Research in the Museum

by | Jun 17, 2021 | A look in the depot

This time in ‘View into the Archive’ we will be examining the diverse scientific work which takes place with regard to the collection.  

The KOLK 17 Puppet Theatre & Museum Lübeck operated for a long time as a private collector’s museum where very little research was carried out.  Today it endeavours to be a ‘researching museum’. Researching in the sense that the museum’s academic staff themselves conduct collection-related research presenting their findings, for example, at conferences, in academic publications and in the form of exhibitions.

This also means a continuous orientation towards current research theories and debates from the fields of puppet theatre, theatre, the performing arts and museum research. Contributing to various areas of the museum’s work, such as collection management, exhibitions and curating.

And last but not least, KOLK 17 Figurentheater & Museum would like to make its collection, including it’s archive and specialist library, available to research users worldwide thus contributing to an intercultural, interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge with regard to puppet theatre. 

Who is talking? Composition from the virtual exhibition. “Colonialism and puppet theatre” : untangling the threads © Anna Pfau TFM Lübeck 2020

Article specific biographical data research 

At the centre of the scientific work in the museum is the scientific development of the collection.  This involves firstly a basic description (see the blog post on inventory), i.e. making an inventory of the objects in the collection and cataloguing important basic data. This is followed by further scientific examination, in which the objects themselves and their history are researched in more detail. For this purpose, the sources kept in the museum archives are researched, compiled, analysed and finally documented.  
This often laborious research and documentation work is the central prerequisite for any further work within the collection. In addition to the museum’s own archival resources, the museum’s in-house archives and also external archives are important sources of information. One part of this essential groundwork is provenance research, the investigation and documentation of an “object biography” that is as complete as possible, beginning with the creation of the object and ending in the present.  
Since 2018, all researched information has been documented in a digital database, which has been continually added to ever since.

Snapshot from “A spider won’t become angry, a walk-in room installation from the world of the artist Louise Bourgeois” by Grit Dora von Zeschau GENERATOR in the studio stage of the tjg Dresden January 2020 © SR 2020

Exploring ,Theatrical Things’

Puppet theatre, like all other performance based arts and intangible cultural assets, presents some challenges to those who wish to ‘preserve’ and research it. The items in the collection, such as mobile stages, sets and props, figures/puppets, text and director’s books, scene photos or posters, programmes and playbills, are always only “indications of scenic practices” (Primavesi 2020: 102), they are “traces of performance” (Fischer-Lichte 2014: 17). How can these traces now be read, researched and documented?  Can we be led back to the historical theatrical event through such devices?

Since the beginning of 2020, an interdisciplinary group has been working intensively on a system that will make the collection, consisting of approximately 20,000 diverse artefacts, accessible through a pragmatic administration with ‘controlled’ terminologies. The aim is to create a digital research infrastructure that will also be available (at least in part) as an online collection for external international users.  

In this context, the big question is how terminologies for the ‘theatrical things’ that were once collected under the unifying term ‘puppet theatre’ can be further developed; always taking into account the performance based and cultural contexts. For only in this way can the multi-voiced and multi-layered areas of knowledge surrounding the objects remain.

Signpost to an exhibition in the Lübeck museum harbor © SR 2020

Thinking in space 

“Ultimately, exhibitions should not exhibit individual objects, but rather relationships, links, fields of tension” (Tyradellis 2014: 205). It is the curator’s task to work out these fields of tension and to question the objects from all possible perspectives, while filtering the content so as to create meaningful (new) contexts. These can be museum scientists or guest curators from a wide range of disciplines.  
Exhibitions are not only snapshots of the ongoing research-based engagement with the collection, they are also a creative process, a “thinking in space” (Tyradellis 2014: 145), in which museum visitors can be actively involved.  
This distinguishes research in museums from other research institutions. Exhibitions are the unique selling point of museums, a special place of exchange and communication of the scientific, but also the artistic findings to a larger audience (cf. Hoins & von Mallinckrodt 2014).

Archive drawer in the museum depot © SR 2020

Sorting, documenting and unravelling 

The basis for the many different areas of work is a collection which is well documented.  This is created by the research and documentation work of the scientific staff mentioned at the beginning. Care, patience, but above all curiosity are the most important building blocks of scientific work in the museum. For “only curiosity [of the researchers, their questions and doubts] puts the accumulated ‘things’ under tension, only they, trace those connections, discover those stories, create the meaning that many [visitors] seek in the museum. […] The museum does not only want to amaze, it also wants to know […]” (Rauterberg 2010).

Further Reading:

Erika Fischer-Lichte, „Aufführung“ in Erika Fischer-Lichte; Doris Kolesch; Matthias Warstat (Hg): Metzler Lexikon Theatertheorie (Stuttgart, Weimar: J.B. Metzler, 2005), S. 16-26.  

Katharina Hoins, Felicitas von Mallinckrodt: [Tagungsbericht zu:] Die Zukunft der Forschung in Museen (Hannover, 11. – 12.06.2014). In:, 25.06.2014. Letzter Zugriff 26.11.2020. .<>. 

Patrick Primavesi, Theaterwissenschaftliche Forschung und die Methoden des Archivs, in: Christopher Balme, Berenike Szymanski-Düll (Hrsg.), Methoden der Theaterwissenschaft. Tübingen 2020. 

Hanno Rauterberg: Sammeln, sortieren, enträtseln. 1. Juli 2010 Quelle: DIE ZEIT, 01.07.2010 Nr. 27. 

Daniel Tyradellis: Müde Museen. Oder: Wie Ausstellungen unser Denken verändern können, Hamburg 2014. 

Mehr einblicke in die Arbeit im Depot


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