Editor’s note: Last year, the museum’s database development manager Katy Barber traveled to Berlin as part of her graduate museum studies program. She shares her insights from the trip.
I originally fell in love with art because it gave me the ability to tell a story, and after I started working at the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2017, I knew I was meant to be an advocate for art and museums. While working at HoMA, I completed Johns Hopkins University’s masters program in Museum Studies. Before graduating this winter, I traveled with a small group of graduate students and professors to Berlin for a two-week seminar. The objective of the trip was to gain an overview of the community and museum scene and develop a strategic plan for one of the museums’ exhibitions.
The seminar provided opportunities to visit with directors, curators, architects, and scholars at multiple institutions to gain insight into museum relations with the German government, community, education system, and their global influence. The directors and curators I met were working on exhibitions that tied events in Germany’s history to the present day and offered new, global context—similar to the diverse perspectives HoMA explored in its recent exhibition Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West.
These museum leaders were also working to disrupt the perception of museums as formal, inaccessible institutions by showcasing living, contemporary artists and inviting local communities into their galleries. Berlin’s focus for the better part of the last century has been primarily on provenance and preservation, but now the emphasis has shifted toward public outreach and wider access to ideas and collections previously accessible only to scholars and other museum professionals.
In a memorable lecture, Dr. Elsa Van Wezel shared her research on the Altes Museum (Old Museum) and the Neues Museum, on Berlin’s famed Museum Island, offering a unique chance to reflect on the evolution of museum architecture and physical design, as well as visitor experience. Apparently admissions and visitor relations in the 1830s dealt with many of the same challenges museums face today. These processes are constantly changing as the industry improves upon and redefines “best practices,” but access and public perception are recurring issues.
While drafting my strategic plan for exhibitions at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art and the Hamburger Bahnhof, I drew from my HoMA experience by incorporating two of our most popular programs—school tours and free artist lectures. Access to art benefits the entire community and it is a HoMA priority.
My biggest takeaway from the trip was that for museums, the importance of providing public access and building strong relationships with the community cannot be overstated. What does it mean to be a “museum for all”? I don’t know the answer, but I know that a world-class collection such as ours loses value in obscurity, so I look forward to working to continue to share it in new, engaging ways with diverse audiences across the islands for many years to come.