The ArchitekturenExperimente research group is investigating in the Humboldt Lab the influence that exhibition space design has on conveying the content of an exhibition.
How do people make their way around exhibitions? Some may approach them intuitively, letting themselves be carried along, attracted by objects that catch their attention. The Humboldt Lab aims in its inaugural exhibition to explore how visitors open up the space and interact with it. For this the ArchiExp research group, which evolved from the Image Knowledge Gestaltung cluster of excellence’s ArchitekturenExperimente research project, is developing a concept. With funding from the Joachim Herz Foundation, ways in which visitors make use of the exhibition are to be investigated in several research phases.
One of our fundamental questions is ‘What does the space do with us and, especially, with our knowledge processes?
“One of our fundamental questions is ‘What does the space do with us and, especially, with our knowledge processes?’” explains the architect Henrike Rabe, who together with the sociologist Séverine Marguin and the interaction designer Friedrich Schmidgall, makes up the ArchiExp team. “Whether I place a partition wall in one place or another can exert an enormous influence on how visitors make their way around the exhibition, on what they look at, where they spend a longer or shorter period and how they interact with other visitors,” she says.
Observation cycles of about two months are planned, to take place at longer intervals. During research phases visitors can wear on their wrist a token that is on offer at the entrance to the exhibition. Visitors’ movements are recorded electronically and projected as abstract lines onto an architectural model of the Humboldt Lab. After their visit those who so wish can be shown their pathway round the exhibition. “We always try to reflect research findings back into the exhibition space to enable evaluees to take part in the research,” says Henrike Rabe.
The ArchiExp team is interested in both quantitative and qualitative data. “It is not just a matter of how people access the exhibition but also of how they perceive the space and the exhibition.” So visitors are interviewed about their visit. How did they see the space or areas of it? As being wide or narrow, dark or light, protected or open, orderly or chaotic, for example. Which exhibits attracted them and which didn’t? What did they find most impressive? The aim of “collaborative” research is to actively include guests, Henrike Rabe says. “The concept comes from ethnology and describes an approach by which research is conducted not about but with the evaluees. With this in mind, workshops are also planned with visitors, employees, researchers and school classes.
Contrary to what might be expected, says Friedrich von Bose, deputy head curator of the inaugural exhibition, the focus of analysis is not on optimizing the exhibition space. Unforeseen effects are exciting too. “One of our questions is ‘How can certain spatial properties create disruptions that may be productive’?” Curators deal first and foremost with exhibition content without always bearing in mind the spatial setting and the sequences that it creates. The fact that architecture is part of the content-related action must, however, always be taken into account. “We naturally always work with the space, and sometimes deliberately against it,” the curator says. How visitors see it can never be fully foreseen. They perceive the place as they find it in their own way and adopt it in ways that may differ entirely from what the exhibition makers intended. Research into this is very exciting for both the Humboldt Lab and the museum world as a whole.
The ArchiExp team has experience of investigating the influence of spaces on knowledge production. The research group evolved from the Image Knowledge Gestaltung cluster of excellence that from 2012 to 2018 brought together more than 40 disciplines at the Humboldt-Universität. It focused on looking at images, objects and knowledge as processes of Gestaltung. For the first time in basic research the humanities, science, technology and medicine were joined by Gestaltung disciplines such as design and architecture.
The ArchitekturenExperimente research team included experts in other fields such as Wolfgang Schäffner (cultural studies), Finn Geipel (architecture) and Jörg Niewöhner (European ethnology). The starting point of their research was how collaboration between disciplines can function – and what role the space plays in the process. “We wanted to know how to design our physical and digital cluster architecture so that it can support interdisciplinary research projects,” Henrike Rabe says.
To find out how, the Experimental Zone was established. “The starting point was a 350 square metre wing of the building in which we knocked down all the partition walls to create a flexible space,” the architect explains. This work area, used by scientists and designers from many different disciplines, was converted and rearranged at regular intervals. “We used many methods of observation to probe the outcomes of research practices,” Rabe says. They included individual physical and digital research practices as well as how they come together in the space. “What especially interested us,” says Henrike Rabe, “was how working alongside one another develops into working with each other.”
The investigations took three years, resulting in the collaborative habitat concept, a space that promotes interdisciplinarity. What constitutes a space of this kind is described in the Experimental Zone monograph. One of the findings was that the more open space typologies are conducive to collaboration because they facilitate a gradual convergence of disciplines. “Scientists can approach the alien practices and content of colleagues in other disciplines step by step by means of the visibility of the different practices for one and, for another, by the research content of work in progress,” the architect says. There were counter-intuitive insights too. Nowadays there is a trend toward flexible work that includes desk switching. “We noted, however, that many people found setting up a fixed workplace to be important – individually to begin with and later increasingly in groups. This focal point offered protection in the open space while providing swift access to practice-specific assemblies,” Rabe says.
In addition to the university context other “architectures of knowledge” are of interest for the ArchiExp team: buildings in which knowledge is produced, taught or stored. These include schools and also exhibition venues like the Humboldt Lab. “In the design process architects often work on the assumption that rooms and spaces can promote the production of knowledge or stimulate interaction. But there has been little systematic research on the subject and, amazingly, hardly any in collaboration with sociologists and ethnologists,” says Henrike Rabe. The Humboldt Lab curators hope that the research project will provide them with ideas for the future, says Friedrich von Bose. “A further aspect is the development of specific design-related impulses for future exhibition settings.”
|Datum:||16. September 2020|