Curator Helmut Keim

“In the beginning I was a Jack of all trades”

In its establishment phase, Helmut Keim, who gained his doctorate in Architecture, took on the management of Upper Bavaria’s first central open-air museum. Even though he was entirely self-taught in regard to museological matters, he managed to develop a museum which serves as an example for others.

Helmut Keim’s interest in architecture, modern sacral buildings and for so-called anonymous buildings in the countryside – especially alpine timber structures – was sparked in art class during high school. Born in Traunstein, Keim went to Munich to study Architecture at TUM and the longer he studied there, the more he is convinced that the preservation and maintenance of rural building culture is frequently more expedient than its demolition or reconstruction.

In the 1960s this seemingly nostalgic attitude was sneered at on numerous occasions. But through the years the awareness of public and politics also developed towards preserving historical cultural heritage. At that time, Helmut Keim had long since turned his interest, the study of alpine timber structures, into his dissertation at TUM. For eight years he remained at the Chair of Building Construction and Material Science for his doctorate and recalls: “Had I not been an assistant at TUM, I would not have got hooked on building and house research to such an extent and may not have gone in this direction”.

First architect then curator

A little less than three years later it is the founding director of the Open Air Museum Glentleiten who continued to push him into this direction when he advises him to apply for the management position. The recently established museum, which houses historical buildings from rural areas in Upper Bavaria and the corresponding ethnographic objects, is supposed to be further developed under the guidance of building and house researcher Helmut Keim. “I never would have thought that I had a chance”, Helmut Keim remembers, “but being self-employed with a wife and two kids, a secure position as a civil servant was well-timed”. Helmut Keim beat his competition and started as the new director of the museum in 1979. He quickly realized that his 60-hour-week barely left him any time for family. In regard to museological matters he was entirely self-taught, there were barely any models for successful infrastructure in Bavaria and most of all he lacked staff capable of providing expert support in correcting the numerous shortcomings, which resulted from the rapid start-up phase.

Without the time at TUM, I would not have got hooked on building and house research to such an extent.

During the first years Helmut Keim still did almost everything himself – “I was a Jack of all trades; acquiring the exhibits, their scientific study and professional assembly, through to designing the advertisements”. In the course of his directorate he managed to multiply the number of specialists at the museum by demanding the corresponding positions, such as documentation, restoration, museum education, and landscape ecology. In addition to that, Helmut Keim was able to set up a wide network of technical, official and sponsoring contacts, continuously consulted with other museums of cultural history and brought in long-standing and reliable partners. Not least due to the self-initiated team-work, undoubtedly complemented by his own expertise in building and house research, but also by his tenacity with regard to representing the museum’s interests and needs to authorities, Helmut Keim’s exemplary development work redeemed the serious shortcomings of the museum’s early days.

Collecting, researching, preserving, educating

Under his aegis, crucial structures of the open air museum have been improved or created in the first place – frequently they serve as a model and benchmark for other museums of cultural history: in the beginning Helmut Keim laboriously caught up on the documentation, research, preparation and inventory of the exhibits and raised the related standards. In doing so he furthermore refined the scientific methodology, improved the procedure of translocating buildings and solved fundamental conservation problems through new approaches. And lastly he broke new ground by introducing experimental presentation methods and modern audio-visual strategies of learning. These were received very well by audiences and in professional circles alike.

When reconstructing buildings, what always matters to Helmut Keim are originality and authenticity, truthfulness and accuracy, verifiability and transparency. “Historical accuracy was key for me – and not the contemporary taste.” He wanted to preserve historical testimonies on a high professional level and present them in a way that visitors may understand the documents of architectural and social history while, most importantly, having fun at the same time. Even though they contradicted the previously advised schedules  for costs and time, Helmut Keim was able to convince the museum’s bearers of his innovations on numerous occasions.

With satisfaction, yet humbly, Helmut Keim notes that as the biggest open-air museum of southern Bavaria The Glentleiten is among the leading museums of its kind in Europe. Based on visitor numbers it is one of the most successful museums in all of Bavaria. Since 2004 Helmut Keim is retired. “Even though I really enjoyed working there”, he says, “saying goodbye to the museum was very easy for me back then”. However, building and housing research has not entirely ceased to captivate him: as soon as he was retired he revisited the one hundred locations of the archaic earthfast silos and barns  in Tyrol recorded in his dissertation and amended the documentation by adding now possible age determinations. In 2011 he was finally able to publish his work. “This kept me rather busy”, Helmut Keim says in hindsight, “but if I hadn’t done it, possibly nobody would have done it and this type of rural peasant building culture simply would have vanished without anyone noticing.”