By Laura Kuen (Ecopolis senior curator)
“Ecopolis Munich” was the result of a unique collaboration. In two runs in 2016/17 and 2019, master’s students of the Rachel Carson Center’s Environmental Studies Certificate Program developed the project. This year saw 15 students, coming from 14 different disciplines (ranging from linguistics to veterinary medicine), curating the exhibition through interdisciplinary group work and in fruitful cooperation with professional exhibition designers and RCC teaching staff.
Over the course of six months, the students added six new topics to 2017’s first edition of Ecopolis. The seminar received LMU’s prize for innovative teaching—the Lehreinnovationspreis 2019, for its contribution to high quality and accessible higher-education teaching.
Working as both researchers and curators, the students set out in search of material. They collected personal stories, talked with experts, or simply watched and listened to the places and their inhabitants (not just the human ones). They made use of the method of participant observation and interviewing. Explaining their content with just short and comprehensible texts without losing complexity was a novel practice for many. But, most importantly, the exhibition opened up the possibility for the students to communicate urban environmental knowledge in much more diverse ways than through a classical written format. The students utilized a one-person cinema, audio stations, an actual water wheel, fresh clay, a lawn, and taste samples to convey their messages. Going beyond the familiar format of academic texts, they experimented with multimedia representations, engaged in interdisciplinary discussion, and created visions in topical groups. As a result, the exhibition richly portrays 12 different locations in Munich, providing a unique, surprising, and hopefully inspiring picture of the environmental history—present and future—of the Bavarian capital.
What happened to the cow Bavaria that once escaped from the slaughterhouse? How did the artificial reservoir in Ismaning, that made possible the electrification of half a million households in Munich at the beginning of the last century, unexpectedly become the largest molting area for waterfowl in Central Europe? Which circumstances led to the transformation of a former military garden (which initially served the self-sufficiency of Bavarian soldiers) into the English Garden—the first Volkspark in the world? And how did the democratic aspirations of post-war Germany inscribe themselves in the appearance of the Olympic Park?
The exhibition’s stories show that socio-cultural processes are reflected in Munich’s urban environment. At the same time, Munich’s environmental conditions have decisively determined how the city has developed. One just has to take a look at the ground: gravel and clay—geological testimonies to the expansion of the Alps—were central to the architectural development of Munich.
Ecopolis also shows that the relationship of Munich’s residents to their environment has changed in many ways over time. This becomes particularly clear if one examines the history of the city’s river, the Isar. In the past, the river was a useful barrier that forced traders to pay high bridge tolls and thus helped the city to achieve economic prosperity. The Isar was also a valuable transport route: until 1870, Europe’s largest raft harbor was located in Munich. Despite these economic benefits, the relationship with the Isar was also an unstable one. As much as the Isar was of use to the city, it also bore an acute danger from flooding, which was eventually counteracted by channeling the river. Today, the image of the Isar has changed radically. Formerly feared, it is now passionately loved in its renaturalized condition.
The exhibition’s stations can be viewed and explored independently and in any order. Additionally, a children’s station offers a range of stories about each location, which can be read by following the adventures of a bee. All topics share the feature of bringing larger environmental discourses to the table, making them comprehensible by connecting them to the (hi)stories of specific places.
“Ecopolis Munich” was displayed at the exhibition venue whiteBOX (www.whitebox.art) at Werksviertel Mitte, and was accompanied by several other events. The highlight during the exhibition phase was the “Ecopolis Night” (15 October 2019); with more than 200 guests, it featured official words from LMU’s president, Professor Bernd Huber, the Selbach Umweltpreis (a prize for environmental research), and the final project presentations of the Environmental Studies Certificate students.
As Ecopolis tells environmental stories about Munich, it logically addresses the city’s inhabitants themselves. Therefore, the exhibition was part of two citywide event series targeted at the people of Munich that reached a wide range of visitors with different backgrounds. Firstly, Ecopolis took part in the “Münchner Klimaherbst” (https://klimaherbst.de) that is dedicated to facilitate discussions about climate-friendly urban futures. This year’s motto focused on mobility and asked: What moves the city? Secondly, the exhibition participated in the “long night of Munich’s museums” (Lange Nacht der Münchner Museen) (https://www.muenchner.de/museumsnacht/) on 19 October 2019. Throughout the evening and into the night, students gave guided tours for visitors, who came in great numbers until the early hours of the morning.
There are things that will last beyond the nine days of the exhibition’s display at the whiteBOX: A catalog was published that gives insight into all 12 topics explored. Moreover, Ecopolis Munich: Environmental Stories of Discovery will also be made available as a virtual exhibition on the Environment and Society Portal, to join the digitalized version of the 2017 exhibition “Ecopolis München: Environmental Histories of a City.” Watch this space!