Go back to article: ‘The whole exhibition becomes the stage…’ – a journey through time by children for children as a new approach to peer learning

The Museum and its visitors

The Substation Recklinghausen was built in 1928 as an indoor substation. Recklinghausen is the northernmost city in the Ruhr area of Germany and the capital of the Recklinghausen district. The southern part of the town was deeply linked to the mining industry, and the substation, on the outskirts of the town, supplied the coal mines and the adjacent residential area with electricity. Today, the substation is a unique combination of a listed heritage site, a technical monument and a working electrical substation, equipped with two modern gas-insulated switchgears.

Since December 2000 the site has also been home to the Museum of Electricity and Life[1], an exhibition with about 3,000 square metres of floor space. The Museum takes its visitors on a journey through time, exploring the cultural, social and technical history of electrification.

As a source of energy for light, heat and power, electricity found its way into private households in the early twentieth century, although a lot of devices derive from developments in the late nineteenth century. The implementation of more and more devices during the course of the following decades caused fundamental changes in all spheres of life.

Figure 1

Section of a tram on display within the Museum

The Square with cobblestone pavement, arc lamp, a little shop and an accessible tram from 1916 – one of the highlights of the Museum for visitors of all ages

In order to display these transitions comprehensively, to communicate the past and support understanding, the exhibition concept for the most part avoids presenting widely used everyday objects in showcases without functional context. Instead, the objects are embedded in a designed room with some carefully chosen set dressing to trigger memories and emotions. The four parts of the exhibition portraying domestic life between 1910 and 1980, for example, have painted floors, carpets and tiles typical for the respective period: a precious Persian rug in a living room stands for the wealth of a household of the 1910s; colourful linoleum in a kitchen indicates the new modernity of the late 1950s; and a flokati rug evokes an impression of the 1970s.

Figure 2

Museum display of historical furniture and wireless sets

A look back to the early days of broadcasting: staging of a living room from the 1930s with a 'Volksempfänger', the typical radio of the NS-era

Where possible original furniture is used to help present the exhibits. Kitchen cabinets coated with pastel resopal – typical for the late 1950s – hold all kinds of kitchen appliances. A shelf rack made of dark wood serves as a presentation area for all the electric devices people used to purchase for entertainment or decorating their living rooms in the 1970s. In addition, several original chairs invite visitors to relax, listen to historical radio recordings or watch old TV programmes. The staging – even where it is lightly indicated – aims to deliver a historical narrative, providing both interpretation and communication, and hopefully making exhibits meaningful to visitors.

Figure 3

Museum display of a typical pub interior from the 1950s

A historical replica of a 1950s pub with the popular juke box and pinball, as well as an old electrical piano

A special feature of the Museum is that visitors are allowed to touch the exhibits, which enables audiences to engage directly with the objects, reducing reservations about coming into contact with exhibitions in general, and making it easier for them to understand the phenomenon of electricity specifically. Some exhibits will cause surprise, other will invite visitors to stay longer and give an exhibit or an activity a try. Trying something out will always have a more memorable impact than any theoretical attempt at a description of an object.

This ability to interact makes the Museum suitable for a wide range of audiences. The visitor profile of the Museum is very diverse: the spectrum extends from the very young to the very old, from the technology-focused to the non-tech-savvy, and from individual visitors to pupils in educational or other groups. But, like every other museum, our objective is to increase the number of visitors, including trying to access new target groups[2] while reaching non-visitors as well.

For the Museum of Electricity and Life, non-visitors include low-income families living in our urban district. The Museum is located in a socially deprived area with a high proportion of children living in socially and financially disadvantaged households, for example in single-parent families, larger families, families with unemployed adults and/or families with a migration background.

It is well-researched that disadvantaged families participate less in cultural activities. In recent years, numerous studies have addressed the correlation between level of education and cultural participation and provided evidence of the close connection between social background and cultural inclusion.[3]

On the one hand these families cannot afford to spend money on entrance fees to theatres, exhibitions and museums, on the other hand they tend to see these activities as uninteresting (Birgit, 2017), and sometimes even as useless and irrelevant because learning or educational offers for children beyond school lessons are not high priorities for these social groups.[4]

The Museum’s executives, however, believe that they have not only an educational responsibility, but a social responsibility too. Providing educationally-disadvantaged young people with opportunities to participate in cultural life will help them to develop new competences and enthusiasms that can form a basis for further learning.

Within our financial limits and staff capacities we had made many efforts in the past, but had not been able to reach this group. We needed funding to develop a strategic plan and to implement a new approach for a project.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180911/001