Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?

The Städel museum’s strategy for breaking the barrier between audiences and modern art

Kunstgeschichte Online – der Städel Kurs zur Moderne                                                                      
Photograph: Städel Museum

"Who's afraid of modern art?“ – with this question, students begin their guided journey through the Städel Museum`s new online course. The oldest museum foundation in Germany is celebrating their 200th birthday by redefining their communication strategy to fit the digital age. Part of this change is the implementation of an online art history course and more recently a virtual reality tour of the museum in the 19th century. The museum’s course, called the Course for Modernity, is an innovative digital offering providing multimedia content and an interactive timeline which allows users to browse through modern art from 1750 to the very present in five modules. This course includes a variety of ways to internalize the content, including interactive challenges, short films, dynamic study materials and stories, all aimed at bringing you closer to understanding the collection.
This course is an addition to the museum new offerings, like a digitorial, a digital catalogue that informs you about the current exhibition or an online audio tour.

The Städel Museum`s art history course is free for all and from November on will also be available in English. The course takes 40 hours to complete, but at the end users are rewarded with a certificate and two free admission tickets to the museum.

AMT Lab contributor Seggen Mikael sat down with Chantal Eschenfelder, Head of the Education Department, and Axel Braun, Head of PR and Online Communication, to discuss the online course`s implementation and success, as well as the Städel Museum’s other offerings in their digital revolution.


SM: First of all, could you give me a little bit of information about your backgrounds and how you ended up in your current positions?

CE: After my studies in Art History, German Literature and American Civilization, I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Munich with a thesis on the Palace of Fontainebleau in France. As I have always been interested in spreading cultural knowledge to a wider public, I started my professional career at the European Office in Cologne as a project manager for culture and new media before I changed positions and worked at the Educational Department of the Museum Ludwig, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and Museum of Applied Arts in Cologne. Since almost ten years now I have been Head of Education at the Städel Museum, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung and Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. In the context of the digital expansion of the Städel Museum and as a part of the inter-divisional “digital think tank” of the three institutions, my colleagues and I have been developing strategies to transfer methods and practices of art education into the digital realm.

AB: I studied sociology and art history in Hamburg and Paris and also worked as a journalist besides my studies. Before I started working at the Städel Museum, I held a position in the PR and marketing department at the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt. At the Städel, I initially worked as a media spokesman, and became head of press and public relations of all three institutions under the direction of Max Hollein in 2012. Three years later, I broadened my professional focus to also encompass digital communication, in conjunction with the digital expansion of the Städel. As a result, I became head of the department of online communication in addition to that of press and public relations. In this capacity, I now also oversee all our social media channels and film productions. Together with Chantal Eschenfelder I am also part of the museum’s cross-departmental strategic “digital think tank”.

SM: In a press release you wrote that you want the expansion of your educational programs into the digital space to be a central component for the Städel Museum. How do you define your educational programs and want to achieve this?

CE: With the implementation of innovative projects, we pursue the central goal of making cultural institutions accessible to multifaceted groups of contemporary society. The main focus of our educational work in Frankfurt is to present the art museum as an activating platform for visitors with diverse backgrounds and expectations. Our general motto is: every visitor is different, and so is every visit. The most important thing in this respect is to take a close look at the so-called “visitor journey”: what are the needs of our public before a visit to the museum, what kind of information is required during their stay in the museum and how can we extend the museum experience when they are back home and would like to deepen their knowledge. With this in mind, we developed the digital format of the digitorial as a preparation for the museum visit, the Städel App for the use on-site and the online course for a follow-up once visitors go home.

SM: What are the central elements you introduced this year?

CE: One of the most important projects this year was the launch of our online course on modern art. Based on works from the Städel’s collection, a varied program on art history, in total some 40 hours of computer time awaits the participants. Along with introductory and explanatory films on various major topics, participants will find hands-on learning formats, detailed texts and a comprehensive timeline of historical events, artists and key works of modern art. The new digital offering is aimed at all those who wish to attain a knowledge of art history and iconography in a diverting manner and on their own schedule. At the moment, we are busy preparing the English version of the course to also make this offering available to an international public.

AB: Our latest digital project is a VR presentation of the results of long-term research and reconstruction work on the history of collecting at the Städel Museum and the different forms of its holdings’ presentation in the nineteenth century. The research project offers accurate and detailed 3D reconstructions of the presentation of the Städel’s collection at its three historic locations. The website features in-depth information on the provenance of all paintings belonging to the collection at the respective points in time, details on the history of sales and losses, relevant inventory entries, and texts from selected nineteenth-century catalogues. The highlight is a VR Tour through the museum’s interiors in 1878 which provides completely new insights. This ground-breaking project demonstrates how the latest technological developments may be put to use in order to generate and present research results in art history relating to an institution’s history of collecting and exhibiting its holdings in an appealing and beneficial manner.

 SM: Let’s talk a bit more about the online art history course you are offering.
How did you come up with the idea for the course? Did you get inspiration from other museums that have similar programming? What were the initial goals you identified when adding the course offering?

AB: The idea came from two sides: on the one hand, we had already planned to develop a digital tool which allows us to offer more content on art history and to tell much more detailed stories about our artwork. On the other hand, it was our public who repeatedly articulated the wish for a kind of seminar on modern art. Of course, while preparing the course we pursued benchmark studies, yet we realized pretty quickly that we wanted to go in a different direction. Most of the already existing courses resembled filmed guided tours and – in our view – did not make use of recent technical developments in order to provide truly innovative digital offerings. We laid emphasis on the possibilities of interactive tools and found further inspiration in gamification methods. In addition, we pursued a different strategy towards our public: contrary to other museum’s courses, where one has to register and pay a fee in order to then be allowed to attend the course for a limited period of time, our course is totally free of charge and users may log in whenever they want to. Furthermore, one of our goals was to offer a subject-based course avoiding a linear narration of modern art, and we emphasized visual learning by strengthening the perception of the users.

 SM: How was the online course received by the users? Do you have any data on who the users are?

CE: We received a lot of positive feedback and have been surprised by the gratitude that many users expressed for finally being able to (better) understand Modern Art. We also reached people we normally do not get in touch with such as a woman who even wrote us from Kiev. Up until now we have already registered more than 15,000 participants.

SM: Have you seen any changes in the museum’s administration or operations as a result of your newly implemented digital offerings?

CE: By developing and releasing digital offerings, we as a museum have had to build a stronger network between our different departments. We needed to standardize our data storage and meet the different characteristics of our content. Storytelling has become a key issue and seems to be much more important than it is in the analogue world. And our art educators tell us that visitors now ask them more detailed questions during guided tours, questions which are based on the knowledge they have acquired through our digital offerings in advance.

SM: What kind of resources were necessary in creating the online course?

AB: During the peak period of production we had about 70 different people working on the course: art educators, authors, actors, a film crew, our press department, web designers, IT specialists, and many others more. That only shows how essential interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration is to such a comprehensive and complex undertaking as has been our online course.

SM: Is the course designed to get users to physically attend the museum? If so, was this successful? 

CE: None of our digital offerings have the primary goal to get more people into our museum. Rather, the main goal is always to spread the rich content of our collection and to reach out to a wider public. But of course there are people who visit us because they learned about the Städel through our digital offerings first. And let us tell you a little secret: if you finish the online course, two free tickets for the Städel are waiting for you at the end.

SM: In a press release you wrote that you want to satisfy the needs of a museum from the present and the future. Therefore my question is as an organization, why do you believe museums should be incorporating technological advancements into their practices?

AB: In order not to lose its institutional and societal relevance, it is crucial for a museum – especially one with a collection that also includes five-hundred-year-old master paintings by Rembrandt or Dürer – to constantly try and keep in touch with not only overall developments in society, but also with the technological evolution in particular. In this sense, museums also face tremendous changes which affect nearly all areas of society, changes that fundamentally redefine and restructure how we deal with information, education and culture – among many other things. If we succeed in taking advantage of the potentials associated with the rapidly advancing digital developments, we are actively and productively paving the way into the institution’s future.

 SM: Finally, if you had to go back and make another online course knowing what you know now, what would you have changed? What do you wish you had known prior to developing the course?

AB: Well, our original schedule did not account sufficiently for the writing and editing of the texts because we paid so much attention to the production of the films and various gamification elements that we ended up running a little bit out of time.
CE: One main insight is that digital projects require a decent amount of time for their development and realization – especially for the testing phase – and thus mostly take longer than initially thought.