Berlin Workshop: Interpretive Futures
What makes a great interpretive experience?
Over the past few months, as part of the New Trajectories in Curatorial Experience Design project, I've been working with cultural consultancy Barker Langham to try and answer this question. We've revisited seminal texts in the field of interpretation, discussed our favourite exhibitions, museums, galleries and art installations from the past few years, and drafted a speculative Manifesto for the Future of Heritage Interpretation. This collaborative research is building towards a new resource exploring the practice of interpretation from a range of cultural, historical, geographical and philosophical perspectives. In March 2020, just before much of Europe went into lockdown, the team gathered in Berlin for a final workshop and research trip, visiting some of the city's iconic and lesser-known museums and cultural sites. Alongside the Neues Museum, the Topography of Terror and The Museum of Silence, this included guided tours of the recently opened Pergamon Panorama and Futurium, which informed subsequent discussions on the future of museum interpretation.
The picture of interpretation that emerged over the course of these discussions has been far removed from 'key messages' and 'learning outcomes'. Framing any form interpretation as a thing to be experienced means foregrounding questions of embodiment, sensation, emotion, curiosity and playfulness. The examples of 'great interpretation' highlighted by the team ranged from a tour of Robben Island led by a former prison warden to the minimalist galleries of the Chichu Art Museum in Japan. Working against Tilden's 'principles of interpretation', such experiences escape narrow definitions of communication and audience engagement. They offer moments that are transcendent, personal, affecting, provocative and - perhaps above all - memorable. Creating such experiences is not something that can be done through a tick-box approach to interpretive planning. Every act of interpretation presents a unique opportunity to rethink how and why we tell certain stories about the world, and what new futures we might bring into being through these experiences.
Sometimes this might mean working with new technologies and new media; at other times it might mean revisiting narrative techniques that have been around for quite some time. The Pergamon Panorama is a case in point here. In November 2018, a new temporary exhibition building opened opposite the Pergamonmuseum, which is currently part-closed for renovations until at least 2023. This new exhibition displays around 80 of the museum’s most important sculptural works alongside a vast panorama depicting life in Pergamon created by artist Yadegar Asisi. As the website of the Berlin City Museums states:
“The combined presentation of the sculptures from the Pergamon Museum and of the Asisi panorama will enable visitors to feel as if they have stepped back in time and are partaking in life in the ancient city. For a short time only, the Pergamon Altar can be experienced here, in its original architectural context, on the Acropolis.”
The interpretive experience on offer here is one of spectacle and emotion. As visitors enter the vast circular space, their gaze is drawn upwards, to the 110-metre-long, 360 degree image – a visual representation of the ancient city of Pergamon in 129CE, under the reign of Emperor Hadrian. Alongside the emperor himself, Pergamon’s inhabitants are depicted going about their daily routines – shopping at the market, attending the theatre, sacrificing animals at the temple, eating, drinking, and conversing in streets and alley ways. While the image itself is static, the scene is lent a peculiar dynamism through the use of sound and light. In a fifteen-minute cycle the viewer is taken from sunrise to the dead of night, from the cacophony of the theatre to the relative peace of the early hours, when domestic fires smoulder across the city. The experience also changes as you ascend a viewing platform placed at the centre of the panorama. At ground level the figures depicted in the scene are close-up: you almost feel part of the image, able to reach out and join the festivities. At the top, however, the whole cityscape unfolds beneath you, with the Mediterranean just visible on the horizon beyond. Pitched as a form of ‘time travel’, the Pergamon Panorama seeks to immerse visitors in a historical moment that is both grounded in archaeological knowledge production and manifestly the outcome of a particular creative imagination. In this sense, it seems closer to a Hollywood version of the ancient world than a typical museological experience – a reminder of cinema’s roots in the dioramas of the nineteenth century.
While the panorama explicitly seeks to illustrate life in Pergamon as a basis for understanding the distant past (thus satisfying the pedagogic principles of the museum), it is also unashamedly spectacular, evoking a kind of sublime realism that is at once overwhelming and instantly familiar. This form of experiential interpretation is firmly rooted in strategies of display and storytelling that have been with us since at least the early nineteenth century, and yet the temporary panorama also points to a future where museums are not so bound by positivist ideas of truth, representation and knowledge making. The affective and imaginative dimensions of this interpretive experience offer a useful touchstone for the kind of evocative and memorable encounters that might emerge if we think beyond the current confines of interpretation practice.