within the institutions themselves, and at the political level. My main concern here is to emphasise the importance of reflecting on how we can ensure the relevance of culture and cultural institutions, particularly in the face of great social challenges such as sustainability and ethics. Even though the global project of digitalisation was initiated long before the pandemic, after 30 years of digital technology, we are still not where we need to be. Since the early 1990s, we know that research collections need to be made available digitally, just as the United States have already been demonstrating for several decades. Furthermore, it is also not a new requirement to prepare cultural content in a way that it can also be circulated and debated in digital spaces, supporting education on cultural institutions. We need to reflect on how to reach and support the thousands of German medium-sized and small institutions in their digital transformation, which during the pandemic had to painfully realise their missing digital presence.
Hilgert: The truth is that we are still in the middle of the pandemic. But there is no going back to the status quo, even if some cultural institutions have managed to attract the same number of visitors they had before the pandemic. However, the majority of institutions have actually had to realise that a large quantity of the those visitors will not be returning to the analogue spaces.
The pandemic has changed many things in terms of mobility. If we want cultural institutions to remain relevant and continue to have a place in society, we need to think about how to reach those people who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not physically attend cultural spaces in the future.
Museo: There are, of course, renowned lighthouse projects that we can also find in Germany. Institutes like the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe or the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt are working very hard on their digitisation in order to maintain the exchange with their audience. But how can this be achieved by the numerous smaller museums? Can funding programmes like Museum 4.0 help here?
Hilgert: Museum 4.0 is an enormously important project, of which I was involved in the development stage, that has now been running for almost five years. But we are not talking about the big institutions that find it easy to both build up and finance competencies and capacities. It’s not about developing individual institutions further, but rather about the preservation of diversity and having an impact on institutions in all social environments, in particular rural areas.
It is important that both as part of their strategy and their organisational development, institutions think about who they want to communicate with and how. There are a wide range of different options, from social media, to Google Arts and Culture, up to digital tours. The key is to use the medium intelligently and appropriately so that institutions reach the very people who are their primary focus. For a long time now, we have been living in a world where digital and analogue are closely intertwined. Therefore I find it important that objectives, which of course adhere to the mission statement of the respective institutions, are rethought in a meaningful way so that they align with the current digital standards.
Museo: Does this mean that in the future, the digital world will replace the analogue museum experience?
Hilgert: There is no question about whether or not the digital will replace the analogue. The digital will open up new dimensions of perception and communication, and of course, one can add much more content to a work of art or a cultural-historical object through the digital than what is possible in a physical space. But the power of the digital is that it offers completely new and different possibilities to reach specific people or target groups, and to convey knowledge.
This does not mean that museums cease to exist as special physical spaces for encounters with the original objects, or that they cease to fulfil their function. But I do believe that especially regarding the question of how we can produce culture in a climate-friendly and climate-neutral way, we need to think about whether there are alternatives to flying in art from various continents, so that millions of people make the journey, whether by car, train or plane, just to see those blockbuster exhibitions. This is no longer the model for the future. We also have to rethink new business models that meet the requirements of climate justice, limited mobility and the inclusion of different social groups.
Museo: So this is about the democratisation of culture – a shift away from the elite and towards younger and more diverse audiences?
Hilgert: We have to consider that many important cultural institutions in Germany are financed, or at least partly financed, by tax payers. Therefore it is important to consider the following questions: What actually is the ambition of a cultural institution? Who does it want to reach? Is it satisfied to only reach a certain social group of the urban population? I think this should not be the case. Because if everyone contributes to the existence of such an institution, then the institution should at least have the ambition to interest as many people as possible through its activities.
So how do we ensure that the existing social diversity, not only in the cities but throughout the country, is represented in such a way that it also addresses individuals with a migration background? I believe that this can be achieved in a multitude of different ways. For example, we now often talk about cultural institutions becoming so called “third places” – places where people meet, places that are socially relevant, beyond their home and workplace.
Museo: How should digitalisation promote this development and how can it break down existing barriers?
Hilgert: Through its’ intrinsic flexibility, digital media helps break down exactly those barriers. The full spectrum of diversity and perspectives can be addressed, in particular via social media and video portals as key channels that reach out to big audiences. Here, the most important content lies above all in quickly comprehensible, audio-visually attractively designed digital features that are usually offered as videos. A marketing buzzword for this is „snackable content”, in other words: ready-made, quickly accessible content that tends to be particularly successful.
Entrance fees are not the primary obstacles, and neither are barriers of mobility, except for rural areas, that stop people from attending museums. Real barriers occur when people do not feel personally addressed by cultural institutions and what they have to say. However, there are many examples of outreach projects in cultural institutions that can inspire people to engage with cultural spaces to which they previously had no access.
It is not about replacing the fantastic physical museum experience. The crucial issue is the change of perspective that the digital enables. When done well, such as in the “Konzerthaus in Berlin” or the “Deutsches Museum” in Munich, the digital allows people to enter places that they had no access to previously. They can climb into a steam engine, but also stand on stage next to the ballet dancers, or sit in the middle of the orchestra.
Overall, however, it is important to understand that the digital opens up possibilities for communication and transparency that we urgently need, and would otherwise not have access to. For example, when it comes to questions of the ethical handling of museum collections.
Museo: But how can we develop the necessary skills and capacities to achieve this?
Hilgert: We have to support the small and smallest institutions in particular. In Germany alone, there are about 6,000 museums, many of which are run on a voluntary basis, usually by only two or three people. I think this is a very important political task. We must ensure that these institutions also have a digital presence.
Here, a professionalisation campaign has to be initiated, in other words, an organisational development which ensures that digital competences are also available in these institutions. As a result of the pandemic, we have recently launched a major programme together with the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media to achieve precisely this goal. The programme aims to strengthen the competences for the production of digital content within institutions, especially in the area of strategy and communication.
What must not happen, is that every element is acquired externally and that the expertise leaves the institution once the project is completed. No, we really do need people in institutions who can do this, who want this, and who think about how the use of digital technologies can change the organisation, the communication, the value chain, and the cooperation within the institution.
Museo: But this cannot all be financed through tax-payer money. What other approaches need to be considered?
Hilgert: The fact that culture in Germany is so broadly and comprehensively publicly financed, provides the sector with a great deal of freedom. At the same time that does not mean that you cannot and should not think about how you can possibly expand this freedom with offers that raise additional income. Therefore, digital competitive business models are definitely something that needs to be considered across the entire cultural sector.
Furthermore, if it is really the case that we are losing audiences due to the pandemic and the increased use of digital media, we will also have to be prepared for the fact that analogue offerings will have to change. How can these be made attractive enough so that visitors are willing to pay 80-90 euros for an opera experience? This is definitely a challenge, but at the same time it can also be an incentive for cultural institutions to rethink their role in society.
Museo: From your point of view, how can this added value be generated so that visitors are willing to pay higher entrance fees? And who will these visitors that are able to afford higher fees for such experiences be?
Hilgert: Additional offers will have to be created, as we already see in parts of the retail sector. Which locations are still worth going to? These are places where you receive advice, and where at the same time you can have a special personal experience. Experiences that are tailored to different groups, without always applying the same pattern.
There is the possibility to offer co-production or co-creation, where people can be involved in the process of shaping and creating, be it through TikTok or other channels. After all, we live in a society that is in itself very creative, and where the digital medium is the enabling factor. I don’t have all the answers, but I believe we have to think about how the digital is becoming more professional in order to be more attractive, while also becoming commercially successful. At the same time, we also have to think about how to modernise the analogue so that people are still motivated to leave their living rooms and enter a specific cultural place.
Museo: Is there hope for optimism?
Hilgert: In terms of quality, Germany finds itself in a very good position. Nevertheless, we must ensure that these offers are available nationwide. We must implement cultural policies that support and accompany the digital transformation process accordingly. Ultimately, to preserve our rich and diverse cultural offerings, this great challenge requires openness and creativity.
Museo: Thank you very much for this interview and your insight into the digital transition of German culture.