Museums as Social Learning Spaces: Denmark
‘Inclusion and Interdisciplinarity’ at Social Learning Space & Knowledge Producing Processes: the Danish Museums & Galleries User Survey (May 2013)
As part of a group of four international experts, I participated in a week-long tour of Danish Museums which culminated in a two-day conference at the contemporary art museum Arken (13-15 May 2013). Organised by the Danish Government’s Kulturstyrelsen, both the tour and the conference were intended to stimulate practices leading to deeper connections between museums and their visitors, and between the visitors themselves. The other members of the expert group were Lynn Dierking, John Falk, and Amareswar Galla.
My contribution to the conference concerned the direct relationship between innovative museum practice and the quality, quantity and kind of visitors that frequent a museum. I proposed that a robust interdisciplinary process of thinking and working – across museum departments and with outside colleagues – can produce projects that inherently engage new audiences, and engage return audiences at a deeper level than ever before. This is certainly an approach that I have deployed to good effect in my own work – not least in a Danish museum, the Medical Museion of the University of Copenhagen.
Each of us four keynote speakers had been paired with a Danish museum: my ‘twin’ for the conference was Naturama, a relatively new and successful visitor attraction that has been built up from an historically significant collection of Danish natural history specimens – The Svendborg Zoologiske Museum.
I was able to bring together knowledge garnered while I was working at the Natural History Museum (London) and research being effected in animal studies arenas, alongside groundbreaking exhibition projects by artists such as Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson and others, in order to propose some concrete ways in which Naturama – and indeed other natural history museums – can work with their collections to think differently and anew about both nature and visitors.
The Kulturstyrelsen (Danish Agency for Culture) has uploaded to their YouTube channel the video documents made of this and the other presentations at the conference, and it makes really informative viewing. The shift from a focus on project to a focus on process is an important one, and I was impressed by the range and number of delegates to the conference. Over 200 museum professionals attended, and participated in four short workshops devised by the speakers with a view to developing practical tools and strategies to galvanise the their spaces, collections, colleagues and websites into dynamic nodes of social exchange and knowledge production.
The attendees represent the 200 museums and galleries in Denmark that participate every year in the production of a User Survey. Museum visitor surveys and evaluation practices have become ubiquitous, but the design of the questions and the use of the data is rarely as interesting as in the 2012 Danish Kulturstyrelsen Survey and conference. This past year, the survey included a series of questions designed by lifelong learning specialist John Falk (also one of the expert group for the tour and conference) to explore learning styles and visitor motivations far beyond number-and-type demographics.
The outcome is a revelation. Far from the market segmentation of the usual visitor survey, Falk’s approach gives a sense of continuity between visitors and non-visitors, why and how, thoughts and feelings, meeting place and head-space. Outlined in the User Survey publication – which also includes a more traditional, 20th century-style overview of the visitor to Danish Museums – Falk’s approach offers a dynamic set of working propositions for fostering great partnerships between museums and people.
The publication also includes an inspiring introduction by Ida Brændholt Lundgaard, the Kulturstyrelsen’s Senior Adviser for Museums, and her assistant Jacob Thorek Jensen. Danes are not afraid of philosophy, and the introduction is refreshingly coherent in relation to the phenomenological aspects of the museum experience as well as a careful analysis of visitor metrics. It was Ida and Jacob who also organised our tour of Danish museums which preceded the conference.
Over a number of days, they took me, Lynn, John and Amar to see the following museums and meet with their directors and staff to discuss learning partnerships in museum contexts.
- Kunsten, Museum of Modern Art (Aalborg)
- Skagen Museum (Skagen)
- Michael and Anna Anchers House (Skagen)
- Museum Jorn (Silkeborg)
- Den Gamle By Open Air Museum (Aarhus)
- Royal Jelling Monument (Jelling)
- Naturama (Svendborg)
- Roskilde Cathedral Heritage Site (Roskilde)
- Viking Ship Museum (Roskilde)
- Copenhagen City Museum (Copenhagen)
Along the way, we walked in heritage landscapes such as Grenen Strand and the palisades built by Harald Bluetooth in the 900s. We also saw ports and countryside, agricultural histories and seafaring, fishing histories carved into the coast and the loam. This too is highly significant cultural heritage and the interplay with museum and gallery presentation is both subtle and deep. What the trip from Skagen to Svendborg and across to Copenhagen meant was that by the time the ‘expert group’ stood at the podium to present our papers at the conference, we had a much more deeply nuanced sense of the integrity of Danish cultural life and museum practice than would have been imagined even a week before.*
I hope that our visit, so beautifully hosted by the Danish Cultural Agency and the generous museums we visited, has returned this hospitality with useful and inspiring thoughts. Museums and their collections of all kinds have extraordinary potential to radically improve well-being, social cohesion, levels of common knowledge, skills for life, and the capacity for reflection.
My lecture has been videocast by the Danish Kulturstyrelsen on their YouTube Channel. The entire conference can be accessed through the Kulturstyrelsen Museums Department website.
Further Links: Danish Kulturstyrelsen Museums Development Department; Naturama; Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson; Amareswar Galla and the Inclusive Museum; John Falk; Lynn Dierking
[Image References: Conference Plenary at Arken in May 2013; Thomas Block Ravn speaking to the visiting expert group at the open air museum Den Gamle By, of which he is the Director; panorama of the land-based animal specimens on display at Naturama; the reconstruction of Brøndum’s dining room at the Skagen Museum]
* Over my years of visiting and working in Denmark, I had already attended a raft of other extraordinary museums: Silkeborg Museum and Tollund Man; Moesgaard Museum and Graubelle Man; Brandts Building including the Media Museum; Danish National Museum Copenhagen; Museum of the Danish Resistance; Lyngby Open Air Museum; Brede Werk; Natural History Museum, including the Botanical Gardens and the Geological Musem; Faergegarden Museum; Louisiana Museum; Theatre Museum; National Archives; Royal Library; Royal Danish Arsenal Museum; Danish Museum of Art & Design; National Art Gallery; Rosenborg Castle; Danish Architecture Centre; Danish Design Centre