“Sisyphus must have been a happy person”

Donnerstag, 28. August 2014 | 

Schlagwörter »  |  Thema: englisch

Professor Harald Siebenmorgen has served as director of the Badisches Landesmuseum (Baden State Museum) for many years. Now the Freiburg alumnus is about to retire. In an interview with alumni’aktuell he recalls his time in the German student protest movement, reports on his successes in museum administration, and talks about “theocracy Talibans” and Playmobil exhibitions.

Professor Harald Siebenmorgen has served as director of the Badisches Landesmuseum (Baden State Museum) since 1992. © Beatrix von Hartmann
Professor Harald Siebenmorgen has served as director of the Badisches Landesmuseum (Baden State Museum) since 1992. © Beatrix von Hartmann

Harald Siebenmorgen studied art history, German, archaeology, and sociology in Freiburg and Göttingen and also studied abroad in Rome and Paris. After completing his PhD, he initially worked as a research assistant at the Reiß Museum in Mannheim. He then helped organize the state exhibition “The City in Transition” for Lower Saxony as deputy director of the project. Afterwards, he worked for five years as director of the Hällisch-Fränkisches Museum, and from 1989 on also as director of the Städtische Galerie in Schwäbisch Hall. He has served since 1992 as director of the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlsruhe. This summer he will go into his well-deserved retirement.

alumni’aktuell: Mr. Siebenmorgen, you studied in Freiburg from 1968 to 1979. During this time, students demonstrated for lower public transportation prices on Bertolds-Brunnen, the social-liberal coalition held sway in Bonn, and Baden’s citizens demonstrated against a nuclear power plant in Whyl. How did you experience these eventful years?

Siebenmorgen: When I went to Freiburg in 1968, I became an enthusiastic 68er straight away. Humanist Student Union, Socialist German Student Union – which then dissolved four weeks later, German studies action group, spokesperson for the art history student committee… But eventually my passion for art history and archaeology became so consuming that these things were relegated to the background.

alumni’aktuell: What motivated you to study art history and archaeology?

Siebenmorgen: I carried it over from my school years – my enthusiasm for Riemenschneider, Tutenchamun, and Kandinsky. I had already bought a contemporary print as a school student. And then I was anxious to take part in the discussions on the “work-immanent” interpretations popular at the time, instead of interpretations focused on social history or the history of ideas. And I sensed that artworks and objects – as well as language – express the nerve and the inspiration of a foreign and past culture for us. After all, the culturally homeless person of our day and age enjoys moving in the changing identities of other cultures. Incidentally, I myself mostly enjoy moving in the oriental cultures and have become one-fourth Tunisian over the course of time.

alumni’aktuell: You have served as director of the Badisches Landesmuseum for over 23 years. Now you are about to go into retirement. Which of your achievements are you especially proud of?

Siebenmorgen: Yes. You’ll excuse me for naming quite a few, considering how long its been: The opening of the museum with festivals just after I assumed the post; the fourfold increase in the number of visitors and the highest of any museum in Baden-Württemberg; above all, the complete reorientation of all 15 departments of the institution, and recently the group exhibition “Global Culture”) as a theme of interculturalism and comparative studies. I see opportunities for the future here for museums like ours. Special exhibitions like “The Oldest Monuments of Mankind” (Göbekli Tepe 12,000 years ago), “Hannibal ad portas,” and that on the Vandals set international standards. Our cooperation agreements with Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, and now also Italy and Greece set our institution apart, also for the future. We set an example worldwide this year against grave robbery and the illegal art trade by voluntarily returning objects robbed from graves. Last but not least, the museum has also taken on a pioneering role with its management structures, its marketing, and its educational programs.

alumni’aktuell: At the moment, your museum is holding a large exhibition marking the 600th anniversary of the Council of Constance. What fascinates you most about this project?


Siebenmorgen: The period of transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in which Council of Constance took place; the thousands of people who exchanged ideas from their cultures: from Ethiopia and Novgorod to the Sorbonne in Paris and to England and Portugal; the extreme spectrum ranging from the theocracy Taliban Jan Hus, the university theologians, and the Italian humanists – who rediscovered previously unknown ancient manuscripts like the complete works of Vitruvius, who inspired the Renaissance – to Lucretius. He propagated his worldly, agnostic, materialistic philosophy of life as a disciple of Epicurus, thus preparing the way for a secularized worldview that was foreign to that of the church.

According to Siebenmorgen, professional skills, staff management, and constant brooding over the place of the museum in society are the three qualities of a good museum director. © Beatrix von Hartmann
According to Siebenmorgen, professional skills, staff management, and constant brooding over the place of the museum in society are the three qualities of a good museum director. © Beatrix von Hartmann

alumni’aktuell: Public awareness for individual topics becomes more acute during anniversaries, while other topics are increasingly neglected. You have warned in this context of a “trivialization of museums.” What do you mean by this?

Siebenmorgen: I have never spoken out against anniversary topics. When anniversaries or commemoration days spark fruitful discussions, like the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War is doing currently, that is already worth a lot in view of our hype-seeking public and our media. You just need to make sure that you’re the first to drive the “red-green painted sow” through the village, because the second sow, that is, the later date, will attract much less attention. I was only expressing my skepticism as to whether it is the job of museums to hold exhibitions on Lego, Barbie dolls, or Playmobil.

alumni’aktuell: During your tenure at the museum you also introduced elements of business management. How can a museum survive in the balancing act between scientific standards and economic demands?

Siebenmorgen: Objection! There is no contradiction here. Every research institute at the universities has to think in economic terms today. The business management structure of the museum allows us to be much more flexible with our finances and personnel: a global budget, accumulation of reserves, maintenance of revenue, full cost accounting, away from a inflexible staffing schedule. This has increased transparency but has also called into question the museum’s goals. It is what has made “uneconomical” exhibitions possible in the first place. Plus, we are investing a lot of money to create digital inventories, conduct provenance research, ensure that the art trade does not sell stolen objects or objects from illegal grave robberies. We have never considered doing trendy exhibitions à la “Lego bricks” or “Playmobil.” We haven’t organized a “Red-Haired Women’s Night” or a “Naked Men’s Day” either. But museums are productive, culture-creating businesses, not research institutions, and we should recognize that with pride and self-confidence.

alumni’aktuell: When you think back today, what ambitions and goals did you have when you started at your post, and which of them were you able to fulfill?

Siebenmorgen: Oh dear! Five years ago I would have said I’ve reached all of my goals: The opening of the museum with festivals, “Turkish Days,” the complete reorientation of all departments, an intensive exhibition program unlike any that the museum has ever had before. The number of members of our “Association of Friends of the BLM” has increased by 200 to almost 1000, and many of our trainees have found good positions with us or elsewhere – above all in marketing and museum education. But in the space of more than 20 years new tasks also appear, and some things repeat themselves too. „Sisyphos must have been a happy person,” wrote Albert Camus, but I would wish for it to be left to a new generation to do all of this again. I also feel the need, after so many years of organization and management and more than 300 exhibitions – the first one in the “Schwarzer Kloster” in Freiburg in 1976 – to engage in more research.


alumni’aktuell: What three qualities does the director of a museum need to have?

Siebenmorgen: Professional skills, which means – in a large state museum – universal knowledge from the Paleolithic Age to the present, constant brooding over the place of museums in society (I’m planning on writing an “Epistemology of the Museum” soon), and staff management and motivation. But one learns the least of all this at the university, and then it’s pretty much a matter of intuition.

alumni’aktuell: Now that you’re going into retirement, what do you plan to do with your new free time?

Siebenmorgen: Guiseppe Verdi answered a similar question when he was only 57 years old by saying: “Eating, drinking, taking walks, and reading bad books” – and then he went on to compose ten more operas all the same. So we shall see, but all in good time. Maybe I will also do something for the Freiburg alumni, because I’m still very fond of the university.

alumni’aktuell: Thank you for the interview, Mr. Siebenmorgen.


According to Siebenmorgen, professional skills, staff management, and constant brooding over the place of the museum in society are the three qualities of a good museum director. © Beatrix von Hartmann

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