Operating wherever the work is. Creative Museum interview with Tim Ventimiglia, Ralph Appelbaum Associates

On the occasion of the award ceremony of the National Design Award of Latvia 2018 in the emerging art centre ZUZEUM, Creative Museum talked to Tim Ventimiglia – chair of the judging panel and director of Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) Berlin. 

Apart from general interest to catch up with a representative of one of the world’s leading practices specializing in museum planning and exhibition design, it is specifically the projects RAA is working on in our part of the world that we wanted to know more about. Notably, Tim is currently leading the development of one of Europe’s most prestigious museum projects: the 20.000 square meter exhibition of non-European cultures for Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum.

The design thinking is alive and well in Latvia, Tim stated in the award ceremony. Upon initiative of the Ministry of Culture, the National Design Award has gone from strength to strength and serves as a catalyst for creativity. More quality design products and services resulting from cooperation between museums and creative industries is something we would very much look forward in the next Design Award editions. For this to happen, museums need to become more business orientated, says Tim. Not in a sense of making money but of having clear goals and professional teams of people who can accomplish them.

Drawing on a long career of museum development and planning, his rather pointed observation that a little more liberalising and little more independence would benefit museums in continental Europe, is an advise worth taking seriously in the wake of the governance reform of the public sector in Latvia.


Raivis Sīmansons: I suggest we talk first about the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which is termed ‘the largest museological act’ in Europe right now, and then perhaps focus down to what you’ve seen here in Riga last few days. Now the Humbolt Forum. We understand that you won a tender for designing it. Could you tell us where are you now in the project development?

Tim Ventimiglia: That’s a good question. We won a tender six years ago, in 2012, that was two years long competition. Just getting the job was big, tedious process. Four stages of submissions and interviews. We won and one of their requirements of winning was that we would set up an office in Germany, in Berlin. And so I came from New York to create this office of Appelbaum in Berlin and for us it served as a platform to look into another business opportunities – larger museum market. 

RS: Because it is growing right now in Europe.

TV: It is growing and I think that we are particularly interested in Eastern Europe and the countries which increasingly invest in culture as part of their heritage resource and, you know, bringing foreign visitors in. Hungary for instance is developing five museums on their main square [Budapest’s City Park – ed.]. There are projects in every country. 

So Berlin is a great location for that and there is also very great talent in Berlin – young creative people from all over Europe. We want to be an international design practice and operating wherever the work is. I just finished what some call Mini Humboldt Forum. It is not mini. It’s big project – Welt Museum Vienna. It is not on our website yet. It is state ethnologic museum, federal collections in a palace, in this case in existing one – Habsburg palace on Heldenplatz. It was a reinvention of what an ethnologic museum is and how it uses its historic collections and how it brings back the stories of objects, their provenance, topics of colonialism.

RS: And in a way it is rather similar one to Berlin because it also deals with collections from all across the world.

TV: All of the world and what’s interesting is that the Austrians decided very early to tell the stories of the objects – why are they in Vienna, how did they arrive there and to collaborate also with people from source communities, so from Africa, South America.

RS: To mitigate the unresolved issues with restitution and repatriation?

TV: Perhaps as a way to open a dialogue. And in doing so they have been revealing the history of Austria which little people knew as a global network of trade and arts and culture. Going way back to Franz Ferdinand himself when he went on his cavaliers’ tour – aristocrats’ world tour over ten months collecting 14 000 artefacts from India and Japan, Wyoming. The museum is telling personal stories, it is not just about objects, but the people behind them and about cultures who made them, about giving them voice. And interestingly the director of the museum, is Dutch and not Austrian, it is trend also in Berlin…

RS: Where the director is British!

TV: Where director is British. It is very interesting trend in Europe. It is cross-pollination at the director level between museums. Lots of Germans were in London, you know, Martin Roth…  

RS: Since you’ve mentioned Martin Roth, perhaps we should go back to Berlin and talk a little bit more about Humboldt Forum and this brave idea to create a new world museum in Berlin which is again emulating world metropolises as London or Paris like in the old days when Schinkel built the Museum Island. The late Martin Roth was very critical about this new museum saying that nobody has asked for such a museum to be built. I think what he meant was that back in the late 1980s when Berlin was chosen as a new capital of united German nation, there was this Historikerstreit – dispute of historians from which these two large German historical museums – the Deutsches Historisches Museum and the House der Geschichte in Bonn – emerged. Now having moved from New York to Berlin, do you sense that there is a public demand for place like this?

TV: Well, the project is very political. It was the decision of the Bundestag which represents the people of Germany through representatives in a parliament. But from my view much of the discussion is focused on architecture and not on content of the project. And still the project struggles to communicate with the community. Let’s say in Berlin it is particularly well debated, but in the rest of Germany seems to have more support. And I think that more work needs to been done in public interfaces. It strikes me that in US or Britain projects are publicly funded through lotteries or federal foundation or sponsors, but there there is also actually more accountability for the success of the project and for the purpose of the project because they are more business oriented. We often ask early, what is an appropriate measure of success? What would you consider to be a success for the project? I think for Germany right now it seems to be "on time, on budget", as said all the time. But the content is rarely discussed.  What it should do for the society in a whole? That is more interesting topic, actually.

RS: Would you put it like this that Berlin is right now outsourcing work for the guys like you and curators from elsewhere so that they could bring up the levels of public service in this area just like it is, for example, in London?

TV: I don’t know if it’s outsourcing. There are plenty of talented exhibition designers in Berlin, probably just not at a scale of this project.

RS: Yes, but then you are building this museum.

TV: Yes, we won a competition and I think that there is experience level in our firm for creating longer lasting installations. Our focus is entirely on museums and more on permanent installations instead of changing exhibitions. That was priority at least back then but it is changing now. I think there is a desire to create a new model for Humboldt Forum that would be always changing. They actually eliminated whole galleries that were fully planned with curators for many years in order to create more changing exhibition space.

RS: A semi-permanent space?

TV: A kind of semi-permanent and frequently changing. And what you going to have in the end is a kind of mixed model where some galleries will be changing every few months or at least once a year. So there is a kind of a hybrid model in a Humboldt Forum. Also we are not characterizing it as a museum because a whole thing is much more than a museum. It is much more about programming, about film festivals, symposia, about guests coming and speaking, fashion shows, about life of the city which should take advantage of this new institution. 

RS: And nevertheless it has this universal museum idea at its philosophical heart. 

TV: MacGregor came with the goal of connecting all the other institutions and its a noble goal rather than planning project in isolation with the collections of two institutions. Why not a look across the spectrum of collections that are available in Berlin and integrate those? Unfortunately much of the planning was done by the time he came. I love his ideas, I find them potentially very strategically smart but…

RS: Perhaps you could elaborate a little bit more on your mandate in this project, what are you doing exactly and how long you are staying?

TV: We have kind of stage contract which is typical for government contracts. Its like an architect contract where hiring is by phase and last phase where we had a significant role is the tender documents which are already out, I mean parts of the project is already tendered and being built right now by contractors. Other packages are still being put on the market. It's a big process. But we are not doing construction administration and I am actually very happy about that because I think German firm should do this. 

RS: You do a follow-up once its open?

TV: Yes. We do artistic supervision, we are responsible for making sure the quality is there and checking and managing contractors. 

Ineta Zelča Sīmansone: Then minutes prior the Latvian Design Award ceremony starts where you are chair of judging panel, how you would rate if there are less and more prestigious awards and prizes? Are all awards – architectural, design, museum – equal? Checking your website I found architecture and design awards mentioned but not the European Museum of the Year Award Kenneth Hudson prize which was awarded to Boris Jeltsin museum in 2017 [Designed by RAA – ed.]. 

TV: Probably our website isn’t up to date. 

RS: We were just wondering if there is any hierarchy of prizes? Which one you would value the most?

TV: I don’t know. I think recognition in general is important. But it is surprising sometime that a small innovative project wins more prizes than a big, fancy project with the big budget. My project in Oslo for the National Technical Museum has won more prizes than any other project. And this was just temporary exhibition but a very innovative one. I was curious about this National Design Prize here [in Riga – ed.] because in this competition there were no architects and I understand that there are separate architecture award and it’s a parallel one.

IZS: Curiously, in this shortlist of 20 you can’t find museum projects either, with an exception a book inspired by Žanis Lipke Memorial and the two exhibition projects at the Latvian National Library. 

TV: I think there were a few museum related projects.

IZS: But not among 20 shortlisted...

TV: 3 out of 20! I think there are two levels of consideration. One is criteria which we were given by the organizers. I was little bit critical about the fact that there are no categories at the beginning . But then I understood that this gives opportunity in what I call a nascent market of designers where boundaries between disciplines and markets maybe aren’t well defined and it is a good thing. There is a potential to define disciplines here differently perhaps than in other places. That should be left open. But there is also agenda with the national design prize, so to speak, to Latvia on whole and to the world what is really emerging here as strengths in design practice and what is Latvia potentially offering. And I am not saying these prizes define that but they are indicators. And they are indicators not only for young designers but also for potential clients and investors who could be thinking about investing and other powerful things, perhaps even more powerful than prize money. 

RS: Do you see that any of the products you judged these days has a potential to win a market beyond local?

TV: Absolutely. Some of the projects we selected specifically of their economic potential and some of them are already on a market. That is interesting aspect that there are a huge range from student projects to projects by institutions, government  clients, projects by industry, well established industrial businesses. There was diversity.

RS: I should ask you a question related to your plans in this region because it is so much on the margins of the European Union. Your closest office to us is in Moscow, right?

TV: I would say Berlin. 

RS: But you are present in Moscow too?

TV: We are. But there isn't a lot of currently active business in Russia. Politic is changed. More privite initiatives. For example Jewish museum with private money. 

RS: Are you here to stay? I mean in these regions.

TV: I very much like Europe. I think there is lot of potential for growth and change. I see a lot of classic old institutions that need to find their relevance and ways of addressing a public, serving their audiences. All grown up projects like Humboldt Forum is one way, but also, you know, working with existing museums, developing exhibitions or programming. I don’t make any claims about where we are working. I am just now learning about Baltics. Since two years I have been coming here to visit friends and bring here my family for winter holidays because Berlin didn’t have enough snow and wanted my son to see real snow. I am kind of learning because for lot of Americans Baltic is one big block, but these are three very distinct different countries with different traditions and history.

RS: It’s good to hear American is distinguishing between Baltics and Balkans…

TV: I know. Baltic region is rich with potential and design thinking. I don’t necessarily see projects for us right now but I am just curious. 

RS: Humboldt Forum is about to be open at the end of next year.

TV: There should be a partial opening. One of difficulties we have is that our contract is not with museum which would be normal moral partner and we would understand each other. Instead it is with a federal office for construction and its with foundation which was created for the project. They interest may be not the same as the museums'. They have different agendas. 

RS: But nevertheless there is a board of trustees which is composed of museum people and politicians alike.

TV: Yes, of course.

IZS: As you are coming from design studio, I would like to ask question about museums and creative industries. What are the main benefits for working together? And why it is so hard for museum sector to see the benefits from working with creative industries?

TV: I think US and British museums are more business orientated. But they are mostly also free. But in this case business oriented is not about making money, it is about having goals, targets, audiences whom to address, teams in which they want to work. They have boards of trustees, which take care about money and museum operations, isn’t tied to political cycles and budgeting from a federal financial office which has twelve other agendas to balance with the annual budgeting. It is unfair for culture, I think, to be tied to these cycles.

RS: What you mean is a little bit more of liberalising the system?

TV: A little more liberalising and little more independence. MacGregor is advocating in Germany for no admission for Humboldt Forum. Germans cannot imagine how would you finance your institution without an admission fee. 

The dependences that I see on political cycles and political budgeting aren’t good for museums. Think about it – museum projects also take a long time and they require a significant capital if we are talking about producing all exhibition for the major state museum – it’s many millions and it’s many years and the cycles of government are faster and priorities change. In these terms alone it is argument to create a kind of independence towards liberalisation. I don’t mean privatisation. 

RS: Closing this interview, I guess, we could all agree that bringing new people from elsewhere to museum sector is beneficial to everyone.

TV: At least we can bring a new ideas and stimulate new or alternative thinking. 


Creative Museum wants to thank the organisers of the National Design Award of Latvia, design studio H2E, and Trentini design gallery for helping in arranging this interview.

Raivis Sīmansons

Muzeologs, PhD

Ineta Zelča Sīmansone

Muzeoloģe, projektu vadītāja un konsultante | Museologist