Museums as the subject of research

"This article was published in our January 2018 newsletter". Sign up here.

A record number of museum visits 114,423,192 – was registered by the Institute for Museum Research in Germany in 2015. According to those institutions surveyed, it was special exhibitions and a diverse range of events above all that drew visitors to Germany’s nearly 7,000 museums in their droves. Since the mid-1990s, the number of museum visits in Germany has been rising continuously.

Educational background is a key factor

"That is good news", says Guido Fackler, professor of museology at Würzburg University (only in German). Though he points out at the same time that many smaller museums not situated in popular tourist city-break destinations such as Berlin, Hamburg or Munich are happy when they manage to attract just a few thousand visitors per year. "In Germany, key factors determining whether someone visits a museum are still their educational background and social position", says Fackler. Roughly 35 percent of the population never visit a museum, he adds.

Visitor expectations

What are visitors interested in? What are their expectations of a museum visit? How can museums reach out to people who never go to a museum? These are the kind of questions addressed by visitor research, which is now also one focus in museology at Würzburg University. Together with students and PhD candidates, Guido Fackler is developing new methods of finding out what visitors really want by conducting surveys and accompanying them during museum visits. An approach based on the design thinking concept, this extends far beyond the mere collection of statistical data and focuses the spotlight on the visitors and their needs.

Cooperation with Egypt

How museums can appeal to new groups of visitors is also something that is researched on a cross-cultural level. Alongside its bachelor’s degree course in Museology and Material Culture and its follow-up master’s degree in Museum Studies, Würzburg University has also been offering a double master’s degree programme (only in German) in cooperation with Helwan University in Cairo since 2015. "At present, exchange takes place for the most part via teaching", reports Fackler, "though it is increasingly happening in research, too. A student from Egypt has just begun writing her dissertation on the community engagement of museums."

Established as an academic discipline in its own right

While museology courses at universities such as those in Würzburg, Oldenburg (only in German) and Tübingen are highly theoretical in their approach, programmes offered by universities of applied sciences – such as Leipzig University of Applied Sciences – tend to be more practical in orientation. It is only in the past 20 years that museology in Germany has in fact become established as an academic discipline in its own right.

One of the reasons for this is that museum experts in Germany are traditionally trained in the scientific disciplines that relate to the exhibitions in question, e.g. art history for art museums, history for history museums and the sciences for museums of natural history. Rather than exploring issues relating to museology, most academics at the research museums belonging to the Leibniz Association are experts in their scientific fields. They conduct research relating to their respective collections. This means that they ask different questions about the exhibits than do schoolchildren, amateur historians, art lovers and other museum-goers.

Involving visitors

"Museologists need to bear precisely these different interpretations of the exhibits in mind, however", urges Guido Fackler. Museums are most likely to interest visitors in their exhibitions if they involve them, he explains. "The idea of the museum is that I can find a narrative relating to the exhibits – a narrative that brings the visitor closer." And every single exhibit can tell some very different stories.

Showcasing science: the Leibniz research museums

The eight research museums in the Leibniz Association combine current research with a special educational mission. Apart from permanent and special exhibitions, they also conduct a great deal of research into the history of the Earth and biodiversity as well as cultural history and the history of technology. Their unique collections include more than a hundred million objects and provide foundations for science. Every year, the museums reach millions of people with their exhibitions and thus make an important contribution to the dissemination of knowledge. > The Leibniz research museums