Last week, I finally took the time to visit the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what I had hoped it would be – and not just because here, too, they force you to lock up your bag, leaving you to carry what you need in your hands .
The exhibition was oddly lifeless which seems strange, since they did make the effort of partially recreating the Hindenburg and allowing visitors to walk through. They even attempted to make visible individuals on board the Hindenburg, both from the crew and the passengers.
However, these experiences almost entirely remained behind glass– the glass of the exhibition cases  and the surfaces of interactive monitors . This was compounded by the lack of orientation, both physically and intellectually . There was a lot of information on offer, and nicely designed, too, but there was simply no journey. There was information here, and information there, and more information as you retraced your steps in search of whatever it is you hoped to find in the first place.
Even the climb into the partial reconstruction was anti-climactic. In fact, you would probably not realise that the ‘ceiling’ above your head is the reconstruction, if you didn’t know about it beforehand. At some point, you’ve seen all there is to see in the first exhibition space, and you’ll climb the steps simply because there is nowhere else to go. And so it continued.
Why do people care?
I couldn’t find any research on people’s interest in the Hindenburg and Zeppelins in general . A quick search on YouTube suggests people are interested in the following, in this order:
- The disaster (by far the most views)
- What accommodation and service areas looked like (the ‘inside’)
- How the airship worked, including construction
- Whether there is any future in airships
- The history of airships (especially their use in WWI)
In the absence of proper research, let’s go with this as to why people are likely to come to the Zeppelin Museum. This, then, should be the starting point for developing an exhibition . With one minor adjustment – swapping the last two topics – you actually have your storybook ready. That is, if one is willing to consider exhibitions as a form of storytelling.
And that’s how I argue they should be seen – certainly when it comes to something fairly straight-forward as the history of the Hindenburg and Zeppelins in general .
Storytelling through exhibitions
Exhibitions are a bit like a media art installation. They offer several storytelling tools: light, sound, space. Text, images, film. Objects. Exhibitions can even use smells. Unlike an art installation, however, they do have to have a narrative arc. So one needs to be clear about why visitors are motivated to come and then take them from there through the key points of the story toward a meaningful wrap-up before the exit.
Storytelling is always about grabbing people’s imagination and their emotions. This video analysing Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention in 2004 gives a concise idea about how to do this. Telling history through an exhibition is no different . And as they say, a great storyteller can make even the most difficult facts understandable and meaningful to a broad audience. More importantly, a great storyteller can make experiencing that story both interesting and fun.
To me, there is absolutely no reason why an exhibition should not be like that.
Storytelling the Hindenburg
As I walked through the existing exhibition at the Zeppelin Museum, I couldn’t help but wonder what this might have looked like when told as a story. Given people’s overriding interest in the disaster, that’s what I would have started with: the original newsreel, presented on a large screen in a dedicated transition space taking visitors from ‘their’ world into the story of the Hindenburg.
My next storytelling tool would have been a space in which the partial reconstruction takes centre stage. This is about scale. It is also about imagining what it was like to travel in this airship: the designs, the materials, being able to touch fabric, to physically move through the airship, experiencing it with all your senses . I would have turned the windows within the reconstruction into monitors, with historical footage of landscapes passing by and of the ship approaching destinations.
And then could have come the artefacts from the crash, the eyewitness stories narrated by actors over an image of the historic people. This could have led into the explanations of how the airship worked (with the briefest bit about the history and development) and how it compares to our modes of travel today. It would end in a segment on what a future of airships might look like, not the least when faced with the environmental cost of conventional travel. Would it be safe?
There are constraints to the ideal implementation of any project, and there would have been in implementing my ideas. The greatest constraint in this project, however, would probably have been the attitude prevalent in so many German museums. Just as becomes clear from the lack of wide spread research into visitors and non-visitors before developing museums, visitors’ interests and what they take from an exhibition so often seem an afterthought.
So, I guess many visitors will leave this museum as I did: feeling dissatisfied, their need to connect with a well-known story unfulfilled. And like me, they are likely to go back to other sources in order to engage.
As a museum and heritage professional, I find that thought very sobering.
German museum people will tell you that this practice is for ‘the protection of the collection’, which in the case of the Zeppelin Museum is in glass cases (!) or – within the reconstructions – for the most part behind ropes. Some will go as far as calling it ‘unprofessional’ not to force visitors to leave behind their bags before they enter an exhibition. It says just about all you need to know about whom and what they think museums are for.
 You could only see into the exhibition cases from above. It’s the classic issue of accessibility: if you’re small or using a wheelchair you’ll have a hard time seeing into the cases. If you’re struggling with your eyesight, the angle might also prove a challenge.
 Neither I nor museum staff could get the interactives to work consistently. After several futile attempts, I ended up ignoring them. A lot of the exhibition in the first room was built on these, however, so I lost much of what they were trying to convey. What I did see of the interactives, however, didn’t really need an interactive to begin with. It was text, with images. Why use an interactive for that?
 Upon entering the exhibition space, you did not know where to go, nor did the exhibition cases offer more than topical headers. I overheard another visitor ask museum staff where they should go – I was clearly not the only one feeling disorientated.
 Nor would I be surprised to learn that the museum did not undertake any before developing the exhibition. Visitor (and to a lesser degree non-visitor) research has become a topic of discussion only in recent years in Germany, and astonishingly, many museums people still do not consider it relevant to their work.
 Most of my readers are from the US and the UK, where visitor research is established. For German readers, let me just say that even if you do not like your (potential) visitors’ interests, you had better understand what they are if you want to implement successful interpretation. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I do not support Tildenesque interpretation that seeks to influence people toward a preferred reading. But even if that is what you want to do, you’ll still need to understand where visitors are at before you can move them toward your own goal. I’ll say it again, however: that’s dangerously close to manipulation, and museums should not be about manipulating people. And if we were talking about heritage here (and I do not consider the Hindenburg anyone’s heritage, except perhaps for the descendants of those directly impacted in one way or another), then having your interpretation be guided by people’s heritage value would be non-negotiable as far as I’m concerned. And for that, you first need to research what those heritage values are. In other words, I really do not see how any professional museum can bypass visitor and non-visitor research.
 As long-standing readers of my blog know, I do not see interpretation as communication. However, it does of course rely on good communication methods. And in recounting history (not heritage) I will always favour a good storytelling technique.
 In Germany, far too often objects are seen as enough to convey a story. The approach seems to be: the more objects you display, meticulously researched and labelled in specialist language, the more professional the exhibition is. Emotion in a museum is often viewed as lack of professionalism. Trying to argue from visitors’ point of view too often only works with young museum professionals – in fact, they already understand and try to do things differently. The problem is that they are by far in the minority – at least that has been my experience.
 I will say that climbing up into the reconstruction there was a musty smell which immediately moved me. I have no idea if that was a ‘real’ smell, but it added to the authenticity of my experience in that brief moment nonetheless.