The Mission of the Expansive Museum

by Max Hollein |

Museums and their collections are committed to growth and expansion – which in this context distinguishes them clearly from other cultural institutions such as the opera, the concert hall or the theater. Collecting is the central task of a living museum. Through collecting continuously, the institution not only retains a relevant voice, complements its collection and develops its art historical perspective, but it also inevitably creates a continuing need for physical expansion – more space for the growing collection and its display. Museums are now expected to maintain a certain status quo but also provide for their sustainable development and expansion. Hence they are also particularly vulnerable to budgetary constraints or even the stagnation of grants. While an opera house or a theater does not need to add more auditoriums and concert halls within a hundred years in order to fulfill its central task and do justice to its relevance, it is the museum’s task as a growing collection of organism and its respective management to provide for the continuous increase of its exhibits and the required space for the collection. This applies especially to museums whose collections should constantly require updating. In this respect it is necessary to find new ways and develop new alliances in order to sustain the vitality of the museum, to ensure that the museum as an institution continues to help us grow as a society.

Within the past 200 years museums have evolved, changed, enlarged, taken on new forms; however, the most significant change to the museum has come from ourselves, the visitors. Today’s audience has grown, but they are different. While it was a homogeneous group, a clearly defined “Bildungsbürgertum” [educated middle-class], now a multi-faceted public visit our museums – a number of people with very disparate expectations and varying degrees of knowledge. This can be seen as a great success. In order to offer this audience a tailored and fulfilling art experience, the collection must provide a wide range of presentation and communication services, which gathers the respective knowledge and different interests as a starting point for individual placement. Only in this way can the encounter with works of art be deepened and thus knowledge generated. The museum visit can become a delightful event and lead to a long-term patronage of the visitor to the institution.

Accordingly, the museum is not only a place but also has a function, a task in society. The space where the “museum” takes place is under no circumstances defined and limited by the physical perimeter of the building. Nowadays the museum has to expand far beyond the borders of the actual building, and as the primary authority and mediator of Fine Arts and culture reach out to the regional structure the museum is surrounded and supported by. The museum becomes actively engaged in the transfer of knowledge to schools, kindergartens, youth centers, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and in the public space in general. Museums often find that part of the public lack knowledge of the historical context, sociological developments and iconographic contents in order to be able to read, understand and learn especially about historical art. However, as there are only few institutions that compensate for this educational shortcoming – it necessarily becomes the museum’s very own mission to do so. In this way, the museum acts as a replacement for cultural education, previously taken place within the family or school. Therefore the transfer of knowledge of art and culture needs to take place within the broad social context.

The museum has to consistently play an important role as the central institution for education and communication within the digital space, as it is necessary to combine digital technology and communication in all areas of the collection, research, curating and museum education of the respective institution in order to present a new form of narration. Through the possibilities of the digital age it is imperative to develop a genuine, alternative offer in parallel with the real, physical museum. However, the aim should not be to “build” a virtual museum in the digital space – all attempts to generate a type of three-dimensional re-creation of the physical visit experience are not only a poor imitation of reality, but also a completely inadequate use of digital networking itself, as well as the individual adaptation of image, text and audio. Likewise, the new digital initiatives should not endeavor to generate more physical visits to the museum, but rather manifest a valid, alternative offer to the visit. They should represent a substantial initiative conveyance that goes far beyond a regional reception. The museum initiative and the cultural offer is not about acting within a local positioning, but in a just nascent global competition of the leading cultural institutions within the digital space.

Thereby the institutions which will succeed are those which are able to offer rather a compelling offer of individualized narration and multimedia communication of cultural content. They would need to go beyond the questions of classification and digitization of the collection that apply to all museums. It is less important which works are treated individually, however it is vital how the form of narration and accessibility is developed. Curatorial diligence does not provide a consistent form of navigation or a linear narrative, but for a multiple interconnection of data content from different backgrounds. Thereby the connection of art and art history with their historic, iconographic and sociological contexts matters as well as enabling individualized ingress into new levels of association and linking. It is about a new concept of comprehensive knowledge transfer and individual accessibility, based on steadily expanding collection contents and contexts which interlace with other subject areas. This is not only the future of museums, but also the future of how knowledge is transmitted in the digital revolution. Our aim must be to offer a complex, multi-media, decentralized and diversified transfer of knowledge, which which happens remotely from the physical visit and is adaptable to respective user expectations and behaviors. For this, fundamental changes in the interaction with the audience are required, especially in terms of mutual and more participatory forms of knowledge transfer.

The public museum in the digital age is useful and accessible for us irrespective of the geographical area. The structure of this institution in the digital space and the question of which platforms will be the most significant worldwide, depend on inventiveness, diligence and ambition, but also on the financial means.

However, what is the fate of the arts and cultural institutions in times of economic crisis? This question is asked more and more frequently, especially in recent times. In contrast to the financial sector or the car industry for instance, in times of recession the cultural sector and in particular the museums are sectors of growth including numerous developments and expansions. Every year more than 110 million visitors are counted in German museums only, with over 10,000 special exhibitions being offered. Within the same period of time more people visit the museum than watch a soccer game in one of the German stadiums. Observed from this perspective there is little need for cultural pessimism.

Nevertheless a continuing financial and economic crisis, as we are currently experiencing, does not remain without consequences for the economic environment of cultural institutions. Whether the dark clouds will clear or whether the economic sky remains overcast longer, cultural institutions will suffer the consequences for a significant period. This affects all sources of funding: the public sector with considerably lower tax revenues and a radical call for economization, companies with reduced marketing and sponsorship budget and foundations due to lower investment income. It is possible and already to be considered a success if in each of these fields, the status quo can be maintained. The actual potential for the development of cultural institutions – which has always to do with an additional monetary leeway – lies elsewhere: namely in each of us, the citizens.

In the future social responsibility should lie with each one of us in a time when intensive discussion is conducted throughout Europe in which areas the state should take responsibility and what can still be financed publicly – in education, safety, security, health and culture – culture will not remain priority. Within this context, visions of development supposedly represent a hazard for the unattainable, the absurd, unrealistic. In the longer term, however, this would mean that our institutional cultural landscape and its dynamics will fall behind in comparison to other societies. Under these circumstances, museums will have to fundamentally change and no longer rely solely on public finances but also on the third sector. Here new survival strategies are required, such as philanthrophic commitment, as well as new alliances and synergies within the private sector. This financial restructuring and this additional commitment must be understood as an opportunity – for the development of increased flexibility and new opportunities. It should not be forgotten that if museums ask societies for support, this will provoke the question what role museums actually play within the communities and how they intend to fulfill them.

In this time of change, it is necessary to obtain a complete locational advantage of the cultural structure in Europe, especially in Austria and Germany: There is certainly a unique, institutional composition of cultural institutions – museums, theaters, opera houses, libraries – that is incomparable in its density, acceptance, anchoring and history. Thus it is necessary to clarify the meaning of museums for us today. They certainly preserve and sustain and are cities of knowledge and history – but they stand for even more and their importance grows increasingly. Today cultural themes are on the one hand austerity of public services and on the other lack of education, disastrous PISA studies and the clash of cultures. We are looking for national identification features and “Leitkulturen” [dominant cultures], new “Eliteinstrumente” [tools of the elites] and cutting-edge research in order to launch education initiatives and accelerate integration projects. We mourn the trivialization in the media and everyday life – that is, in our culture – we notice inflation of images from all areas and degradation of historically grown cultural heritage. Within this dynamic museums play a central role: they are communication platforms of art, archives of original images and stories as well as preservers and catalogers of visual artistic creativity of the past centuries. To date, museums are neither conservative nor reactionary; they are rather places where our minds, senses and innate inquisitiveness are captivated. This cannot be replaced by reproductions, copies, books or the internet; the aura of the unique object, the incomparable work of art, as presented within the museum remains unbroken. The power of this artistic relic is universal and immortal.


Max Hollein is currently the Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Hollein previously served as director of Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle (since 2001) and as director of the Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection (since 2006). Born in Vienna, Hollein studied art history at the University of Vienna and business administration at the Vienna University of Economics. He is one of the key figures in the European art world, leading three of the most important and innovative arts institutions in Germany. One of his most significant projects was the expansion of the Städel Museum completed in 2012 which doubled the institution’s gallery space and created a new wing for the presentation of art since 1945. His exhibition programs at the three museums have spanned the centuries from antiquities to old masters and modern visionaries to cutting edge contemporary art. He has distinguished the program at each museum to advance scholarship and build new audiences. Hollein began his career at the Guggenheim Museum in New York under the leadership of Tom Krens and curated numerous exhibitions, including the American pavilion at the Seventh Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000 and the Austrian pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale in 2005.