Anbei der Vortrag, den ich im Nationalen Militärmuseum in Utrecht gehalten habe. Er dreht sich um die Frage, was militärhistorische Museen tun müssen, um als gesellschaftliche Akteure ernst genommen zu werden.
From glory to doubt and back again? How to secure the role of museums as vital social actors
Military history museums all over Europe are changing right now – in some cases moderately, in other cases radically. External pressure forced them to re-think their approach to military history and the according ways of exhibiting it. For many decades military history museums were vaults of pride and glory. Vast collections of weapons, uniforms, medals and equipment served primarily to illustrate a undisputed narrative of military virtues and their finest hours through the centuries. Military history and its museums were the recreational area of historical science; places mostly untouched by turns and discussions, by deconstructivism and post-modernism. But times are changing, and so are the societies. Military history museums were challenged from three sides.
Military history itself changed. Military history sought and found the connection to academic historiography and evolved in huge leaps: New methods, ideas and tools were adopted from many neighbouring fields like social history, cultural history, gender history, oral history and the history of mentalities. The concept of a critical, multi-faceted military history was incompatible with the old halls of military fame.
The second impact came from other museums. The concept of museum education emerged in the 1970s and evolved rapidly. According to this approach it is the museums‘ responsibility to deliberately design their exhibitions such that visitors are encouraged to question, think about and discuss the objects they are seeing. This development was the exact opposite of the approach of the military museums and challenged them in their core.
The visitors themselves were the third group that demanded fresh ideas from the military history museums. Simple, heroic narratives weren’t able to provide sufficient answers for the questions that came from the many different parts of the evolving post-modern, post-heroic societies of the late 20th and early 21st century
Classical military history museums therefore were regarded as dusty old tradition temples that became more and more anachronistic. So this external pressure forces military history museums to change, which puts them in a situation that is risky in two ways.
By NOT changing and not modernizing they risk to loose visitors and therefore their justification. They also risk to be ignored by decision makers in politics, economics and culture since they will be regarded more and more as second class museumss
But BY changing and modernizing they too risk to loose visitor since the changes potentially won’t be accepted by large parts of the visitors that came in the years before. This can be acceptable if new groups of visitors are activated, but this is by no means an automatism. Change is not autmatically good for a museum; it has to be the right change. This goes also for the aformentioned group of decision makers in politics and culture: Being „modern“ just for the sake of „being modern“ won’t convince and therefore even a completely remodeled museum might loose support and thus its significance.
So the question of the title arises: How to secure the role of museums as vital social actors? To answer this questions, I’ll present some thoughts regarding that question that we developed in the German Tank Museum.
The Tank Museum is undergoing a radical transformation right now. It changes from a nearly exclusively technical exhibition to a modern, multi-faceted museum. I won’t go into details since we don’t have the time now. Although the Tank Museum had far over 80.000 annual visitors for several years, it was no relevant actor – neither political nor cultural nor social. Decision makers of all kind sregarded the Tank Museum as an dusty, old fashioned temple of soldiers‘ nostalgia and technology fetishism, therby expressing exactly the sentiments I described earlier.
Right now the Tank Museum is increasingly accepted and respected – or, in other words, the Tank Museum actually gains weight as a vital social actor. Therefore to answer the title giving question I’d like to share some insights we THINK we had during the last years – things that worked out for us and could be good advice for transforming military history museums.
Be a cultural actor and don’t play soldier
One of the major flaws in military history for decades was the belief that only soldiers were qualified to produce it. It took us a long time to understand that this is untrue. To produce military history, you need historians. Having been or being a soldier might or might not help, but it is not neccessary. It was a long and sometimes painful fight, at least in Germany, to come to this insight.
But now military history museums, especially smaller ones, repeat this error. They are seduced by their subject, loose their distance and see it as their task to promote a proud military tradition and sometimes even LIVE military culture and behaviour. They are supported in this way by fans and visitors who share this view.
But museums are not places of upholding proud traditions or re-enacting a subject. Musuems need to maintain a professional distance towards their subject. The history of war, of battles, of violence and death, of victory and defeat MAY be singular in the world of historical subjects – MAY be, even that is debatable.
But exhibiting this history in museums is NOT. A military history museum has to maintain the same cool, professional distance to its subject as any museum. Actually it does have to maintain this distance even MORE after a century of industrialized warfare, mass slaughter, the demise of even imagined glory on the battlefield and the rise of a post-heroic society.
So military museums professionals ought to act as what they are – curators, historians, academics. They shan’t play soldier to create a false credibility among their fans. They ought to gain respect and authority by working with high academic standards – nothing less and nothing more.
All this is true even and especially for museum personnel in uniform: They need to create the professional distance even more since they are part of the subject they are describing and therefore potentially more biased. Therefore they need to prove professional academic standards even more.
Be critical, embrace conflicts and stomach discussions
Military history is a form of feel-good history for many museum visitors. They enter the museums with their heads filled with adventure stories, legendary operations, war heroes and fascinating myths. Seen from a scientific point of view, practically everything of this is plain wrong. In the case of the Tank Museum, visitors enter with ideas of the Wehrmacht being a tank army, the French campaign 1940 being a brillantly planned and executed Blitzkrieg, the Soviet tanks of the Cold War being utterly inferior to western models and so on and so on …
We have to de-construct these myths. To live up to professional standards the museums have to have the courage to tell the truth – no matter how irritating this will be for the visitors. Yes, this approach means that there WILL be discussions, heated arguments, even outright screaming. But a museum has to be able to bear such conflicts. Even more, it has to embrace these conflicts because it has the mission to actively get in the heads of the visitors and change their views on a subject if necessary. Museums are not allowed to stay in the comfort zone, they have to get in the ring.
They also have to be very socially competent during this process. Being arrogant and snobbish is counter-productive. The new viewpoints are irritating enough for the visitors – the museums have to make them digestable.
Not everybody will be convinced of the new ideas. Some will accept some, others won’t; some will accept all, some none. This will result in endless discussions between the museums and their visitors and among the visitors.
This is a good thing and should be accpeted. Museums shall be places of discussions, of arguments, of differing opinions – just as historical science is. It will be painful sometimes to listen to these discussions and the museums shall never stop being part of them to give them quality and spin. But one has to accept that these discussions are neverending and that a museum will never finally convince everybody.
But this is not a bad thing, quite the contrary. Endless discussions are not a necessary evil – they are an end in itself since they transform the museum into a forum, into a place where collective ideas of history are shaped, changed an re-shaped. A museum has to be able to let such things happen.
Have standpoints and be serious
Letting discussions happen does NOT mean to have no standpoints. A museum has to be recognizable to gain credibility. Although academic history accepts a multitude of viewpoints and is aware of relativity, museums have to choose standpoints regarding critical issues and stick with them.
A German Tank Museum as an institution has to have a clear opinion about the Blitzkrieg, for example. I won’t go into detail here to save time. Being vague and unrecognizable about this central topic of armoured warfare would let the museum look dubious and unprofessional. So would changing the house opinion often. A museum has be able to articulate its opinions and stick to it – towards visitors, towards the press, towards politicians. The specific mix of standpoints will over time create a recognizable reputation of the museum; the museum gains character – which in turn makes it possible to become a vital social actor. Only a recognizable institution can become relevant.
If a military history museum has sorted out its standpoints, it is very important to be serious about your subject. We deal with death and grief, violence and pain, suffering and loss – and we have to behave ourselves accordingly. For too long the feel good military history covered these aspects not only with misleading exhibitions, but also with a fitting, jovial behaviour of its representatives. Machismo and carelessness formed a mixture that was perfect to entertain the fans of the feel-good military history. For years this played a big part in the condemnation of military history as a second rate field of history.
This behaviour is therefore inappropriate for critical, reflective museums and their representatives. To distance themselves from this uncritical approach to military history, military museum representatives have to be especially serious about their subject whenever they interact with the public.
This doesn’t mean, on the other hand, to become a cliché. The aforementioned cool and professional distance towards the subject was not only aimed at uncritical glorification – this distance has also to be maintained towards an excess of compassion and empathy.
Stop assuming and analyse visitors
As much as visitors numbers became a curse and a fetishism, they are important economically. They are therefore an important argument in social and political debates. So holding or inmproving these numbers is in the best interest of military history museums.
So let’s assume you defined your own standpoints and you know exactly what you want to offer regarding your subject. Scientific insights and firm standpoints are all well and good. But as long as you do not reach your actual visitors inside the museum with it, the visitors numbers won’t rise – they may even dwindle. To reach your audience properly you have to know your audience.
And as long as you have not researched your audience properly, there is a good chance that all your assumptions are completely wrong. Working in a museum distorts our perception – small, but loud and bothersome groups appear more important than they are; big, but quiet groups are overseen. We, for example thought, that most of our visitors were elderly and radically predominantly men – a research showed, that only 11% of our visitors are older than 60 years and that 30% percent of our visitors are female. The same goes for their educational backgrounds, for example, and for their fields of interest. Again, I won’t go into detail here to save time.
Now that we actually KNOW our visitors we can plan an exhibition that will reach them perfectly since all subjects and instruments will be tailor-made for our specific audience.
Analyzing visitors is not rocket science and one of the most important steps in the development of museums since knowledge about the visitors is the basis of growth.
I assume that many of you are tired of hearing about the social media hype. Although I understand that feeling, I have to point out that social networks, especially Facebook, are mighty instruments for museums that want to become known. If a museums facebook account is held active constantly, there can be an enormous growth in prominence – with pracitcally no investments apart from some work hours.
To give you an example: The Tank Museums facebook site reaches over 15,000 people – without pay advertisments, without an online department, just as a side project.
Our annual Open Day has had around 5000 visitors for several years. This year we experimented with Facebook as the main advertising tool for the first time – again without investment and with really tolerable addional work. We reached far over 100,000 facebook users and obviously had success: We had nealry 10,000 visitors this year; a growth of over 90%.
So, social networks can obviously create sheer numbers, which in turn generates awareness of press and politics. But apart from this, being active on Facebook has several additional advantages:
Using Facebook ACTIVELY makes a museum far more interesting for younger visitors, which means improvement of the museum’s reputation and the binding of future visitors.
Facebook can be used to create and regulate the image of the museum. What you put online, how you moderate discussions, how you answer questions – all this is part of FORMING your image, your reputation. It can be used in emergencies to clarify things and to spin-doctor opinions regarding them museum.
Finally it can be used to analyse the museum’s audience. Every facebook post reveals something about the user; the whole activity reveals much about the audience – their wishes, demands, ideas, problems. Facebook is a two-way-medium, the museum has the actual CHANCE to communicate with the audience.
The museum can use this information to improve itself in the future and/or react in real time. A vital social actor in the information society is simply unthinkable without using information technology properly.
Cooperate as much as possible
A good help in overcoming the reputation of a dusty tradition temple is to cooperate with partners of undoubtedly reputation. Military museums were for too long a time fortresses. As part of the cultural and educational system, they need to reach out for partners.
Suitable partners obviously are local schools, universities, research institutes and individual researchers. Joint projects are relatively easy to accomplish and have multiple benefits. Conferences, books, articles, texts for the museums are only the concrete results – but for the museums the networking and the reputation improvement are far more interesting.
Once the ball is rolling, one project can generate the next and the role of a vital social actor is successfully achieved.
But there are even more interesting partners besides science and education. Military museums can cooperate with politcal parties for example – especially projects with left wing parties have the power to astound people and to create interest in parts of the society that totally ignored military history museums before.
The same goes for projects with unions, pacifist organizations and churches. This way the military history museum can get a grip in the political and religious field.
The same goes for cooperations with artists – photographers that use the museum as setting for a shooting or performance artists that actually perform in the museum.
Music can be another key to activate new visitor groups and getting good press at the same time. Military museums can establish themselves as cultural players that way.
These were only some of many aspects regarding the title giving question. There are many more. But the essential conclusion is: It is not only possible for military history museums to bceome vital social actors – it even is relatively easy. We deal with a subject that was, is and will be massively interesting for vast parts of the society.That is a situation that many other museums dream of.
We only have to play our cards right. We have to be professional and progressive and act as what we are – as museums. The combination of a much requested subject with a carefully constructed museum’s identity and a sophisticated stratetgy to use the available tools will allow it to easily turn military history museums into vital social actors.