„The development of the new permanent exhibition was an exciting, intensive process.”

Urban history is alive. It is eventful, undergoes change and is constantly reshaping itself. The Cologne City Museum is currently in a similar situation: it is also currently going through turbulent times - with many challenges, but also with great opportunities. It all began with water damage in the historic armoury in 2017, when the exhibits had to be secured in an emergency storage facility and parts of the exhibition space were closed. For the Cologne City Museum, this meant that it would not be possible to wait for the new "Historic Centre of Cologne" location.

With the Modehaus Sauer, the Kölnisches Stadtmuseum has found a new home in the heart of the city. But as beautiful as the location opposite Kolumba and MAKK is, the former fashion house presents a challenge for the museum in many respects: The total floor space will be greatly reduced by the move, and the open construction with staggered half-stories requires special ideas in the conception of the new permanent exhibition.

The curators Sascha Pries and Stefan Lewejohann have the task of solving these difficulties and developing a suitable new exhibition concept. A complex project – which does not deter the team: “We see the change as an opportunity. We considered different solutions and thus found an approach that works well,” says curator Pries.  

The picture shows a room in the state of renovation at the new location of the Cologne City Museum. There are ladders, pallets, packages and wooden partitions standing around.
The future foyer in the reconstruction, September 2021 (© C. Ehrchen)

„Our goal was to do something fundamentally new and to break away from a chronological narrative. Visitors will therefore not find the familiar, expected breaks in the content of historical museums here,” says Pries. “On the one hand, we wanted to make the best use of the new building and do justice to the space. On the other hand, we wanted to tell city history in an innovative and participatory way so that the people of Cologne could recognise themselves in it.“ 

The result is a presentation of the exhibits along different emotions. Lewejohann: “The long and eventful history of our city is to be told from the lives of its inhabitants. Bridges are to be built to the past. What connected the people of Cologne in the Middle Ages, 500 years ago or 200 years ago? Events and developments are thus contrasted in a new and innovative way. This makes urban history emotional and accessible – especially here in Cologne.”

Eight emotions were selected to illustrate the past 2,000 years of the Rhine metropolis. Along questions such as “What do we love?”, “What do we believe in?”, “What do we feel like doing?” or “What makes us angry?”, thematic spaces are created in which stories from different time periods are told. “What makes us afraid?”, for example, draws an arc from wars and the Nazi era to current events such as persecution, the refugee movement and terrorist attacks.

 “Working out the new permanent exhibition and developing the various thematic islands was an exciting, intensive process. We had to decide which of the many exhibits to show, which stories to tell. That’s not easy with a collection as extensive as ours“, explains the curator.

The limited space requires a focus on the essential stories. This is helpful for all visitors who only want to “take a quick look” at Cologne’s history. “We want to attract many curious visitors! We have discussed over and over again and also changed things several times. The goal is to design a compact and exciting permanent exhibition that is understandable and interesting for everyone.” 

During a stroll through the rooms, Pries explains the concept: “In the so-called opening room, we would like to introduce visitors to the topic. The highlights of our collection are showcased here, for example the city model from 1571,” the historian explains. In contrast to all the other rooms, the opening room will be organized chronologically. It is intended to provide an initial overview of the city’s history. From the opening room, visitors can then roam through the museum at will. “In each half-story“, Pries explains, ” you will find islands dedicated to the different emotions.

Usually, the chronological order is not relevant, but rather the context of the content.” For example, he says, Dirk Bach’s television costume will be displayed next to a medieval Bible in the “Media” section. “We are convinced that this concept will work and that our visitors will be surprised and curious,” says Pries. He himself is very much looking forward to the new permanent exhibition, which should satisfy what is expressed in the current slogan on the Sauer building: “City – History – Different”.

For Sascha Pries and Stefan Lewejohann, the relocation of the Kölnisches Stadtmuseum and the development of the new permanent exhibition is a unique project of special significance: ” For a museum to relocate and to simultaneously develop a completely new exhibition is not an everyday occurrence.”

But not only the exhibition concept requires commitment, dedication and teamwork. The design of the rooms, the development of the showcases and fixtures, the lighting, the visitor guidance, the design of the foyer with the planned “open space” for community-curated exhibitions and events – all these aspects have to be planned.

Pries appears relaxed in view of the size of the task and is optimistic about the remaining tasks: “Our project plan is in place and things are progressing very swiftly. We are looking forward to the day when the museum will open its doors.”