Museum of the Month: UNIKATUM Children’s Museum
Contrary to the urban hustle and bustle, the museum is more like a bubbly oasis: outside, on Zschochersche Street, the traffic rushes by and the wind beats fiercely against buildings and people, inside the UNIKATUM, however, a new world presents itself to those who enter it. Here, the children rule. From the ceiling hang flying string instruments and a huge shark made from papier-mâché glances peacefully at the long, gaudy dressed table at which a children’s birthday party takes place.
The kids, though, can hardly sit still and chatter excitedly with one another. Everything that you can discover in these walls is so fascinating. The interactive exhibition called “The Crazy World Hotel” invites the little ones to take on the role of a detective to solve a mystery at the Word Hotel. In order to do so, they need to sift though all seven hotel rooms and discover the story of their intercultural inhabitants.
Annegret Hänsel and her team from the exhibition agency UNIKATUM created this particular adventure. She has a degree in physics and works as a designer for exhibitions full time. Mrs Hänsel founded this special museum in 2010 and together with the volunteers who run the museum presents changing join-in exhibitions to children and adults. In the interview the initiator reveals how the idea for the The Crazy World Hotel came about and what motivates her and the volunteers to keep running the museum.
Mrs Hänsel, how did you come up with the idea to found a museum for children?
I founded the museum because it is my passion to create exhibitions. You may have heard of my work at the Zoo Leipzig where we designed many visitor’s stations and also the playground with the dragon where the bears lived formerly. The Children’s Museum is my baby now. This is where we can stage the ideas which we find are important to both children and adults.
How did you yourself got around to create exhibitions?
During my studies of physics, I paid my bills working as a freelancing graphic designer. When I graduated, I decided to keep on freelancing and was looking for a field in which I could keep on founding and more importantly where I could create and set the theme myself. I came across designing exhibitions or the other way around which combines an enormous spectrum: designing the construction which is close related to interior design, designing outdoor spaces, content editing – we make films, we make audio plays, we need illustrations, layouts, programming – it is an unbelievably huge field on which we can play on.
What is the concept of the UNIKATUM Children’s Museum and how is its content structured?
There are about sixty children’s museums in Germany. And there are science centres with interactive exhibitions. Those, however, focus mainly on science. I personally want to present social issues to a broad audience. Issues which make the phenomenon of social interaction palpable for them. For example, feeling, money or the city. In order to do so, we are trying to find a staging and make the issue comprehensible. The frame of a children’s museum with offers for guided activities for children and adults seemed to be suitable. To build up such an institution with no capital is a challenge in any case.
How do you come up with a new theme? Do the interests of children have any influence in this?
We almost always keep a board in the exhibition on which children may write which themes they would like to see covered. Those suggestions then serve as guidelines for our decision on which to set the focus on. Of course, the themes of the exhibitions are at the same time our own favourite issues, of which we want to playfully sensitise children and adults.
You describe your exhibition as a join-in exhibition; does that mean that children are actively involved in the creation process of the corresponding theme?
A join-in exhibition for us means that the visitors have their own share in it. There are works of pupils in the museum, trick films or audio plays, which came out of our summer workshop. Those works of pupils have their place in the exhibition, even though we create the exhibition as a whole since we have to take operation restrictions into considerations, for example, how long a station in the museum lasts, whether there is enough space, whether we must meet regulations by the Technical Control Board and whether the content is comprehensive. Strictly speaking, a join-in exhibition for all visitors means that they can both participate in the actions at each station and note their own thoughts on many issues so that these stations grow with the comments of our visitors. Imagine this like a staged walk-in forum. We would like for our visitors to find more and more opportunities to express their own thoughts.
The UNIKATUM Children’s Museum is run by volunteers? How does it work?
There is a core team, basically the employees of my agency, which volunteer to keep the engineering of the exhibition up and running. Then there are volunteers who help covering the opening hours during the week and some on the weekends, who receive a fee. Those are mostly people working as museum educators or in the family café. Moreover, we have a circle of friends and financial supporters. Nevertheless, it is not easy to win people to support us, in particular regular supporters. Therefore, we constantly have to find new people, otherwise this museum would not work. Perspectivally, we need finances for personnel of course; the amount of cleaning alone is constantly increasing.
Next to a successful prospecting, which plans does UNIKATUM Children’s Museum have for the future?
For a long time we have been renting a single storey in this building, which became far too small. When the tenant of the ground floor moved out last December, we finally could turn our expansion plans into reality. To make use of and pay the rent for this extra space – we now pay four times the initial rent – is now our main task to master.
“We would like for our visitors to add their own thoughts.”
What are your plans for the new space?
There is definitely going to be an area for kids who cannot read yet, including a bigger baby corner than we have so far, because we want to attract families with children of all ages and to provide high quality time for all of them. We are going to focus on designing the courtyard garden. There will be some sort of treasure hunt. Also, we will reopen the historic Café Götz, some people from Leipzig may remember them, as Museum Café Götz inhabiting an exhibition for adolescents and adults. Similar to the escape room principle, they will have to solve puzzle boxes. Since 2015 we are presenting all exhibitions in two languages, German and English, and we hope to expand our target group a little and attract more people on weekdays, tourists, for example. Because this is being our biggest problem: we have to pay the rent for every day of the week. When there are fewer visitors on weekdays for the school kids are at school and on weekends, the museum is buzzing, in the end, our facilities are not being used continually. Therefore, we offer a reduced entrance fee to our visitors during the week and also create extra offers such as a trick film workshop.