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‘Make German museums free to bring them to life’

While German officials talk about building new museums, they should first copy their British colleagues and open their collections to the people for free, says Matthias Thibaut, the Tagesspiegel newspaper’s London correspondent.

'Make German museums free to bring them to life'
Photo: DPA

People who want to get from London’s University Library to Covent Garden and want to get out of the rain, or perhaps are in a hurry, take a route through the British Museum. You are greeted by a guard on the way in, pass through the Gallery of Living and Dying in the Great Court, go around the old Reading Room and walk out the other side. You don’t have to hand in your umbrellas – and you certainly don’t pay entry.

And who knows where a person’s curiosity might take them once they enter the world’s oldest museum? They could look into the Islam gallery, or the gallery of the cafe devoted to Coptic Christianity – a route which leads through hordes of excited schoolchildren as this is also the way to the much loved mummy section.

What a contrast to Berlin’s Museum Island. Once one has got through the transaction at the pay desk and arrived in the Bode Museum, the squeak of shoes is the only sound – that or a reprimand for wandering between the sculptures with a coat hung over an arm. The feeling is of being an invader – one wishes that it was a little like in London where the museums are filled with life, curiosity, business and joy.

There are 13 British national museums, nine in London, as well as countless private museums such as the Saatchi Gallery, the University Museums in Oxford and Cambridge or the city museums of the Victorian industrial cities like Manchester and Liverpool, which invite people in for free – and nearly all without the German institution of a closed day each week.

Free museums play a large part in people’s lives

The result is that London museums play a big role in the lives of the people. Not only do more people go to museums, they go more often, in a more relaxed manner, and also just for 20 or 30 minutes. “Even the women are more elegant,” said Martin Roth, the new German director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

He can hardly believe his luck to be in charge of the super-cool museum which once advertised with a slogan saying it was a cafe with a nice museum attached.

“How I fought in Dresden to reduce the barriers. German museums fear for their intellectuality and scientific reputation, are scared of losing their identity.” Roth tripled visitor numbers in Dresden, but failed in his fight against the weekly closed day. But, he said, German museums envy their British colleagues for their style and elegance.

No wonder. The free entrance is the basis of a museum culture which plays a central role in London’s position as a global capital city, centre for art and the most popular tourist destination in the world.

What is decisive is how these museums contribute to London’s civilised, relaxed urbanity. Ladies meet for tea at the world’s oldest museum restaurant at the V&A, and then take a stroll through the Renaissance gallery. On late opening Thursdays, disco music fills the halls and one can stand next to Giambologna’s Samson, a glass of champagne in hand. In the National Gallery civil servants from Whitehall take a quick look at their favourite painting during their lunch break. And where better to meet for a rendezvous than in the pulsating Tate Modern?

Part of the public space

Museums are part of the public space, like shopping centres and parks, but they expand them, and the public consciousness with their treasures, their history, their glamour, their celebration of humanity. Just as the department store of the 19th century democratised consumerism, the modern museum does the same for knowledge, education and beauty. For the British, that is today so self-explanatory that it is not questioned even in times of great budgetary pressure.

According to specialist magazine Art Newspaper, six of the world’s 20 most visited museums in 2011 were in London. Germany’s most visited museum, the Dresden Residenzschloss, was at number 29 – and Berlin’s New Museum was at 38, with 1.14 million visitors.

The Pergamon Museum, which sees itself as a world-class museum, has something over a million visitors. This is fewer than the Ashmolean in Oxford, population 154,000. Free entry does not pull in the unwashed masses who step on the toes of the elite, as some German museum directors fear. Rather museums become part of civil society.

Michael Eissenhauer, general director of the Berlin State Museums, says that a third of the city’s visitors already enjoy free entry – including all those under 18 – and that the hurdle to free entry is kept as low as possible. But at the same time he says, “We live from tax money and therefore take our responsibility seriously to contribute something to the finances from our own income.”

Collections belong to the nation, not the state

In England the same argument is used the other way around. During the fight against entry fees under Margaret Thatcher, the argument which won was that it was absurd to demand money to see works which in any case belonged to the visitors.

The art of museums belongs to the people – they are bought, cared for and exhibited with tax money. Often they are gifts to the nation – not to government bureaucracy or the state.

The British, unlike the Germans, draw a clear difference between nation and state, people and government apparatus. Thus, the British museums belong to society, but the German ones to ministerial bureaucracies.

A board of trustees is placed between the government – as the most important source of funding – and museum directors. Ministers appoint the trustees on recommendation, but remain at arm’s length from decisions – in contrast to Germany, where Culture Minister of State Bernd Neumann is chairman of the Trust Board of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

Education, participation, integration

Sean Rainbird, director of the Stuttgart National Gallery, concluded this spring that the model of a hierarchical relationship between a superior authority and subordinate institute does not work. In Stuttgart he secured three sponsors to fund free entry for the State Gallery for half a year – and visitor numbers rose by 250 percent. But there was not enough time to establish a new museum culture and support from above was missing.

For Roth the advantages of free entry are undeniable. “Education, participation, integration,” are the core responsibilities of museums, and are promoted by free entry, he said.

The museum expert said free entry was entirely feasible for the big German museums. A two-year test phase would be easy to execute – one would only have to secure the museums against financial risk.

“But the initiative must come from the ministers,” he said.

Why? Perhaps Berliners should stop only talking about museum projects, architecture plans and switching of collections from one place to another, and instead demand more museums in their lives – and more life in their museums.

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BERLIN

EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

Shops
If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

Leisure
2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

Hairdressers
For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

Transport
3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.

 

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