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Museum of Contemporary History of the Federal Republic of Germany

The Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, in Bonn, is a museum of contemporary history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Displays feature contemporary German history from the end of World War II to the present day. The exhibition is chronologically structured, offering a route full of visual and acoustic impressions. The museum presents political, economic, and social history, everyday living conditions, and important aspects from the world of art and culture.

Most German museums refer to their guides as “Führers” (leaders). As a museum for post-War German history, we are sensitive to the negative connotations of that word; thus, we prefer to use the German word “Begleiter” (guide). This term more closely reflects our museum education approach; we see ourselves as facilitators who help visitors examine and understand exhibitions so that they can then better explore them on their own.

It is our goal to have a diverse decent corps that reflects the diversity of our visitors. Therefore, in addition to the large group of students who form the core of our docent staff, we have a (volunteer) business manager, a retired army officer, and housewives, many with teaching backgrounds. The defining characteristics of our docents are: 1) an interest in and familiarity with contemporary German history, which is usually demonstrated through appropriate education, 2) strong communication skills, increasingly in foreign languages, and 3) an understanding of the unique mission of the Haus der Geschichte. Since Bonn is both a government and a university town, our docents hail from all over the country, and are not predominantly locals.

Since opening our doors in June, 1994, we have not yet conducted any official recruiting. Beginning this year, however, we plan to advertise for docents at selected departments of the two nearest universities (Bonn and Cologne) in order to attract students with specific language skills or other area/discipline specializations.

Applicants go through a two-phase group interview procedure. The first interview concentrates on communication skills, interest, and motivation. Selected applicants are invited to a second interview, which focuses on content questions about German history as presented in the exhibition. Successful applicants are then invited to attend a two-day training workshop. The coordinator of visitor services, the museum educator, and a curator conduct the interviews and lead the training workshop.

After successful completion of the training workshop, docents are given a three month contract. During this time, the coordinator of visitor services, the museum educator, and the curator who participated in the interview/training process randomly evaluate selected tours and conduct an individual evaluation based on previously established guidelines. Docents are then evaluated on an ongoing basis for the duration of their employment.

Continuing training includes presentations by curators on topics that concern the exhibition and collection areas, and by outside experts on such concerns as non-verbal communication, “interviewing” objects, and interacting with special needs visitors. Our touring technique combines both expositional and inquiry methods.

Educational programming is a vital part of our institutional mission. As a national museum, targeting visitors from all over the country and internationally, the education program is designed to appeal beyond the local area. Examples of educational programming include: Family Days; Activity Sundays, a series of theme-based activity tours; and a “generation-chain” program. The museum educator cooperates closely with teachers and other educators (adult education), assisting them in developing individualized programs for specific topics. On request, educators, administrators, and other “multipliers” can meet with the museum educator, curators, or the information center librarian, for instance, and discuss how to use the museum to receive assistance in planning future visits.

Examples of public programming include an ongoing series of symposia on important historical figures (“Thinking about …”), on museum issues (“Museum Questions”), and on current affairs and contemporary history (“ZeitFragen” – not easily translated — literally means “Time Questions”). Each temporary exhibition is accompanied by special programming, for example, a film series, public discussions, etc. In addition, the museum co-sponsors numerous events, such as the official presentations of commemorative stamps as issued by the Post Ministry, historical and museum-related conferences, etc. Finally, museum space is rented to third parties for private events, such as annual meetings, commemorative celebrations, etc.

The primary focus of docent tours is to provide a general overview of the museum and the permanent collection. Requests for exclusively theme-based tours are relatively rare. Often, visitor groups request a particular focus (economic history, daily life, etc.), but make it clear that they still want to see the exhibition in its entirety. It is important to remember that our museum is relatively new (having opened in June, 1994) and that many visitors are visiting our institution for the first time.

Our experience has shown that repeat groups tend to request theme-based tours. We are experimenting with offering theme-based tours. This past summer we initiated a garden tour (the museum gardens reflect the development of the back yards and playgrounds from 1945 through the present). The response up to now has been very positive. In 1996, we counted approximately 700,000 total visits to the permanent exhibition and 250,000 total visits to the various temporary exhibitions. Some 110,000 persons received guided tours. We count an average of 100 groups per week.

Any group with a minimum of 15 persons can reserve a free guided tour through either the permanent collection or the current temporary exhibition. Tours are individually designed, though our experience shows that most groups want a general introduction to the museum and its exhibitions. At request, our guides offer overview tours with a specific focus or a specific time period. School programs are developed individually in conjunction with the teacher or educator. We do not yet advertise separately for adult or special needs groups.

While we consider the strength of our docent program to be the strong focus on visitor needs, which results in the creation of individualized programs, we continue to work on expanding our educational programs and improving our docent selection and training.

In 1995, the European Council awarded the Haus der Geschichte the Museum Award of the Year. In 1997, the Haus der Geschichte was winner of the prestigious “Quandt-Stiftung” Media Award for its temporary exhibition, “Market or Planned Economy.” Our director, Dr. Hermann Schafer, was elected to the Board of the Visitor Studies Association. He is the first non-American on the board. He is also a member of the Steering Committee of the European Museum Forum. Dorothee Dennert, the museum educator, serves on the board of the German Museums Association, a member of the Network of Museums Associations (NEMOC), and a board member of lCOM/CECA.

Helena von Wersebe is the Coordinator of Visitor Services at the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn, Germany.

von Wersebe, Helena. “Museum of Contemporary History of the Federal Republic of Germany,” The Docent Educator 8.1 (Autumn 1998): 8-9.

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