Show Museum or Teaching Museum?

A re-post about museums and their purpose.

You probably can tell without my saying much that I am a sucker for museums. Art museum, science museum, history museum, folk-life museum, botanical garden, I’ll probably at least poke my head in to see if it looks promising. I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to visit, and re-visit, many of the great art and history museums north of the Alps, like the Kunsthistorischesmuseum [Art History Museum] in Vienna three times, the Gamäldegalarie [painting gallery] in Berlin twice, and a few others, like the Louvre (twice over two days. Don’t bother with the southern art section, IMHO).

This time I visited some less prominent art museums and several wonderful history museums. One thing I started thinking about was based on a comment someone made at the fine art museum in Hamburg: it’s not a bad art museum, but it would be fantastic for teaching art-history. There are very, very few Old Masters paintings in Hamburg. It does have a wonderful collection of German Romantic paintings, especially Caspar David Friedrich, some good realist and Impressionist rooms, and a huge post-Impressionist and modern collection. The museum is arranged chronologically and it would be very easy to start with medieval/Gothic, then Renaissance,  Baroque, Mannerist, Rococo, Classicist, Romantic and so on to the Twentieth Century. You do not have masterworks to spend a lot of time focusing on, but a wide variety of decent works to use to show the big trends and ideas.

Hamburg’s collection is a municipal collection, drawn from wealthy merchants and professionals who donated things. This is in contrast to the Kunsthistorisches or the Prado or the State Hermitage, which were princely/imperial collections. The Louvre was a royal collection augmented by looting, er, that is, Napoleon’s eye for art and historical treasures. But The Louvre is a poor teaching museum, because of how it is divided by region as well as time. You have to work back and forth between sections if you want to show different aspects of, say, the Renaissance. And to be honest, working around people taking selfies and photos of the art was a real pain in the patoot.

(When I was at the Louvre, the trend was that if you didn’t post photos of yourself with stuff on Facebook and Instagram, “you weren’t really there.” So people were walking through the galleries taking pictures of the pictures and sculpture but never looking at the art! That was the Southern European section. The northern side, with magnificent Merovingian carvings and sculptures, and Rubens and Van Eyche and Dürer and a few other “minor” artists was almost empty. It was rather sad in a way.)

The museum in the small German city of Stade is both a great museum on its own and a wonderful teaching museum, in part because that was how it was designed. You start with prehistoric life, maps of different find sites, and a discussion of the environment and artifacts to look at as well as reproductions. Under the exhibits are “caves,” little nooks for younger children to duck into and crawl on furs (for the early Stone Age) or look up close at bones and things like that. The display progresses from the end of the Ice Ages to the decline of Roman influence, the arrival of the Saxons, and the early Middle Ages. You are free to wander back and forth, following time or not, comparing pottery and weapons, or whatever floats your boat. The next floor is the Hanseatic League, with all kinds of displays of trade goods, ship models, demonstrations of how much easier shipping was by boat vs. overland, reproductions of documents about the Hanse, models of warehouses and of how house styles developed, urban life and all kind of facets of High Medieval life. Alas, I ran out of time for the third floor, but I did score some excellent books and maps about the town and the region. That is a wonderful teaching museum.

The Hanseatic Museum of Europe in Lübeck may be the ultimate teaching museum. I spent over three hours in it and rushed the last few exhibits, skipping an entire section because of time and exhaustion (we’d already been to St. Ann’s art museum at the other end of the city, then walked around the walls.) The Hanseatic museum immerses you in the history of trade and the Hanseatic League. If you are not really, really interested in business history, or do not want to read much, you will not enjoy the museum a great deal. There are neat displays and it is very cutting edge in the use of technology, but you have to be fascinated in the topic to get a lot out of the place. However, you will leave with an in-depth knowledge of how trade worked or didn’t, the history of trade and business, opposition to trade, politics of the Hanse, and merchant culture. For example:

Part of the display about goods going in and out of Bruges. Click for detail.

More of the same display. This is not a kids’ museum.

A “kidney knife.” Which appears in Of Merchant and Magic, in case anyone wonders.

You cannot just roam through the Hanseatic Museum, unlike an art museum, or Stade or some of the other history museums I’ve visited (the Cluny, Würzburg, The Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, Hamburg city history museum, Hamburg Maritime Museum). You are on a set route. the Hanseatic Museum also has an odd “flavor” to it, because it is about trade and the Hanse and business, but often treats trade and business as something less-than-good. (More on that in a later post)

For concentrated jaw-dropping, free-roaming “Oh my gosh is that a Titian? Rembrandt!” the Gemäldegalarie in Berlin is the single best small art museum I’ve visited. I wouldn’t use it to teach the broad sweep of art history like I would Hamburg’s fine art museum, but it has so many examples of Old Masters in a compact setting that it is great for a “Highlights of Art History” day. And it has ample places to sit and just take in the works. You are not overloaded, as can happen in Vienna.

Each museum is different, each has a different goal and flavor. Some are better for some things than for others, some are just flat badly laid out, or out-dated, and some are obviously an individual’s labor of love and should be taken as such. I’d not really considered before how some are aimed at teaching, while others are for displaying treasures, be they Old Masters or someone’s collection of pig things (Stuttgart.) Perhaps because I teach, my mind leapt to how I would use Stade and Hamburg, if I were able to bring a group of students there. In Bruges, I just stood and stared, absorbing the paintings and carvings. In the Musee de Cluny, I wept at the beauty. But that’s a story for a different time.

7 thoughts on “Show Museum or Teaching Museum?

  1. The Deutsches Museum (sp?) in Munich, whose title translates to something like “German Museum of Masterworks of Science and Technology” is one of the world’s best examples of a “teaching museum” (for STEM, obviously, rather than art and politics). The difference? In the Smithsonian, for example, they have The One artifact (the Spirit of Saint Louis, the Apollo 11 capsule) carefully preserved under glass. In the Deutsches Museum, they have a 1930’s Junkers tri-motor airplane of no particular distinction. But since it’s not The One, they took all the skins off one side, so you can see how the structure was built and how the wires and plumbing and control cables worked. They did the same for the front section of an A300 jetliner. In the ceramics section, they have a complete working miniature automated brick factory. Raw clay goes in one side, and pallets of lego-size fired bricks come out the other. In the metalworking section, a docent will demonstrate any machine tool you want for a couple of euros. The physics section is a long zigzag line of tabletop hands-on experiment / demonstrations that take you all the way from levers and gears to nuclear fission and quantum mechanics. The whole museum is highly recommended. A STEM geek could easily spend days there.

    • I only had a few hours on a Sunday for the Deutsches Museum, and the docents were largely off for the day. OTOH, the aviation section (the part in the main museum–didn’t have the time to go to the one offsite) had a cutaway example of a rather interesting engine; a 6 cylinder/12 piston Diesel, the Junkers Jumo 205. I’d researched it, but building a working model was way above my abilities.

      I missed the brick factory, though a glass blower was demonstrating in one section.

      I was working in Amerang, next door to the (closed for the season) historic car museum. What I could see through the windows and now online was impressive.

  2. You made me think of the UK’s National Maritime Museum. As it used to be I don’t think it really fit either of your categories. I’d have called it a “learning museum”: an old-fashioned place with lots of exhibits squashed close together, with each having a long and erudite explanatory label. Not what modern visitors are supposed to need, but if you were interested and wanted to learn – and it was “learn” rather than “be taught” – it was a wonderful place where anyone with real interest in the history could happily spend hours on end.

    Unfortunately, it fell into the hands of modernisers who have so drastically dumbed it down that the general consensus now seems to be that it is best avoided, especially if you have a real interest in the history it is supposed to cover.

  3. I second Vicki on the Deutsches Museum, and the mine tunnels are truly interesting… BMW also has a museum in Munich that is mind blowing for the cars/motorcycles/other things in it. I tend toward aviation museums, as a choice, but also enjoy the western museums like Panhandle Plains and the little museum in Panhandle, TX.

  4. The Hanseatic League has echoes into the future in some odd places. While I was stationed there in the late 80s the license plates for German cities that had been part of the League reflected this. Plates beginning with “HB” did not represent “Hamburg”, but rather “Freie und Hansestadt Bremen” which my German friend just called “Hansa Hamburg.” HH was Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg. HL was for Hansestadt Luebeck, and there were a few others.

    With European Unionization of everything, I dunno if that survived in some format, or it’s now just an historical footnote.

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