Celebrate with us! Postcards and worksheets are available in the temporary bauhaus-archiv, Knesebeckstr. 1-2, 10623 Berlin or on www.bauhaus.de
Celebrate with us! Postcards and worksheets are available in the temporary bauhaus-archiv, Knesebeckstr. 1-2, 10623 Berlin or on www.bauhaus.de
Must every museum be interesting for kids? No, but if a museum aims to diversify its visitor groups – a declared goal of many museums – a good place to start is engaging with children. After all, the following urbanistic insight can also be applied to the museum realm:
“Children are a kind of indicator species, if we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone.”
Enrique Peñalosa, Former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia*
How do you make a museum accessible to kids? Ideally, by working with them: having conversations, observing them, developing ideas with them, building, testing, and improving prototypes with their help. This ‘Human Centred Approach’ has been an established technique in architecture and product design for a long time. In the German museum scene, however, it is taking longer to catch on.
While many museums offer guided tours and workshops for kids, they miss out on the chance to learn from their visitors. The experiences of the tour guides or workshop leads do not usually in turn influence curation and museum design. No wonder – offering a (specially funded) program is easier than questioning one’s own work.
The Bröhan-Museum, Berlin’s museum for art nouveau, art deco and functionalism, on the other hand, was brave enough to ask: “How do children experience our museum, and what kind of museum do they dream of?”. In the summer of 2019, curator of outreach Nils Martin Müller started a Kinder Committee with the slogan “meddling strictly allowed”, which he asked me to lead.
I had the pleasure of working with twelve fantastic children from grades 5 and 6 and exploring the museum from their perspective, developing prototypes for a child accessible museum together. With the enthusiastic help of the teachers, the museum’s team and the cultural agents Berlin, the Kinder Committee met every Wednesday afternoon for a whole academic year.
A museum visit from the perspective of a child
Every change starts with stocktaking. First, the children explored the museum’s permanent exhibition as freely and peacefully as the museum rules allowed – no touching / no running / no loud noises. We asked them to photograph anything they saw that they would “talk about at home”.
So what did the children take pictures of? Of the 110 photos, there were many shots (25%) of large and spectacular pieces of furniture, such as Hector Guimard’s Water Lily Buffet, and extravagant glass containers (16%) in an illuminated display case that were “twinkling so prettily”, as one child put it.
What surprised us was the large proportion of “pictures of pictures” (16%). Among the paintings, graphics, posters, tapestries and reproduced photos, figurative motifs were particularly popular. The more text was on the pictures, the less interesting the children seemed to find them; the exhibition texts were ignored completely. Are two dimensional pictures a more familiar medium? Are the children searching for a narrative? Either way, pictures seem to be a medium that speaks to children.
The children also photographed many things that experienced museum-goers might not even notice: the view out of the window or into the donation box. A useful hint: new visitors notice the periphery of the museum. Could we use it in a different way? Inspired by this observation, the children hid a miniature world in the museum: Welcome to Bröhania.
The mostly obstructed view into a storage room was especially intriguing. Perhaps sometimes exhibits could be hidden – discovering them for yourself is always more fun!
The items in the museum shop – although in display cases in the Bröhan-Museum and therefore not touchable – were documented just as eagerly as the exhibits. This supports my experience that museum shops can be a stimulating introduction to museums and their content. The Kinder Committee would probably have a lot of good product ideas for the museum shop.
On their photo safari, the children quickly identified the only interactive exhibit in the permanent exhibition – the big mirror at the end of the long corridor. The mirror unites two possible attractions during a museum visit: the possibility of social interaction (messing around together) and magically drawing you into the museum world. The potential for mirrors in the Bröhan-Museum has definitely not been exhausted yet.
The interesting thing was not just what the children found worthy of documenting, but also what they did not: Chairs? We have those at home, why are they in a museum? A good question – that ultimately asks about the concept of the collection and might need to be answered more clearly for many visitors.
Some display locations, like the highest display shelves or table cabinets, are wholly unreachable for children. Could aids be provided for this? A periscope or something similar would surely be fun.
Categorising the findings
We were very curious about how the kids would categorise their own pictures. While the curators sorted the exhibits by style (e.g. art nouveau) or designer (e.g. William Morris), the children divided them primarily into typologies (e.g. cabinet or shelf). In doing so, we found that the vocabulary for types of furniture was very limited – even the word ‘furniture’ was, in part, missing. Wouldn’t it be exciting to “take home” a few unusual words like ‘chiffonniere’ or ‘Sussex chair’? When you consider the enthusiasm with which kids learn difficult dinosaur names, the idea does not seem too far-fetched.
The second most common way of sorting pictures was by function (e.g. home life or tool). Functionality is a central concept in design, but the function of individual exhibits in the Bröhan-Museum is often hard to determine (not only) for kids. For example, a Morris bench was often called a shelf. Other functions might be antiquated – who still needs a ladies’ desk these days? So, an object’s function can also have a direct connection to its historical context. Perhaps there could be more clues about this in the exhibition – and in that context answer the question about the chair?
The subject matter of all pictorial artefacts was particularly dominant, regardless of material. The depiction of a swan on fabric was put in the category “people and animals”, and not “tapestries”. The fact that children really look at pictures and don’t just put them in a box according to style is a great chance! Could adult museum-goers learn from them to look at things directly, and not just compare them with prior knowledge? Mixed age “slow looking sessions” would surely be enriching for the adults.
On a side note, the children also seemed to enjoy forming meta categories like “scandalously pompous”. I would like to ask them to rename the rooms. I wonder what they would come up with for the collection “the social question”?
Children’s visions of the museum
Parallel to the exploration of the museum, the kids worked on their own shoe box museums. Every child chose their own theme and designed a museum according to their wishes. Together, it looks like the children have already made a checklist for an ‘inviting’ museum:
We reframed the children’s wishes as our challenges, and started by exploring the idea of the museum as a meeting place: “If the museum was a place where you met up and maybe even stayed overnight – what would happen there?” The children imagined what it would be like to sleep over in the museum and used glow-in-the-dark pens to illustrate the nightly activities. Their pictures are full of ideas and suggestions.
One drawing shows a doormat that reads “Welcome”. There’s no better way of saying it: new (and maybe shy) visitors want to feel welcome in the museum!
In another picture, Mr Bröhan himself is sitting in an armchair, greeting his guests. The fact that the man who lent his name to museum is not present within it, aside from a plaque at the entrance, bothers the kids. Using this mystical figure to create a welcoming atmosphere is a good idea.
In the above-mentioned picture, Mr Bröhan explains to his visitors that there are not only old (in the sense of “shabby”?) things, but also lots of wonderful new things in the museum. An interesting hint that some visitors might be put off by the age of the exhibits. The children, who are not likely to read the texts accompanying the exhibits voluntarily, generally have no concept of how old they actually are.
Most of the kids completely furnished the museum in their pictures – curtains, houseplants, paintings, ornaments, rugs, and pets. This makes sense – furniture usually has something to do with home life. The current exhibition lacks this angle, even though home life is something which everybody is familiar with and which could therefore be an accessible entry point for new visitors.
Some children were inspired by the Bröhan-Museum’s distinctive atmosphere to create fantastical parallel universes in its nocturnal rooms. Humans and ghosts living side-by-side and writing mysterious messages on the walls, skulls and crowns scattered around, doors leading to other worlds and magical books drawing you in. Children often have a sense of romanticism – think of Harry Potter – and the Bröhan-Museum’s magical aura is bursting with unused potential.
The next step was for the committee to consider how and what to play in the museum. But alas, the coronavirus stopped the Kinder Committee in its tracks. It would be wonderful to pick up where we left off next school year – there is so much left to do! Maybe together we can find a way to experience the museum, even with social distancing. In any case, we will be able to learn a lot from each other and have just as much fun!
Every day lots of visitors come to the Bröhan-Museum in Berlin. Most visitors though only see beautiful old furniture and things. Good that the attentive children of the ‘Kinder Comitee’ took a closer look and discovered a whole secret world in the museum: Bröhania. The kids took time to listen to the Bröhanians and recorded their stories in a little booklet. As you can see, the inhabitants are quite a colourful bunch. Bröhania is a vast country with many different places and everybody can live the way they like. When they all come together, they always have a party. Next time you come to the museum, do not forget to look out for Bröhania!
What is the opposite of a Wagenfeld lamp? Enrol now for the famous Bauhaus ‘Vorkurs’ in our interactive exhibition in the temporary bauhaus-archiv and exercise your creativity.
The Bauhaus was a school of art and design that did many things differently. An important innovation was the VORKURS – a preliminary course which all students were required to complete. The experience students gained in exercises was deemed far more important than the material results.
Now it is your turn to learn by doing. For the interactive trail we reinterpreted historic exercises by Johannes Itten, László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers and paired them with contemporary tools and notions. Hopefully you will not only take away an impression of what it was like to be a Bauhaus student, but leave something behind as well.
Design skills for all! Learning to take things into your own hands is useful – especially so in Berlin, where the Bauhaus Agents asked me to help a class of 10th grade students facilitate wayfinding in their school. Continue reading “Design Skills for All!”
Do you want to invent things yourself? In my new activity booklet DESiGN KiDS show you how to collect, examine, transform, build and exhibit them. Continue reading “Join the DESiGN KiDS!”
What makes things erotic? An exhibition in the Museum of Things, Berlin, presents a wide range of objects with an erotic dimension – some intentionally, others due to our vivid imagination. Continue reading “Erotic Things”
Proud to announce that BEYOND PAPER, the digital reading room designed by Alex Valder and myself, won a DigiVis award. The competition rewards projects that increase visibility of digital products. We proposed ways to show digital books in the real world – be it at a trade fair, in a bookshop or at literary events.
In recent years e-book sales have flat-lined and there seems to be a big nostalgia for the printed matter all around. As much as I love paper myself, I am aware that it is a finite resource and that we cannot keep on producing books in these quantities.
Also as a creative person, I am naturally excited about the possibilities digital books might offer to an experimental book designer. So I was curious to know what was happening in the digital book arena.
To visit the biggest book fair in the world in Frankfurt seemed a good idea for that – if only there had been any e-books to be seen. The books around me were exclusively made of paper. When I asked, “excuse me, could I have a look at your e-books?”, publishers would give me a surprised look and reply, “but they are digital!”.
Wait a minute – is it really not possible to show digital books at a trade fair or in bookshops? How can staunch paper readers (and there are lots of them, especially in Germany) warm to the e-book, when it stays practically invisible in the analogue world?
We asked ourselves, what possibilities open up when “book” does not necessarily mean ink on paper anymore? Beyond paper, texts can take on new forms and new materials. Can you build a room with them? How could a spatial interface between the analogue and the digital world work?
BEYOND PAPER, the result of our collaboration, is a proposal for a group stand at a book fair. It is a digital reading room that presents e-books from different publishers and gives them a presence at the fair.
The reading room is enveloped in a curtain of soft book spines that acts as an acoustic shield against the noisy fair. The midst of the space is taken up by sitting cubes that have e-readers attached to them. Upright monitors that can be connected to these e-readers enlarge the digital book content and transmit it to the outside.
The thing most missed with e-books is the haptic experience. BEYOND PAPER allows visitors to browse physically through the soft spine curtain and the cubes, as well as digitally on the installed e-readers. Each book that is presented at the stand can be accessed on each e-reader.
Educated Germans love to hate digital books – even when they have never actually seen one. BEYOND PAPER would like to build a bridge for these readers, not only by creating an agreeable space to experience an e-book but also by showing them how to purchase, open, browse and navigate one in explainer videos.
Publishers can promote select books in the curtain or on the cubes. QR Codes printed on curtain and cubes invite visitors to download reading samples directly to their mobiles.
BEYOND PAPER could also be used for digital book presentations. The audience literally looks over the shoulder of the author, while he skips through his or her book.
All modules can be scaled and adapted to different situations, such as shop-in-shop or even for outdoor events.
What is next? We are ready to go and are looking for partners such as a trade fair, publishing house or bookshop to make BEYOND PAPER happen!
At last – Eye Magazine #95 has arrived on my Berlin doorstep. Always a pleasure to look at and read, I feel honoured to have contributed a book review to this issue. Dorothea Hofmann’s “Die Geburt eines Stils” (The Birth of a Style) examines the influence of the Basel education model on Swiss Graphic Design. Find out more at eye magazine and Triest Verlag.
The exhibition FOTO | ALBUM in the Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge, Berlin shows private and anonymous photography from the vast collection of the museum. Do not miss it – it is great fun and runs till February 26th, 2018. Poster and exhibition graphics by Rose Apple. Continue reading “Private Photography”
The Werkbundarchiv – Museum of Things and guest curator Ece Pazarbaşı invited its neighbours to select “unknown” objects in their vast collection and collectively assemble this exhibition of 65 enigmatic things. They serve as talking points to participants and visitors alike, with the aim to collectively generate a pool of knowledge that goes beyond the conventional museum wisdom. Come and share your knowledge as well until September 25, 2017. Continue reading “Cabinet of the Unknown”
At the Museum of Things, we hosted students of Jens-Nydahl Primary School in Berlin Kreuzberg for a jolly project week. Twenty-one kids from age six to eleven drew floor plans, furnished apartments, designed wallpaper and built dream homes. Best of all – they turned our white cubes into very colourful ones! Here are some impressions of a busy week in the D.I.Y. Home Advice Centre: Continue reading “How Do You Live?”
The exhibition gern modern? Living concepts for Berlin after 1945 at the Museum der Dinge charted ideas and initiatives of the German Werkbund in the aftermath of WWII.
Hausbesuch – home visit – is the name of an European project initiated by the Goethe-Institut. Over a period of 7 months, 10 renowned authors from 10 European countries travelled to 17 European cities and visited 40 private homes. The writers came to eat, drink, read and enter into discussions with their hosts and subsequently reflect on their experiences. Their accounts have now been published by Berlin based e-book publishers Frohmann Verlag. Continue reading “Hausbesuch”
Every year on December 1, I climb up to the attic and bring down the Christmas scrapbooks. Continue reading “Merry Christ-Mess”