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Planning an outpost in Bonn

The Deutsches Museum Bonn was opened on 3 November 1995 as a second “outpost” of the Deutsches Museum after the Flugwerft Schleissheim aviation museum. For this, the museum left its main territory in Bavaria and went to North Rhine-Westphalia, to what was by then “merely” the Federal City of Bonn. Many people ask: how did that happen? As you might expect, it all began much earlier, when Bonn was still the West German capital.

In July 1986, the Bonn’s chief municipal officer contacted the chairman of the board of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft based in Essen, which operates the “Wissenschaftszentrum“ in Bonn. This serves as a conference and congress centre and a service facility for the large science organisations nearby German Research Foundation (DFG), German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), the German academic scholarship foundation Studienstiftung, etc. Today, this collection of organisations proudly refers to itself as the “science quarter”. As part of the preparations for its 2,000th anniversary celebrations in 1989, the city planned exhibitions “that will deal with historical themes and themes relating to the history of technology.” This idea apparently coincided with the Wissenschaftszentrum’s own plans “to convert the basement, which currently does not yet have an assigned use, into an exhibition space that satisfies safety and climate requirements”. In this context, it is important to understand firstly that the cultural heritage foundation Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz already owned and successfully operated larger exhibition rooms here. And secondly that the crème de la crème from federal and state politics, science and industry came in and out of the Wissenschaftszentrum.

On 4 August 1986, the Stifterverband replied that it was in the initial deliberation phase. And: “With regard to the decision on the use of the basement, it is also necessary to consider the question of whether and, if applicable, to what extent we can count on investment by interested partners.” To this day, nothing seems to have changed with respect to the issue of financing. As far as the partners are concerned, the Wissenschaftszentrum contacted the General Director of the Deutsches Museum, then Dr Otto Mayer, in summer 1986. Dr Mayer indicated his support.

And so events took their course: concepts were written on the topic of “research and technology in Germany after 1945”, costings were prepared, council decisions were obtained, and money was sought – and initially also found – at the highest level! In November 1991, North Rhine-Westphalia’s minister-president, Johannes Rau, wrote to the chairman of the board of the Stifterverbands that the state government had declared itself willing in principle to take on the investment costs for the conversion – in spite of budget constraints: “Because of the Stifterverband’s importance to North Rhine-Westphalia and also in order to set a course for the further development of Bonn, I have, however, pushed very hard for the project to also be supported by North Rhine-Westphalia.”

In short: the plans for the establishment of the museum only picked up speed again when the question of the capital of Germany had been clarified and science and culture had been declared the new model of structural change, alongside politics, future-oriented business and international collaboration. Nevertheless, the Stifterverband still had to appeal Bonn’s chief municipal director in May 1992: “The establishment of the museum of technology in the Wissenschaftszentrum is publicly seen as a test case for the seriousness of the effort to really develop Bonn into a city of science.” The appeal was apparently successful because all the issues were clarified and all the contracts with all the partners were concluded by November 1992: the Stifterverband took on the staff costs until the opening and provided the rooms rent-free for 10 years; the state of North Rhine-Westphalia took on the investment costs for the conversion; the Federal City of Bonn took on the operating costs for 7 years after the opening, and later also took on the rent and extended the term of the contract indefinitely.

25 years of the Deutsches Museum Bonn

Here is a bullet-point summary of how things have developed since then: three years of planning and conversion – opening on 3 November 1995 – thus the start of a successful operation, networking, acquisition of third-party funding – expansion of education and communication – numerous exhibitions of its own, in international partnerships (100 Years of the Nobel Prize with Smithsonian Washington) and in regional partnerships with Bonn scientists and Nobel Prize winners – EU projects with a robot as the museum guide, use of AR and VR – the first learning laboratory on nanotechnology in Germany in collaboration with the district government in Cologne and teachers at the beginning of 2000 – the “ExperimentierKüche”, a learning laboratory specifically for groups who are less likely to access education with the multiple award-winning laboratory certificate, supported by the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung – children’s and family area “SchlauSpielhaus” etc.

After this positive assessment, here are the negative headlines: due to the Federal City’s desolate budget situation after the equalisation funds ran out, Bonn’s city council decided on 7 May 2015 – infamously the birthday of Oskar von Miller – to cancel the subsidies for the Bonn branch and to terminate the contract with the Deutsches Museum. After this ‘bomb’, we will continue with the bullet points: great support from science and industry – great declarations of sympathy from the public, reinforced by the press – foundation of a support association – many round table discussions – with a concerted effort, re-acquisition of the support of the City of Bonn and other regional authorities and private sponsors such as the Stifterverband and the Dr Hans Riegel Foundation to take over 50% of the operating costs – 2017 short-term ‘rescue’ of the museum – for the medium- to long-term perspective: systematic work to win over the newly elected state government from 2017 – planning of a realignment to the topic of digitalisation: “Deutsches Museum Bonn, THE digital museum” – North-Rhine Westphalia Ministry of Economics interested.

Outlook for the future

After travelling back to our beginnings, we slowly but surely reach the present day. Even if “THE digital museum” is still a long way off, we were able to submit the project proposal to the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry of Economics at the end of 2019, which then became a birthday present in 2020. The object is: the “development of innovative forms of exhibition and communication on the subject of artificial intelligence”. Timeline: by 2022. We now have three years to become the central forum for AI in North Rhine-Westphalia and to redesign at least half of the museum. We are calling this: “Mission AI – a museum reinvents itself”! Here, the journey will hopefully be its own reward, specifically safeguarding the museum for the medium and long term and establishing the foundations for the future digital museum in North Rhine-Westphalia! We hope to achieve this ambitious goal before our 50th birthday ... fingers crossed!