“We respectfully challenge established ideas by shaking the pedestal.”
Jean-Marc Nia and Sibyl Kraft both guide visitors through the Kunsthaus Zürich. But while Nia, as an art fan, has his #letsmuseeum tour participants write postcards and act out scenes from paintings, Kraft focuses on her expertise as an art education professional during her tours. Despite their differences, they have one common goal: to awaken interest in future visits to the Kunsthaus. The two offer a look at their approaches in an interview.
Jean-Marc Nia, on the #letsmuseeum website it says that you are in love with the Kunsthaus Zürich. Where does this love come from?
Jean-Marc Nia: Love may be too strong a word, but I really do have kind of a crush. I came to the Kunsthaus already when I was a child and found it incredibly exciting. The sculptures and paintings have always moved me in a positive way.
Now you are at the Kunsthaus almost every weekend as a guide. What motivated you to participate in #letsmuseeum?
JMN: I like getting up in front of people. When I heard how freely I could design the tour, I was immediately attracted to the idea. It was clear to me from the very beginning that I could use these kinds of guided tours to arouse people’s interest in art in a relaxed way.
Sibyl Kraft, have you ever been on a #letsmuseeum tour?
Sibyl Kraft: Yes, at the very beginning, on the 2nd or 3rd tour.
Did you like it?
SK: A lot! Even though the tour was very different from the others at the Kunsthaus. During our tours, guides do not put themselves at the centre of attention. The guide is there more in the service of art and tries to build a bridge between the visitor and the artwork, i.e. to liaise between the two. This means we present facts about the work and the artist, explain how to classify the work within the world of art.
“I don’t want to do a comedy show about art.”
Do you also want to build bridges, or is the #letsmuseeum tour mainly entertainment?
JMN: My goal is to make sure people really enjoy the art and the Kunsthaus. Yes we create a relaxed atmosphere for the visitors. We don’t want them walking through the building like it’s a graveyard. Which is not to say that other tours have no life in them. But our tours are certainly louder and faster, and if I can also offer participants thrilling background information on the art in addition to the humorous and the absurd – that’s a big plus. We respectfully challenge established ideas by shaking the pedestal, but I don’t want to do a comedy show about art in which I sneer at the artists. The tour can be funny, but the basic level of respect towards the art cannot get lost in the shuffle.
During your tours, participants drink whisky, write postcards and act out scenes from the paintings. How is this kind of #letsmuseeum tour created?
JMN: I simply walked through the Kunsthaus and photographed everything that impressed me. Then I started researching the individual works of art. We have a team that supports us in storytelling, dramaturgy and research – which for example includes Reeto von Gunten, who is the head of storytelling at #letsmuseeum – as well as internal and external experts. On the tour I present my personal highlights of the collection. But to make sure I’m not the only one doing the talking, we play different games, we call them intermezzi – intermissions – with the visitors. I want them to experience art, not just to look at it.
You deeply involve the participants in the tour. Why is this form of interaction so important?
JMN: The basic idea is that the museum is a living space where you can exchange ideas, because everyone feels differently, which is of course the interesting thing about it.
“We Swiss need a nudge in the beginning.”
How high is the level of participation?
JMN: Actually, quite good. They need to be nudged at the beginning, but that’s just normal for us Swiss. I’m sure the shot at the beginning helps loosen things up, to get people to do things they wouldn’t usually do. But one thing is important to me: I don’t want to make the participants feel vulnerable; I want to charm them into participating, into being creative. It’s always about doing things in a group. I don’t want any circus-like moments where you pray the clown doesn’t come to pick on you. We don’t want people being embarrassed, we want them to have fun.
Ms Kraft, on your tours the audience mainly listens. How do you keep them interested?
SK: We engage in a dialogue with the audience by raising questions about the art that visitors can answer for themselves, but they can also discuss the issues. Any tour is never considered to be a monologue and questions from the audience are always welcome. If, for example, a visitor finds an art piece to be too simplistic, I ask them if they would ever have had the idea to make something like that. The answer is almost always “No”, which makes it clear very quickly that having an idea to make something new isn’t that simple.
“Opinions must always be declared as such.”
How much of a guide’s personality is in your tours?
SK: Our tours are designed by the guides themselves. They are art historians who aim to convey their knowledge to visitors in an understandable way. That tightens the corset somewhat. Of course, there are works in which the scope for interpretation is somewhat greater and the guides can express their opinion. But opinions must always be declared as such, so that visitors recognise that there are different views on the piece.
What can the visitors take away with them from the tour?
SK: We want them to be satisfied and to have discovered something new. And they should have the sense that there is something more to be discovered.
How do you put a tour together?
SK: First I dig into the literature on a piece, artist, or subject. I also read as much as possible about the time a piece was created in, in order to understand the history, economics, politics and thinking surrounding it. Against this backdrop, I then decide what to focus on, which issues to address and discuss for which piece, and which additional information is important for understanding the art.
Do you consider the #letsmuseeum tours to be competing with or complimentary to the other tours?
SK: We are always happy to collect new ideas. The #letsmuseeum tour is more like a trailer for the collection and we hope visitors come back to the Kunsthaus to see more. This is always free of charge on Wednesday until 8 pm.
JMN: It would be great if that happened. Of course we also hope that participants take another #letsmuseeum tour. But it’s clear that we can only cover a fraction of what’s on offer within the 1½-hour tour and instead of going in-depth, which is perhaps more the museum’s goal, we browse around and talk about what we like, what we are interested in, what engages us. If someone is more interested in a style, an era or a work of art, we are happy to send them on a guided tour of the museum.
What kind of people take part in your tours?
SK: I’m sure our regular audience is older. But we also have many school classes, companies and so on. So it’s a wide range.
JMN: It’s the same with my groups, although we didn’t expect that. I’ve had 12-to-70-year-olds mixed within a single group. Most of the time, however, women book the tour and then maybe bring along their girlfriend or boyfriend.
“I find that typical kind of art jargon awful.”
What kind of mistake to you try to avoid as guides?
JMN: Being boring! For me there is nothing worse than when you suddenly stop listening during a tour and kind of look right through the guide. Knowledge can also be imparted in a lively manner.
SK: I hate guides who use words that sound good, but aren’t understood by most people. I find that typical kind of art jargon awful. When the guide tries to impress. At the same time, you can’t talk down to the audience or trivialise the art. Finding a middle ground is very difficult. You have to feel your way around, use terms and see how the audience reacts. That has a lot to do with experience.
What do you advise visitors who come to the museum without a guide?
JMN: Don’t try to see everything at once. Walk through the Kunsthaus and just stop in front of a piece that jumps out at you. Let it have an effect on you. You can still go in-depth during a second visit.
SK: That is also our aim. Open your eyes, turn on your brain and look closely at the art. Then you will usually find your own way to access it.
As guides you know the Kunsthaus off by heart. What are your personal highlights?
SK: I am asked this question during almost every tour and I never answer it. For me there are so many highlights for different reasons. But if I could take a picture home with me, it would probably be by a 17th century Dutchman (laughs).
JMN: If it’s about what I would hang up at home, then it’s the untitled painting by Franz Kline. It’s just so damn beautiful.
Jean-Marc Nia is a journalist and museum fan. Since September 2017, he has been sharing his passion for the Kunsthaus Zürich on his #letsmuseeum tours.
Sibyl Kraft is the head of the Art Education outreach programme at the Kunsthaus Zürich. She has a degree in art history and has been giving tours for 25 years.