The Constance museum presents treasures from past ages – but not as dry, lifeless exhibits in display cases. Instead, they are embedded in scenographies that tell stories and make them more accessible to the public. Simon Nessler is in charge of designing the exhibitions. In 2022, a special exhibition entitled Magical Land was awarded a FOCUS Silver – reason enough for us to ask him how he goes about his work at the Baden-Württemberg State Archaeological Museum in Constance (or the ALM for short).

Impressions of the Magical Land exhibition, which won a FOCUS Silver in 2022
Archaeology isn’t exactly a subject that excites the masses. Does that mean archaeological exhibitions call for special concepts?
SIMON NESSLER: For the general public, archaeology is surrounded by an aura of adventure, mystery, pomp and glory. But that only reflects what archaeology can stand for to a limited extent. For me, there are certain aspects to it that are very closely connected with our own reality because, at the end of the day, it deals with the relics of the past flow of human life. At the same time it’s really intriguing that, to begin with, this doesn’t take place on a hidden, metaphysical level but on the basis of physical finds. It’s only engaging with the exhibits that gives rise to observations and assumptions that then shape our knowledge and stories. In my view, that’s an incredibly poetic process. That’s why I see no problem at all in using the special core and strengths of archaeology to create exhibition designs and develop space concepts that help the exhibits tell their stories.
So you give narratives from the past a framework in which they can express themselves?
SIMON NESSLER: A modern society needs more than a forward-looking outlook in order to develop and evolve: looking to the past helps us find new ways forward as well, because it allows us to see things in relation to one another, to re-evaluate and classify them. I perceive that as one of the major motivating factors for my curator colleagues. They don’t just want to narrate the past, they want to enable us to weigh it up – they want us to see ourselves in relation to the past and use that to learn something about our present.
Are there any specific challenges associated with that process?
SIMON NESSLER: As in any field of science, there’s no 100% certain description of the past in archaeology either. That means we can only ever exhibit the current state of knowledge, so at the end of the day many assertions remain hypothetical. However, if you want to convey that, it’s essential not to visualise things in a way that’s too fixed, too definite and too defined. Our design needs to be able to meander between several states – on the one hand it’s fine for it to be clear and adopt a position, but on the other hand it also has to be fluid and not totally concrete.

That’s why we add some highly intriguing and artistic gestures to the “end products”. That’s a wonderful task, especially for a designer. To be honest I feel a bit like a sculptor who stages the space in such a way that his design fuels the vibrant stories that flow out of the archaeological exhibits. At the points where things risk becoming too concrete, you can use the design to create an underlying whisper. Archaeology is mystical, densely charged with content, close to our own lives, majestic and impressive. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to give it a face with the exhibitions I develop. It really is a great job!
Do you aim to appeal to certain target groups or to a more mixed audience?
SIMON NESSLER: The wide range of channels you can use to draw attention to narratives derived from the archaeology means you can tailor them to virtually any target group. Our projects aim to appeal to as diverse a target group as possible.
What role do scenographies and multimedia play in your exhibitions? How much multimedia or immersion is compatible with archaeology?
SIMON NESSLER: Let me tell you a bit about the exhibition philosophy that I’ve developed for our museum. For us the way we stage an exhibition, or the design in general, is on an equal footing with the exhibits and just as valuable. Our exhibitions are always produced with that in mind. Rather than fighting for dominance, the two poles are interwoven. The design helps the exhibits: a lot of them have fascinating stories to tell, but sometimes struggle to reveal those stories at first glance. In the past, you just put the exhibit in a display case and it had to rely on the accompanying text, a guided tour or just being looked at to communicate its magic. Happily, those days are as good as over.

Obviously there are exhibits that are so powerful that they make an impact without having to rely on any additional means. But there are many others whose charisma only makes itself felt when they’re staged within an appropriate scenography. When an archaeologist looks at an object, hundreds of drawers open up in their mind, full of connections, references and stories. Our exhibitions try to make this hidden knowledge and all its nuances come alive for our “normal” visitors too. As a designer, it’s my job to activate and draw attention to that hidden knowledge – the level behind the exhibit – and give it material form. You can do that by staging scenographies or using media installations.

Immersion is a key, a way to connect people with the themes of our exhibitions. But on the whole, it’s the combination of all the different design measures and the exhibits that produces a rhythm and creates suspense and momentum. Exhibitions at the ALM are meant to be an experience, and we hope that’s what we achieve.

Impressions of the Magical Land exhibition, which won a FOCUS Silver in 2022
How important are big special exhibitions like Magical Land for your museum?
SIMON NESSLER: They’re hugely important. For me, those formats are like big festivals where we get to celebrate our collections. There are so many facets that you can’t communicate in permanent exhibitions because you don’t have enough space and there’s no special focus.

Special exhibitions are particularly suitable for presenting interesting aspects on a big stage.

At the same time, these exhibitions are a way for us to give something back to our visitors and society. We’re a state institution, and as such we see it as a fundamental mission to create the best possible offering with the means available to us. And that’s what we managed to do with Magical Land; reading through the comments in the visitors’ book, there were so many touching moments when you realised the gratitude people felt for the experience they’d had at the exhibition. We were very moved: we’d put so much passion into the details when we were developing Magical Land and it was great to see that it didn’t go unnoticed. That was the biggest thank-you we could have asked for.
When does the conceptualisation for special exhibitions start and at what point do you get involved as a designer?
SIMON NESSLER: As a rule there’s a four-year cycle for big state exhibitions, big special exhibitions are developed over a period of one to three years. As the design and digital curator I’m part of the project right from the start, that definitely sets the ALM apart. We develop the exhibitions together, so generally speaking every project is jointly headed by content curators and me as the artistic curator.

In my day-to-day work I’m responsible for the creative supervision of all our projects. It’s my job to make sure that our basic creative philosophy is complied with and implemented everywhere. That sometimes results in a mix of roles; in a lot of projects I’m on board as developer; in others I’m an idea-giver. Because every project has its own dynamic and framework, and you have to respond to that in different ways.

In my day-to-day curatorial work on a project, it’s part of my philosophy to take part in meetings about the exhibits and content That way, I find out why my colleagues consider certain exhibits particularly important. It’s in these early stages that I start my work as a designer, even if there isn’t an outline for the scenography yet. My presence helps with the selection of the exhibits too, because I’m able to keep calling the final format to mind.

The series of photos illustrates the creative development of Enchanted Places, the first main section of the Magical Land exhibition. They show three stages of the development process – from drawing to rendering to the actual exhibition.
How important is it for a museum to have an internal exhibition designer?
SIMON NESSLER: There’s a common narrative that designers and scientists don’t get along with each other and that when it comes to deciding what should be exhibited and communicated, and how, the negotiation process ends up being extremely difficult. I can’t confirm that at all; in my opinion, it’s a systemic problem. Most museums don’t have internal designers and bring in somebody from the outside for their projects – so the scientists end up heading developments that they’re not trained for. As a result, it often ends up being their personal taste that sets the benchmark, and that’s what causes the friction associated with a lot of projects.

Simon Nessler, Exhibition Design and Digital Management, Baden-Württemberg State Archaeological Museum

I see myself as a translator. In my opinion, day-to-day collaboration on a collegial basis is essential if you want to achieve this visual transfer without losses and to the satisfaction of everybody involved. At the ALM, we work on the development of our projects together every day; the curators take part in the creative workshops and I join the content-related workshops. As a result, I’m not “the designer” or some kind of “alien from the outside” – I’m a member of the team. My colleagues can relate to my motives and learn to take them into consideration. And the reverse is also true: it enables me to empathise with their motives and the way they work as well.

That simplifies my colleagues’ work in the digital sphere too; at the end of the day it’s pretty arrogant to expect scientists to take sole responsibility for the development of interactive media stations. Similarly to the development of scenographies, interaction design is a study programme in its own right and it pays to have studied it so that you can plan it from both the technical and the interactive side. In my opinion, media stations should always go beyond the level of a clickable “glossary”. Who needs a clickable Wikipedia in exhibitions? It’s much more convenient to do that on the couch at home. Media stations in exhibitions have to generate added value and that’s exactly what they accomplish when they succeed in creating key experiences in an intuitive way. In the case of Magical Land, for instance, we made highly detailed 3D models explorable. All of a sudden, visitors were able to touch exhibits and activate information embedded in their surfaces. Media stations like that generate a very special kind of relevance because they permit the kind of interactions that can’t be experienced otherwise.

Top: A scribble of the Gundestrup Cauldron. Bottom: The final screen of the application as featured in the Magical Land exhibition.
What will the ALM’s next special exhibition look like?
SIMON NESSLER: Our current special exhibition is called Gladiators – Heroes of the Colosseum and runs until the autumn. The next large-scale project is scheduled for 2024 when Stuttgart’s Kunstgebäude reopens following a lengthy refurbishment. The first event will be a major state exhibition on archaeology, which the ALM will stage in collaboration with the Baden-Württemberg Office of Heritage Conservation. The exhibition explores our state in the first millennium; we generally only have very vague ideas about what people’s lives were like in that period and we aim to create first-rate scenographies that will bring it to life and shed more light on it.

The series of photos shows impressions of the current special exhibition at Baden-Württemberg State Archaeological Museum: Gladiators – Heroes of the Colosseum.
Last year the Magical Land concept won a FOCUS Silver – what does the award mean for the ALM?
SIMON NESSLER: It meant a lot to us because it’s a strong signal that we’re on the right track. It’s great to see that an independent jury of experts recognised our concept’s qualities. That encourages us to give our all for future formats as well – and perhaps it will motivate a sponsor or two to support our project development work. Because one thing is certain: good exhibitions cost a lot of money.

The ALM’s special exhibition Gladiators – Heroes of the Colosseum runs until 8 October 2023. In collaboration with public broadcaster ZDF, its Terra X brand and virtual production specialist Faber Courtial, the museum developed a 360-degree panorama that reconstructs the Colosseum in ancient Rome, giving visitors the unique opportunity to move around the arena “live”. The Castle Stories exhibition featuring Playmobil figures is also currently on show and runs until 10 September 2023.

Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg
Benediktinerplatz 5
78467 Konstanz