«Now or never» – Research at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich

Willy Guhl, Flower Box, 1954, Design Collection, Museum für Gestaltung Zürich. Photograph: Fachklasse für Fotografie © ZHdK

Christian Brändle, Director of the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, and Roman Aebersold, Vice Director, talk about research at the museum and the opportunities the museum’s collections offer for researches.


What is research like in everyday life in a museum?
Christian Brändle: Research in everyday life in a museum is about researching and processing topics and presenting the results in an understandable way. This is something that is very exciting in our curatorial work and is part of our everyday life.

Roman Aebersold: Research in everyday life in a museum is defined by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). It is part of everyday life in a museum and supports preservation, exhibition and outreach. It is a matter of course in all these areas. Everyday, new objects are added to our collection. We describe and determine their provenance, the materials, information on printing or production, authorship and context. This is both routine work and a research activity.

What is your contribution to research in the university context?
Brändle: We support researchers in questioning and embedding the material in a more comprehensive way. We invest a lot of time working up the basics so that researchers can deal with certain topics and objects in terms of content – in other words, bringing knowledge together.

You initiated the Researcher-in-Collection programme. What is the programme about?
Aebersold: The programme is for researchers who are interested in our collections. We give them access to objects and advise them on how to work with them. The museum provides preliminary work, infrastructure and workplaces for interested researchers. In addition, we support third-party research projects or launch projects ourselves.

Can you give a current example?
Aebersold: Yes, the SNF project “Willy Guhl: Thinking with your hands“, which we are currently working on with ZHdK’s Research Focus Aesthetics. The existing material from Willy Guhl and his family was a wonderful prerequisite for this. It contains objects, models, notes, sketches, correspondence, photos and much more. On this basis, we launched a joint project with Dieter Mersch, the former head of the Centre of Competence in Research Aesthetics.

Do many research requests come from the ranks of the ZHdK?
Aebersold: In our opinion, still too few, there is an untapped potential. ZHdK is one of the few universities in Europe that has a collection of this size and relevance “inhouse”. Our archive contains around 580,000 objects. For the local and international understanding of visual and material culture, this is a large fund that could be used for research projects more intensively.

Brändle: We have a special situation at ZHdK. Although the museum is part of the university as an institution, it is not part of the university of applied sciences. Thus we ourselves are not eligible to apply to launch research projects. There is no strategic link between the existing research and institute landscape of ZHdK and the museum.

How do you draw attention to this potential?
Brändle: Last year we took initiatives to reveal latent research topics or a research corpus. Also, we have formulated possible research topics for collections that have already been processed. These range from designs from the 1930s to the 1970s for Switzerland Tourism to the estate of the designer and artist Andreas Christen to the collection of the designer Hans-Rudolf Lutz, who collected around 15,000 pictograms on transport packaging from all over the world.

What advantages does your collection offer researchers?
Brändle: We offer very good conditions for research projects. Topics, material and infrastructure are already available. At the same time, the museum serves as a multiplier. The findings of the research project “Sophie Taeuber-Arp publishing project“, for example, have been incorporated into exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London, in Basel and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So, anyone who wants their own publication to be sold in MoMA’s bookshop should work with us.

Aebersold: In addition, the objects in the collection are practically always physically available and processed in databases. In the eMuseum, our digital archive, more than 110,000 objects have already been recorded.

How can the potential be better utilised?
Brändle: I think we need to emphasise our openness even more. We also need to make it clear to teaching and research that design history can and should play a greater role for both institutions.

The Museum für Gestaltung will be supported by the Federal Office of Culture from 2023. What does that mean for research?
Brändle: This is a big and important step for us. Within the management, we agree that we want to invest funds in research. This is our chance to integrate research into the work of the Museum für Gestaltung in the long term. I would say: Now or never.

The exhibition on the SNSF project “Willy Guhl – Thinking with your hands” will start at the Museum für Gestaltung on 9 december 2022. Further information: https://museum-gestaltung.ch/en/ausstellung/willy-guhl/
Mirjam Bastian (mirjam.bastian@zhdk.ch) is responsible for research communication at ZHdK and based at the Research Affairs Office. Sarah Bleuler (sarah.bleuler@zhdk.ch) is Head of Marketing and Communications at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich.
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