How not to run a museum

When I was in Germany a couple of weeks back, my wife and I took an hour or so away from our family duties and paid a quick visit to the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (Romano-Germanic Museum, or all about the Romans while they were in Germany) in the centre of Cologne. The city was a major Roman settlement and every time someone tries to build something – or even just dig a hole – more of its history comes to light. Given this amazing potential, we had high hopes for the museum and its exhibits.

In the museum

If you build it, they will come. Er, no.

To say that the museum fails completely to do justice to the city and its historic past, however, is to be polite. True, it does have some fantastic pieces, such as a huge Roman mosaic and a spectacular array of statues. But in this electronic, hands-on age, to simply line everything up and label it shows a distinct lack of effort. Cologne’s history is truly amazing, but the museum seemed more like a musty old storeroom than a celebration of the city’s past, present and future.

Some Roman coins

Boooooring!

Now, I may not be an expert when it comes to museums. But I have been to quite a few over the years and I know what gets me engaged and what just turns me off. So here are my top six Römisch-Germanische improvements, just in case someone rings me up tomorrow and says ‘OK, Herr Smarty Pants. You think you can do better? So why don’t you just get back over here and show us what you’ve got, my friend?’

1. Make it welcoming. When we wandered in through the museum’s front door, we were faced with a miserable looking lady sat at a desk in the corner. Once she had (grudgingly) sold us two tickets, these were checked by a surly security guard before we were allowed into the exhibits themselves. Everything about it screamed ‘what do you think you’re doing here, pond scum?’ Not a great first impression. Let’s replace the desk with a counter front and centre, get the lady to smile, greet visitors with a ‘welcome to the museum’ and replace the security guard with someone in a ‘Civus Romanus sum’ T-shirt.

2. Ditch the uniforms. Patrolling the exhibits were a team of uniformed staff, whose purpose seemed very much to be making sure that we didn’t cause any trouble, steal anything or enjoy ourselves in any way. I didn’t see them interact with any of the visitors, though their eyes followed us around the room throughout our visit. What’s that all about? I’d swap the official-looking uniforms for something less formal and task these people (who are all perfectly pleasant, if the lady I approach to ask if it was OK to take photos is anything to go by) with making sure that everyone was enjoying the museum and getting the most from their visit.

3. Introduce some interactivity. Lining up exhibits in glass cases with little labels is sooooo last century. Rather than just looking at little Roman lamps, lets get some replicas that we can play with. Same with the coins, jewellery and cooking implements. And while we’re at it, perhaps we could get some drama students to dress up as Romans and give people a bit more insight into the history of the people behind the objects by telling stories, giving demonstrations and getting visitors involved. Why just read about weaving when you could have a go at it yourself?

4. Make some noise. Even though there were quite a few people wandering around the exhibits while we were there, the museum was as silent as the tomb that it clearly wants to be. People stared silently at the statues and spoke in hushed whispers, if at all. This is nuts. Lets get hold of some Roman music to get an atmosphere going, perhaps even some live musicians at weekends and Roman holidays. And why aren’t there sound effects for any of the exhibits? Or audio-visual presentations to accompany some of the major pieces? It’s really not that difficult, people.

Statues

Interactive? Not so much.

5. Open a cafe. This must have been the first museum that I’ve been to that doesn’t have a cafe or restaurant. Once you’ve looked around the exhibits, you leave. That’s it. It’s almost criminal, in my view, that there’s nowhere to sit and mull over what you’ve seen while you down an espresso or tuck into some hearty soup. It’s also a great waste of a potential revenue stream. Especially because there’s an open air courtyard on the top floor that’s just crying out for a coffee bar and some patio chairs.

6. Open a decent shop. While there is a sort-of shop in the foyer area, it’s basically a shelf with a few dusty books on it. If this is going to be a family attraction (and it should be), then we need things that adults and families alike can purchase to commemorate their visit and to help them to learn more about the city’s history. While a few scholarly texts are fine, how about something a little more exciting for anyone who doesn’t happen to be a professor of ancient history?

There we go. Nothing too Earth-shattering, but a few simple ideas for making the Römisch-Germanisches Museum less like a mausoleum and more like the celebration that it should be. I’m sorry to go on about this. But history is incredibly interesting and provides real insight into our present and future as well as our past. Museums that make history out to be something inaccessible that should be revered in silence do a disservice to us all.

7 thoughts on “How not to run a museum

  1. It is of course worth saying that it hasn’t changed one bit since I’ve last been there on a school trip, ca. 1990, so I was less surprised than you that it’s still, ahem, so museum-like. We could preserve it as a source of what people in the 80s and 90s thought a museum should be like…

  2. Pingback: And a positive (though slightly odd) museum experience | The road to somewhere

  3. Our town is looking to open a small museum to house our history. I’ve been doing some research on what it takes to do this. Your post showed up in the Google search. You make some very valid points, points I hope to bear in mind during our mission. History should be fun and draw you in! And I want to do just that 😉 Thanks for sharing some insight from the average visitor.

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