The loud silence in the museums

Perplexed, the cardinal in the purple robe looks at the two by two meter large painting on the museum walls with black pictures. He is all alone, seems lost. Norbert schwontkowski (1949-2013) called his work "saal 9", which is hanging in the kunsthalle bremen. It is not possible for visitors to see it in the original.

There are no visitors. The opening of the exhibition was postponed. "A strange feeling. We were building up and already knew at the end that we wouldn’t open because of the corona crisis," says curator eva fischer-hausdorf. She, too, stands somewhat perplexed in the coarse, empty exhibition rooms. "One recognizes oneself in the cardinal."

Like the kunsthalle bremen, all museums in germany: "closed due to corona". Depending on the financing model and the sponsor, the institutions get into difficult waters financially without the revenue. When museums are closed, not only people interested in culture become painfully aware of what is missing. Because cultural education needs a presence, perhaps more than ever in the digital age. "There is an absolute longing for the original and the encounter with the work," says kunsthallen director christoph grunenberg. "The museum is the real place and home of art."

The exhibition "norbert schwontkowski: some of my secrets" at the bremen kunsthalle, which was developed in cooperation with museums in bonn and the hague, took almost two years to prepare. It is not yet clear when the painter’s 70 exhibits – including large- and small-scale paintings and many of the 500 sketchbooks that schwontkowski lovingly filled – will be on view. "It’s written in the stars," says the curator.

Until the time comes, bremen is also trying cultural mediation via the net. "#norbertdaily" is an action on the social media channels facebook and instagram, where every day a different picture of the painter is shown. "The digital is very, very important," says eckart kohne, director of the badisches landesmuseum and president of the german museum association. "But at some point, you also want to stand in front of the mona lisa."

Of course you can admire the mona lisa or botticelli’s venus in all coarse, shades and zoom gradations for hours at home on the PC screen scrolling up and down. "But the emotional appeal is completely different," says kohne. "Whoever goes to a museum enters a different setting." Artworks were experienced in interaction with other art. Even the "dialog of hangings," visual axes created, thematic focal points – all this is difficult to capture digitally. The viewer at the PC at home does not physically leave the room of the study or living room. "That’s why the encounter with the authentic, the analog, has a quality all of its own."

Digitally only inadequately can the rough dimension, which is important for many works, be grasped. "If you stand in front of rembrandt’s night watch, these people will appear to you almost life-size. If you take a very small object, a piece of jewelry or a carving, then it does matter that the artist has created something in this small format. Such things are naturally leveled by a screen."

Nevertheless, especially in times of crisis, the digital medium opens up possibilities that did not exist in the analog age. The kunsthalle bremen is considering offering interactive tours online with a limited number of participants, which could then perhaps also generate income for the honorary staff. "Schwontkowski in particular is an artist who thinks about existential questions and fears," says art hall director grunenberg with a view to the exceptional situation. "Actually a perfect exhibition, and we are now trying to share it as much as possible."

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