Knowledge is not a static entity. It is not obtained by discovering universal truths. Instead, it is a process of creation and simultaneously an outcome. It is mediated, socially (re)defined, and accepted or rejected. It always contains an underlying sense of rationality, however understood, and is dependent on temporal and spatial contexts. This dynamic image of knowledge is not new, but how can it be reflected in a museum? How can the diverse factors and layers of knowledge production be made explicit in order to go beyond the mediation of factual information to the visitor? In addition, how can visitors themselves actively engage in a way that takes the dynamics of knowledge formation seriously? Finally, how can the museum bring academic and public knowledge creation together?
These questions are at the heart of an exciting new project at Göttingen University in Germany about knowledge in the sciences and humanities, the installation of the knowledge museum Forum Wissen Göttingen. It won’t open its doors until 2019, so all there is to see at the moment are its plans and some teaser exhibits. Nonetheless, it is worth taking a closer look at the plans now, and following up on their implementation later on.
In order to reveal the many facets of “knowledge in the making,” as the new institution’s official slogan goes, Forum Wissen meshes a number of concepts and spaces. The “basic exhibition” will display selected objects of research from the university’s rich holdings in thirty-six collections. In this way, it will concentrate on the materiality of knowledge. The main idea, however, is not to display objects and convey information about them and their contexts, as one might expect of a conventional museum. Instead, the objects will serve as starting points for the visitors, who will learn to see them as crucial constituents in dynamic processes of knowledge formation. The objects will be contextualized by thirteen thematic rooms that highlight significant conditions and themes of scientific and scholarly research. Some of the room names might seem unusual at first glance, but in fact they describe integral components of knowledge production. Take, for example, the rooms Blind Alleys, the Tub, and Free Space, which will likely surprise visitors more than Lecture Hall and In the Lab. With this design, museum visitors are invited to a stroll through contrasting but complementary spaces. As the museum itself states, “As a house with many rooms, the Forum becomes a metaphor of the manifold facets of scholarly research and the sciences. Each room is connected with its own questions, topics and practices of knowledge.”1
In addition, special thematic exhibitions will focus on the processes of knowledge formation in their various contexts. Their purpose will be to raise awareness of the changing character of methods, perspectives, systems, and thus the changing and contingent character of knowledge itself. In so doing, they explicitly encourage visitors to question existing forms of knowledge. Do we really have to use this system with its hierarchies and order? Aren’t there possible alternatives that make sense as well? Just like the basic exhibition, the special exhibits will be designed on an interdisciplinary basis, and they will be adaptable in order to reflect current research and developments. All in all, “knowledge in the making”—its materials, outcomes, and variations—will be presented in a dialogical relationship. Most importantly, the visitor is explicitly conceived as a participant in the conversation.
Other parts of Forum Wissen will complement this concept. For instance, there will be a shop, a café, and other spaces where visitors might compare notes on what they have experienced in the exhibits. The forum will also serve as an event venue, hosting popular physics shows or science slams, and it will be possible for external users to book the premises for a broad range of activities, including for school. Forum Wissen will house readings, plays, movie screenings, and more, too, likewise addressing the public.
To the scholarly communities the forum will present itself as a central hub for the university’s vast object collections, featuring a depot and a workshop for restoration work. The forum is also meant to be a site of research. Thus, it will house a center for research on knowledge (Wissensforschung), which will include a professorship and a PhD program on the Materiality of Knowledge. Undergraduate and graduate students will have the opportunity to participate in project seminars, working with on-site objects. Forum Wissen’s facilities will be available for lecturers and students to teach and research while having access to all of the university’s collections. Scholars and students will also be able to present their projects to academic and public audiences in the shape of exhibits or events. The focal point of these activities will be the Object Lab, a laboratory and seminar room surrounded by a tall glass shelving system. This space will hold exchangeable objects that can be ordered from the collections for direct examination in the Lab. On the other side of the showcase, on the outside looking in, visitors to the museum will be able to view the displayed items and the activities inside the Lab.
The establishment of Forum Wissen Göttingen is complemented by the already ongoing digitization efforts of the university’s Centre for Collection Development. An integral part of Forum Wissen, this center makes digitized objects accessible via a central database.
Forum Wissen represents a fascinating approach to creating a space that is open to public and academic audiences alike. Furthermore, as a “marketplace for ideas”2 it seeks to bring these audiences together by interactive participation that takes the multifaceted dynamics of knowledge production seriously. To me, this idea is the main innovation, bringing the understanding of a museum closer to that of an actual forum. The outcome of the project will be unique in Germany. By connecting the different spaces of the forum in manifold ways, visitors, students, and researchers will find a multitude of paths to follow and relationships to discover. Under normal circumstances, such an undertaking could entail the danger of offering everything and nothing, linking academia and the public in ways that do not allow these distinct groups to pursue their specific interests; however, the forum’s design accounts for those needs by providing different kinds of spaces for undisturbed engagement. At the same time, the forum stimulates contact and synergy between museum visitors, researchers, and students. This is why we can really look forward to seeing how the project realizes its ambition to become an “open house of sciences and humanities” devoted to processes of knowledge formation—”knowledge in the making.“
Christian Wachter is a doctoral student at the University of Göttingen.
Images used by permission of the Centre for Collection Development of Göttingen University.
- Forum Wissen: Knowledge in the Making (brochure), p. 24, at https://www.uni-goettingen.de/en/concept-of-the-iforum-wisseni-brochure/539770.html. ↩
- Ibid., p. 31. ↩