Museum Ludwig in Cologne with its roof designed to look like the waves of the Rhine. Illustration: Bente Schipp

Staying relevant

HIER UND JETZT geht das Museum Ludwig neue Wege und nimmt Fahrt auf in Richtung Morgen.

“Das Ludwig”, as the people of Cologne call their wave-roofed museum, is home to one of the most important art collections of the 20th century and the present. It includes Europe’s largest pop art collection, the world’s third largest Picasso collection, world-class photography and major works by artists from the Rhineland region, among them Gerhard Richter and Rosemarie Trockel. The collection is the heart of the museum’s work and the foundation of its curatorial practice. Having said that, where social and cultural discourse gain increasing momentum, new approaches are required in response to distorted perspectives in today’s world. For the people behind the exhibitions, that means exploring the collection from new angles and investigating the collection itself in order to identify blind spots.


The fact that the who’s who of the past 125 years of international art is represented in Cologne is thanks to donations from local art collectors. Josef Haubrich was the first, donating his collection of expressionist art in 1946. Thirty years later, Peter and Irene Ludwig entrusted large parts of their fine collection to the city of Cologne, starting with pop art and later their Picassos and key works by what was known as the Russian avant-garde. The result was one of the world’s top collections of art. In return, the city council created an exhibition space, the Museum Ludwig we know today. “It’s an incredibly valuable legacy,” says Museum Director Yilmaz Dziewior, “but it’s a challenge too because a contemporary museum shouldn’t stand still, it has to keep moving. And that requires a will to change and take risks.”

While the eighth exhibition in the HERE AND NOW series, in 2022, explored “Anticolonial interventions” and the extent to which mod­er­nist artist­s (­most of whom are Eu­ro­pean) re­pro­duce the ex­oti­cis­ing view of the glob­al south, 2023’s ninth edition focused on “Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930”. The curators scrutinised museums’ work in the context of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and showed that an established term used to describe a specific period of art history was incorrect. The period in question was that of the “Russian avant-garde” between 1905 and 1934, in which artists such as Alexan­dra Ex­ter, Vladimir Burliuk and Va­syl Yer­milov played a key role. However, they were from Ukraine, not Russia.

Here and now

When Yilmaz Dziewior took up his post as director in 2015, he realised he had to open the museum up “beyond the narrow boundaries of Europe” in order for it to continue playing a relevant part in debate regarding contemporary art. One of the ways this has been achieved is the HERE AND NOW series, launched by Dziewior in 2016, which challenges the format of conventional museum exhibitions.

Yilmaz Dziewior: The director of Cologne’s Museum Ludwig has ensured that the museum reflects on the social and historical contexts in which the works displayed were created. Photo: Albrecht Fuchs

The tenth HERE AND NOW exhibition, which will run from 9 March 2024 to 13 October, examines the concept of time. It brings together contemporary and historic art, geology, dendrology, archaeology and landscape architecture. It will also be the museum’s first climate-neutral exhibition.


Museums were talking about the climate long before activists started throwing pea soup and mashed potato at works of art. “Museums are sort of the cruise ships of the culture sector,” says Miriam Szwast, who’s been Museum Ludwig’s curator for photography since 2013 and for ecology since 2021. “The change in our approach is also due to issues to do with international art transport and air conditioning.” In addition, museums are under huge pressure to deliver success. “There’s one exhibition after the next,” says Szwast. “The aim is to increase visitor numbers and press coverage. But do we take the time to think about fundamental aspects?”

In 2021, Szwast founded a sustainability team. The first visible outcomes of their work were the green roof, new bike racks and LED lighting. Their electricity has been environmentally friendly since 2021. The tenth HERE AND NOW is the dress rehearsal for the museum’s move to sustainable exhibitions with the aim being to be completely climate-neutral by 2035.

Miriam Szwast, curator for ecology at Museum Ludwig, 9 September 2022, Cologne


Just as the environmental footprint has to be taken into account when planning exhibitions, the museum’s collection brings a responsibility with it. The social and historical contexts in which the works were created have to be analysed time and again. In 2018, Yilmaz Dziewior had Museum Ludwig’s American works reassessed. The result was that the majority of the art was by white, heterosexual men. The viewpoints of women, the LGBTQIA+ community and black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOCs) played more of a peripheral role.

This result was at the heart of the 2020 “Mapping the Collection” exhibition, which sought to expose the collection’s flaws. “The point is not to exclude people, it’s to include everyone. Especially people whose stories, voices and perspectives haven’t been heard much in the past,” explains Dziewior. That’s why the museum now runs tours in Turkish and Kurdish. According to Dzeiwior, “Diversity has many faces so we’ll keep on having to break new ground. It’s a challenge we have to tackle.”

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