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Making museums cool

This month sees an infusion of fresh blood into Berlin’s dusty old institutions, starting with Rimini Protokoll’s Top Secret International (Staat 1) on Mar 1.

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Photo by Kevin Fuchs

Whether it’s a scheme to get more visitors (and therefore cultural funding) in an attention-saturated world, or to increase their coolness capital by bringing in the young and hip, the world’s big history museums have been inviting contemporary artists to create fresh responses to their collections – and Berlin is no exception. It seems the city’s once-cutting-edge historical institutions are having a bit of an identity crisis, and like all identity crises, this one says a lot about their changing role in society.

The Natural History Museum (Naturkundemuseum) started its Art/Nature programme in 2014, presenting contemporary “interventions” alongside its taxidermied rodents, dino bones and lizards in jars. The four-year experiment finishes with a last round of three installations (and a live performance on selected dates) on view through April 29. In a video interview accompanying his installation of field tools and materials from behind the scientific scenes, American artist Mark Dion explains how natural history museums have gone from mapping taxonomies to grappling with our role in climate change. Alongside a forgotten row of windows, UK artist Elizabeth Price provides a poetic history of an internal courtyard that once served as the Whale Hall but was destroyed during WWII. In the back of the building, Berlin-based Assaf Gruber’s film The Conspicuous Parts is conspicuously located behind red curtains. In its semi-fictional narrative, a taxidermist and a writer discuss the colonial implications of the museum’s exhibition on Cuban coral reefs.

The performance, Ulrike Haage’s A micro-opera in ten acts, has already sold out through its last showing on March 5, but you can still watch an interview with her about the piece next to the “wet collection” – an impressive spectacle in and of itself. Meanwhile, one of the museum’s previous “interventions”, Klara Hobza’s The Animaloculomat, is on view again over at the Soy Capitan gallery – if you didn’t take the opportunity to get your photo taken from a snake’s perspective last year, now’s your chance.

Also this month, the Neues Museum will present Rimini Protokoll’s Top Secret International (Staat 1) (photo), part of their four-chapter experimental theatrical presentation otherwise taking place at HKW. Every Thursday through Sunday until March 25, museum visitors are invited to take a cryptic 90-minute audio tour through the ancient Egyptian chambers and around the bust of Nefertiti in what is promised to be a thrilling “investigation into the global network of state secrets and intelligence services”. While not developed directly in response to the museum’s wares, it will surely provide a new context for this very old collection.

If you can make your way around the construction site next door to the Aleppo Room at the Pergamon’s Islamic Art Museum, you will see a fragile installation of 27 glass swallows by Felekşan Onar – a poetic metaphor for the Syrian refugees in her hometown of Istanbul, the artist states. “The stranded refugees find themselves in the midst of a chaotic city… They have landed, but are unable to fly…”

Perhaps museums are a bit like these swallows – stranded between their past and the present. What remains to be seen is the role they will (or will not) play in the future. Whether contemporary art or historical collections are more your interest, this month you can learn more from both.

Art/Nature: Interventions IV Through Apr 29 Natural History Museum, Mitte | Klara Hobza: Animaloculomataurus Through Apr 7 Soy Capitan, Kreuzberg | Felekşan Onar: Perched Through Apr 9 Islamic Art Museum, Pergamon, Mitte | Rimini Protokoll: Top Secret International (Staat 1) Mar 1-25, Thu 13-17:45, Fri 13-15:45, Sat-Sun 12-15:45 Neues Museum, Mitte