“Finding relevance is attempting to answer questions that put the very existence of our museum at risk.”
Tulga Beyerle, Director of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MK&G) in conversation with Abhay Adhikari, founder Digital Identities and digital partner of the NEO Collections project.
Hello Tulga, please tell us a bit about yourself?
I am from Vienna, currently living in Hamburg, I am a design expert running a museum of applied arts. I love objects, but I love people more. This mindset is rooted in my background — I was a freelancer for thirteen years, which was a formative period for me. I still feel I’m in a state of wonder and discovery, which helps me greatly in my role at MK&G. I feel I am in between different ideas, movements and cultures.
How would you describe MK&G?
Like all museums, I feel MK&G is a place of contradictions. We forget that museums of applied arts were founded with discovery and exploration at their core. They were searching for a new language for design. At some point these places became old fashioned institutions. I want us to go back to those core beliefs — to find a balance between preserving the old and discovering the new. This is how we reach a place of relevance.
Hasn’t relevance become a buzzword? How would you define it?
Our vocabulary is full of buzzwords, a lot depends on the meaning you attach to them. Take resilience for example. We hear it mentioned all the time, but we also need resilient societies. In fact, this is an urgent need if you define resilience as re-building connections between polarized communities. Similarly, finding relevance is answering the urgent question — as a museum of applied arts, do we need to exist? So I would say that finding relevance is attempting to answer questions that put the very existence of our museum at risk.
“We cannot approach relevance without ensuring our institutions have the new competencies to address themes such as climate change, diversity and inclusion, restitution and repatriation.”
This sounds like a challenging goal. Where do you begin?
I have a vision of where I want to go but I’m also aware that the systems that have developed in our institution, which is over 140 years old, are under stress. We cannot approach relevance without ensuring our institutions have the new competencies to address themes such as climate change, diversity and inclusion, restitution and repatriation. This is in addition to our core business. The reality is that we need significant investment and new partnerships to build these new capacities, otherwise, in 50 years, we may not exist. One of the ways we are doing this is by regarding the museum building as a platform for the city and the region. How can other organizations benefit from our infrastructure? For example, we are already cooperating with community colleagues so their courses can take place in the museum.
Following that logic, don’t you stop being a museum and become a socio-cultural center?
This transformation is aligned to our core beliefs and our purpose — which is to explore art and design. Collections are at the heart of the museum, without which, we don’t exist in the first place. The difference is that now everyone is invited to take part in the collective meaning making of what these objects represent. I feel inviting such contributions allows us to emotionally distance ourselves from the collections and objectively examine where we need to go next and how to use our limited resources.
How do you take your colleagues with you along with you on such a vision?
For a long time, the museum will continue to be a place of contradictions — the excitement of what we can become and the exhaustion of dealing with the present situation. I am trying to put in place resources — funding, staffing to balance these pressures. This includes supporting staff to work with coaches. At a strategic level, I am speaking with people across the spectrum — from politicians to local leaders to position the museum as a place with resources that can be shared for societal impact. The Freiraum is our flagship project in this context. Visitors can access this space free of charge — to take a break, read a book, work, sleep, to just be. The day-to-day running of the Freiraum is managed by a host. We also have curators who programme the space.
“For a long time, the museum will continue to be a place of contradictions — the excitement of what we can become and the exhaustion of dealing with the present situation.”
Can you give us another example of this transition?
My approach is to start with people, to weave their ideas, approaches, beliefs into a narrative. NEO Collections illustrates this process. It’s a four year project which creates the foundation for the paradigm shift that needs to happen — how do we look at our collections in new ways — both in an analogue and digital context. Secondly, who are the people and communities that can help us do this and how do we create pathways to connect them to individuals and departments at the museum. We’ve put these ideas into action by initiating conversations with heavy users to co-define areas for further development. On the back of that we launched our first international, multidisciplinary fellowship that included practitioners from the UK, Greece, Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. I feel a radical step has been to pair the fellows with staff across the museum and make a deliberate attempt to remove hierarchies and power structures in the way the two interact.
“…we need to take risks, because there is a huge period of discovery necessary to bridge the gap between the kind of institutions we are at the present and what we need to be.”
What advice do you have for other institutions?
Let me be clear, we’re taking risks — exploring programming beyond exhibitions, inviting new voices, creating shared spaces. But we need to take risks, because there is a huge period of discovery necessary to bridge the gap between the kind of institutions we are at the present and what we need to be. My advice is to take time out to do things that you don’t fully understand yet, but are necessary because your community is asking for this change. Make a plan, and then prepare for it to change. We need a culture of trial and error.
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