Rethink museums!

Matthias Henkel - The pandemic situation as a trigger for a sustainable transformation.

An interview by Diana Fehr / January 20th, 2021

Dr. Matthias Henkel is an cultural historian and archaeologist with many years of operational museum and management experience and a focused eye on content-based, strategic, visitor-centered and brand-oriented development of museums and cultural institutions. He is the founder and Managing Director of the agency “Embassy of Culture” in Berlin, President of ICOM MPR (International Councils of Museums, International Committee of Marketing and Public Relations) and Lecturer Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing / China.


Museo: In these uncertain times museums started to rethink their role and to question how they can quickly adapt to the new challenges. Do you think that the pandemic situation can act as a trigger for a sustainable transformation in the museum sector and if yes what needs to be done?


Henkel: In effectively using „crises as opportunities“. When, if not now, is there an opportunity to fundamentally question and rethink what has been established, to think in a new manner, and to consider the situation, the opportunities and the risks from a truly holistic perspective?

Given these global challenges, we should think about which profile would be the most desirable for the #TheNewNormal from a point of view of art and culture. Because in reality we could actually use the stress that the virus triggers in our traditional social and institutional structures, in a really positive and energetic ways. This does not mean using it to reject change, but rather using it as an accelerator for the implementation of meaningful innovations that are already pending.


It is not without reason that the discussion about the reformulation of the ICOM Code of Ethics is currently a central worldwide discourse. I believe that this disruptive situation offers the opportunity to fundamentally rethink old structures and habits to transform the museums into the next level.


Museo: That sounds good, but isn’t it exhausting enough just to restore the status quo – that we had before Corona?


Henkel: I think that right now, museums should develop a completely new understanding of sustainability. This should definitely paired with a factual self-esteem, which means with confidence in the institutional effectiveness of the museums. Therefore, museums should treat relevant issues in a contemporary way. But until now sustainability has only been understood as a combination of three components: the social, the economic and the ecological, which overlap to create three intersections: fairness, worthiness of life and reason.


This is not wrong. But in my opinion it is not enough for the upcoming challenges we are going to face. Only when we embed this existing system in a cultural (artistic-historical) layer, a really sustainable and valuable foundation can emerge. It is precisely at this new interface that museums could make their own socially productive contribution. They could place their intercultural, historical and contemporary skills in a new context and thus vividly signal their local, regional and supra-regional cultural-political system relevance by actively demonstrating their willingness and ability to engage in discourse.

The New Unterstanding of Sustainability (C) EoC 2020


Let me give you an example of what I mean. At the time of the first lockdown, the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt communicated with external experts on Twitter. The director of the house, Mirjam Wenzel, used the #TachelesVideoCast format to interview a scientific author on the subject of conspiracy myths in connection with CORONA. In my opinion, this created a very strong and successful bridge between historical and current manifestations of this phenomenon.


Museo: In the summer semester of 2020 during the first lockdown you carried out an online research as part of a teaching assignment with the students of the University of Hildesheim on which you have formulated seven theses. Can you tell us more about it?


Henkel: Sure, let me tell you about these seven theses on the #TheNewNormal of museums that we have formulated.


The first thesis deals with digital transformation. „Only the museums, whose digital strategy encompassed the entire museological canon, were able to respond appropriately to the lockdown in terms of communication.“ It turned out that successful crisis communication only succeeded authentically when the conveyed content was really linked to the core tasks of collecting, preserving, researching and communicating. Ultimately it is about rethinking the classical museological canon. To be more precise – it is a question of connecting the individual departments of the museum in the future, as for now they are often largely unrelated and operating alongside one another, rather than with each other.


Museo: How is successful communication measured?


Henkel: This leads us to our second thesis. “Without CTA (Call to Action) there is no added value in communication for the museum.”When the museum posts a message on social media, added value in communication only arises if, for example, a link is embedded that leads interested web-surfers to more detailed information. In this way, a web-surfer who navigates the internet freely and only comes across the museum’s statement by chance, would become a real user. In principle, these are the simple basics of content marketing. Unfortunately, this is often not taken into account by museums.


Museo: What is the relevance of this?


Henkel: That is the key point of thesis 3. “If there is no emotional content, the audience is not interested.” Content is highly relevant when it engages us emotionally. Applied to the museum context, I would describe this as building the bridge of relevance.


Nina Simone has written a book on this topic called The Art of Relevance, which is definitely worth reading. Relevance arises when we are confronted with things or facts that which we partially recognise and which are partially new to us. Ultimately, it is about whether the museum can convey aspects, contexts or, in general, content that is in any way important for the current life of the visitors. Of course, it is also a matter of preparing this content in a media-friendly manner and speaking the language of the potential target audience.


Museo: I understand, so it’s about curiosity and usefulness.


Henkel: Exactly! And that leads us to thesis 4.The Visitor Journey. That means the curation of the museum visit has to be completely rethought, planned and initiated. It’s about conceptually interweaving the analog and the digital.“ Only through this mutual complementation does a real added value arise both from the perspective of the museum (museum tasks) and from the perspective of the visitor (visitor needs).


The museum visit no longer begins at the ticket desk, but rather on the couch at home. And in times of COVID19, it is important to additionally enable a digital visitor journey. Ultimately, it should always be our goal to prepare, accompany or follow up on a real visit to the analogue museum with all the digital thunderstorms. From a classic marketing perspective, it is simply a matter of formulating a brand promise, customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. It is important not only to incite longings or interest in the potential target groups, but also to fully meet their expectations.

The New Visitor Journey (C) EoC 2020


Museo: That sounds like a very strategic approach. Can this really be implemented operationally?


Henkel: A good roadmap always helps. Ultimately, it’s about identifying the different levels and touch-points between the museum and its potential visitors. This leads us to thesis 5. “In the future, audience development and visitor relation management will take place simultaneously on four levels.”


  • ON SITE – in the analogue museum.
  • OFF SITE – outside the analog museum – for example in a public urban space or on the way to the museum.
  • ONSITE – when visiting the museum website – this is about making additional offers or providing information that does not have to be or cannot be available in the museum itself.
  • ONLINE – in general, by surfing the web or using social media.


These four different levels, which of course overlap and transition should be connected to one another, if possible without media disruptions. Ideally, the visitor journey is designed in such a way that the informational thread between the guest and the museum never breaks. Therefore, museums should pay more attention to the topic of customer loyalty in the future.


Museo: This type of structure allows you to locate almost every conceivable situation throughout the visitor journey. It feels almost like the subway network of a big city.


Henkel: A very fitting comparison! Let‘s take a closer look at the passenger within thesis 6 . ”In the future, a clearer distinction should be made between the different groups of visitors in order to be able to make customized offers.” For this we need to divide the audience into groups:


  • Visitors – are online & offline and are directly in the museum. You enjoy an analogue visit and possibly use digital offers that are built-in in a stationary manner.
  • Users – are on-site and are visitors who, e.g. via BYOD use additional digital offers on the museum’s website to access more detailed information.
  • Surfers – are off-site & online and are people outside of the museum who independently navigate freely in the Internet and understand and look for facts that are in a context with the museum.
  • Followers – are located off-site and on social media; they are outside the museum and connected themselves to the museum via social media.
  • Contributors – are on-site or off site or online or offline. They are people who actively and creatively interfere in the work of the museum and engage in an intellectual or operational exchange.


Museo: But does that also mean that these different approaches have to be filled with completely new content?


Henkel: Yes! If consequently pursued, this would create a type of museum that Joseph Beuys once described as the “place of permanent conference”. [1] In order to be able to conduct such a constant dialogue, a high degree of clarity, recognizability and ultimately uniqueness is required.


Which brings us to thesis 7. “If the message sent by the museum does not pay off for its own brand, there is no lasting bond between the museum and the visitor”. Even if the museum cannot and should not function as a business enterprise, because it primarily serves as a socially important place of discourse and reflection, it would be more than desirable in terms of perceptibility if the museums in the future would follow a significantly more brand-oriented communication strategy. Because there is competition in the cultural sector too – for potential visitor’s time and attention. Therefore, the formulation of a clear concept, a mission and a vision is essential. On this jointly defined factual basis, the visual and ultimately cross-media appearance of the museum is then developed. The topic of brands primarily has to do with strategic and content-related profiling rather than simply with marketing. The museum’s brand is based on its core competency.


Museo: And what conclusions for operative museum work emerge from this?


Henkel: The long-term winners of the development will be the museums that implement a comprehensive communication strategy across all departments and that also link the analogue and the digital with one another. That is why it is also important for museums to take their visitors seriously and respond to them. We live in the age of interaction, so “get people involved!“ This creates new approaches to new contexts.


Museo: But wouldn‘t that mean that museums are at risk to be overwhelmed? At least the majority of the smaller museums of the more than 7,000 total museums in Germany do not have the resources to create such new approaches.


Henkel: Yes and No. In a way, museums have no choice but to really become the transmitters of their own messages and at the same time to switch to reception. This is the basis for a productive dialogue with visitors, users, web-surfers, followers and contributors. That can of course quickly become expensive and it is certainly often beyond the skills of the traditional museum staff. But in the end it means that to a certain extent there needs to occur a setting of new priorities and a relocation of the old ones. That is why it is also important to “keep it simple”.


Museo: How would you formulate the takeaway, regarding the approach to the new sustainability?


Henkel: When we talk about strategy in museums, we should always keep in mind that it is about developing a holistic, museological strategy.


  1. In order to be able to begin such a process, a mental openness within the museum as an institution is primarily required.
  2. Through a collaborative way of working, the potential of the different skills and perspectives could be used productively for exhibition and program work much earlier in the process than before.
  3. In a next step, the interface to the audience can be institutionalized – it is about creating a dialogue at eye level.
  4. Increasing knowledge of the respective needs (visitor needs) and necessities (museum tasks) would result in a much greater mutual understanding.
  5. The diagram clearly shows how dialogical-discursive power can be gained from this multilayered overlap.



Despite all the urgency and consistency that overcoming the current pandemic demands of us, at this point we should allow ourselves to reflect in order to systematically develop a truly cultural and sustainable profile of the museum that should be configured in #TheNewNormal. This would bring us very close to Joseph Beuys‘ concept of the expanded concept of art. The museum would become a form of social sculpture to which each of us would be able to contribute.


Museo: Thank you very much for this very interesting interview!


Henkel: The pleasure was all mine.

[1] Beuys, Joseph (1980): Das Museum – ein Ort der permanenten Konferenz. In: Horst Kurnitzky (Hrsg.): Notizbuch 3. Kunst. Gesellschaft. Museum, 47-74.


Images: Dr. Matthias Henkel