The Stapferhaus is devoted to the present. It puts controversial topics up for discussion and invites everyone to discover new perspectives and to enter into dialogue with each other. To achieve this, the team involves their voices and lets them have their say in interactive, scenographically compelling exhibitions. The visitors aren’t mere "spectators", but active participants.
The Stapferhaus was founded in 1960. It was named after Philipp Albert Stapfer, who was the Helvetic Republic’s minister of education more than 200 years ago. The foundation’s purpose was not to be a museum, but a space intended for dialogue and intellectual debate. Headquartered at Lenzburg Castle, it hosted early forms of "roundtables" that brought together people with very different opinions. In the 1990s, it then went in search of new formats with the aim of including a larger and more diverse audience in its dialogue. The resulting exhibition format has turned out to be a great success. Exhibitions that can integrate different levels of reading and thus appeal to a wide range of target audiences with a varying need for depth. They are places of social encounter, and they are sensory spaces that transform knowledge into something tangible. They can put history and the present to use, they can tell stories and involve the audience. Exhibitions are true "all-rounders". The Stapferhaus team collaborates with a large network from all branches of the arts and creative industries – sound and image, film and theatre, text and illustration, digital and analogue – with experts from the most diverse scientific fields and always also includes the general population. The Stapferhaus orchestrates with a firm hand, with the conviction that making exhibitions is an art and that the Stapferhaus bears a responsibility for its goal to be reached: namely, that contemporary, controversial topics can be constructively negotiated – without the need for polarised debates.
The Stapferhaus has accomplished this feat over the last twenty years, even though its headquarters had no space for exhibitions and they were instead set up in various temporary-use spaces including for a long time the town’s old armoury building. This came with numerous disadvantages: lack of infrastructure, lack of sustainability and limited accessibility. But it also had its advantage: before the building was demolished it placed itself entirely at the service of the exhibitions – and not the other way around. This point of departure was without a doubt, part of the recipe for success. And it was the resounding success with the public that convinced politicians and donors to join forces to fulfil the Stapferhaus' dream of having its own home. In the architectural process, the Stapferhaus was inspired by the former place: it was not to be a classic "museum building", but a flexible construction that would accommodate its purpose, a kind of stage for the Stapferhaus' contemporary exhibitions and diverse events. And so, a pioneering museum building was opened at the end of 2018. 1400 m² built entirely of wood and designed for change: Nails can be hammered directly into walls and floors, stairs and walls can be moved, entrances relocated. The building is accessible to all, built to Minergie standards and is located right next to the railway station.
For its inaugural exhibition the Stapferhaus set the theme FAKE and transformed the whole building into an "Office for the Whole Truth". The visitors were invited to determine truths and unearth lies, to size up the function of facts and the significance of credibility and trust in society. The visitor’s lies were collected and in turn asked which lies they considered to be tolerable white lies and what untruths they considered unforgivable. What resulted is not only an enticing database of lies, but also a series of revealing statistics about our relationship to lies and the truth. Despite coinciding with the first Coronavirus lockdown, the exhibition closed its doors following a resounding success with more than 100’000 visitors. The "Office for the Whole Truth" continues to operate online, on the Stapferhaus’ website, as a workshop programme for school classes and will likely be presented in 2022 at the Hygiene Museum in Dresden.
In the summer of 2020, the Stapferhaus was completely transformed: it now opens its doors to young and old, women and men and everyone in between and beyond to explore the exhibition GENDER SEX: colourful and vibrant, poetic and playful and thereby far removed from classic binary gender battles. The exhibition moderators are called upon: they guide classes through the exhibition that could not differ more in their views on GENDER SEX. The team opens a dialogue between queer students and pupils with homophobic viewpoints, between "old white men" and young trans people. How can a dialogue be fruitful across these different levels? How can understanding be inspired? The Stapferhaus aims to address these difficult questions openly, yet with a firm attitude, seriously, yet without losing its lightness, and with a wide variety of mediation formats that complement and deepen the exhibition and transport it beyond the walls of the Stapferhaus to the people.
Participating at the EMYA2020 was an exciting challenge: the Stapferhaus had to present itself as a museum with an "immaterial collection" and as an exhibition space dedicated to the present and not to the past. As a space that prides itself on involving the public and letting them have their say – because the present and the future are all of us – and not exclusively the experts. Nobody expected to win the prize. All the greater was the delight at actually winning the unexpected award. Especially because the jury's laudation seemed to perfectly put the institution’s goal into words: “The main award for 2020 goes to a museum which asks difficult questions, explores big ideas, and fosters a culture of debate. They choose themes based not on a collection but on rigorous research about what is important to their community, themes which most museums would not dream of addressing. Through its innovative, creative, and future-oriented approach, it offers a model for the museum as laboratory for the art of living – as all museums should be.”
When the Stapferhaus was founded, its purpose was set in stone – to operate as a place for dialogue and debate. The way in which this was to be achieved was deliberately left open. The institution's mission statement says: "the design of its purpose is to be worked out from experience". In this way, the Stapferhaus always had and still has its goal, its mission, in mind and remains flexible in the method of how this is to be achieved. This has allowed the Stapferhaus to transform itself from a place for dialogue to a museum devoted to the present, without ever losing sight of its goal. Clear objectives and fluctuating formats are the components of the Stapferhaus’ DNA. And they most likely are the institution's secret to success – and which led them to win the EMYA2020 award.
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