Museum Futures beyond the 2020 Crises: A Transatlantic Conversation

Dec 03, 2020

Virtual Panel Discussion | 12:30–2:00 PM ET | Panelists: Sharon Macdonald (CARMAH, Berlin), Emily Bilski (Writer & Curator), Christoph Heinrich (Denver Art Museum), Stephanie Stebich (Smithsonian American Art Museum); moderated by Anna-Carolin Augustin (GHI Washington) and Monique Scheer (Universität Tübingen)

Watch a recording of the event

The multifaceted health, social, political, and economic crises of 2020 have hit museums with great force worldwide. Closures and hygiene regulations make it difficult for them to fulfill their core tasks, with potentially serious consequences for communities, education systems, and cultural heritage. A third of U.S. museums are afraid that they will have to close for good. Calls for the rescue of collections are being issued, and some institutions have even begun to sell pieces from their holdings. Although the situation in Germany is not quite as dramatic as in the U.S., funding for museums there is drying up too. Meanwhile, the growing reach of anti-Semitism, racism, conspiracy theories, and disinformation campaigns are increasingly threatening the democratic foundations of our societies, thus presenting museums with further challenges. And all of this has come at a time when museums were already facing fundamental, transformational changes that even call into question what museums actually are.

How have American and German museums responded to the once-in-a-lifetime events of 2020? Our planned online panel discussion at the end of this turbulent year will consider these challenges, but also, in some cases, potential opportunities for the future on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, we would like to discuss the following aspects with eminent American and German museum experts and historians: How can museums operate when they are closed to the public? How are massive budget cuts affecting the museums’ work and the cultural landscape more generally? How have museums kept up with collecting, preserving, exhibiting, and educating in 2020? What unusual or innovative digital approaches are being developed? What long-term consequences are we facing with respect to the future of memory cultures, museum collections, and historical research in museums?

Participant Bios


Emily D. Bilski is a curator and scholar specializing in modern and contemporary art, and in the interface between art, cultural history and the Jewish experience. Trained as an art historian at Harvard and N.Y.U’s Institute of Fine Arts, she has held positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Jewish Museum in New York, and at the Munich Jewish Museum. As a consulting curator, she has organized dozens of exhibitions in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel, and authored/edited their accompanying catalogues, among these Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture (1880-1918) (University of California, 1999) and Jewish Women and their Salons: The Power of Conversation (Yale, 2005), both winners of National Jewish Book Awards. Bilski has contributed essays to numerous exhibition catalogues, including for projects at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Barbican in London, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She served as an editor for the new edition of Martin Buber’s complete works, responsible for his writings on the visual arts (Gütersloh, 2016). Bilski has taught at the Hebrew University’s Helmut Kohl Center for European Studies and in the MA/MFA program at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.  

Christoph Heinrich, Ph. D., was named the Frederick and Jan Mayer Director of the Denver Art Museum in 2010, after serving the museum for two years as Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. Since assuming the leadership role at the DAM, Heinrich has encouraged live interactions with artists on site and enhanced opportunities for visitor creativity throughout the museum, including presiding over notable exhibitions such as: Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature, Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century, Wyeth: Andrew and Jamie in the Studio, Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective and Becoming Van Gogh. His exhibition Embrace! challenged contemporary artists from around the world to create installations inspired by the unique architecture of the museum’s Frederic C. Hamilton Building. Before joining the DAM, Heinrich was at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, where during his 13-year tenure, he organized more than 50 exhibitions. Born in Frankfurt/Main, Heinrich attended the Universität Wien in Vienna, where he studied Art History, German Literature and Dramatics. He earned his MA and PhD at the Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität in Munich. A knowledgeable art historian, his publications range from contemporary public sculpture to 19th and 20th century painters such as Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Daniel Richter. His 2014 publication, Nature as Muse: Inventing Impressionist Landscape, highlighted the generous bequest of 22 impressionist works to the museum by former board chairman and longtime supporter, Frederic C. Hamilton.

Sharon Macdonald is Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Social Anthropology in the Institute of European Ethnology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where she founded and directs CARMAH – the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage. She directs a multi-researcher ethnography of museum and heritage developments in Berlin – Making Differences. Transforming Museums and Heritage in the Twenty-First Century – and is a principal investigator in various projects, including Curating Digital Images, Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe, and Matters of Activity. She is a Research Associate of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University, and a member of the Advisory Boards of the Berlin Exhibition in the Humboldt Forum, and of the House of European History in Brussels. She has written widely on questions of culture, museums and heritage. Her books include, Difficult Heritage. Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and Beyond, Memorylands. Heritage and Identity in Europe Today and the co-authored Heritage Futures. Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices

Stephanie Stebich is responsible for the nation’s premier collection of American art and major exhibition, research, publication, education and digital-media programs at the museum and its Renwick Gallery. She was named director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in January 2017. Stebich serves on the Smithsonian’s Capital Board as well as the Smithsonian-London Strategic Advisory Board. In May 2018, she was named co-chair of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. Read Stephanie Stebich's full bio here.