The urban museum

Latest urban museum (April 2016): STAM in Ghent, with a modern building surrounding the 13th century Bijloke Abbey and a 17th century convent; making the most of the city’s golden days with six rooms on the history of Ghent and a room apiece on the Mystic Lamb and Charles V (and his chin), plus two excellent final rooms with temporary exhibitions on the changing city (when we there Victor Enrich’s Over de rand), but some jarring changes in style, and the people of Ghent were rather absent

Updates: in its summer 2015 series on museums Politiken has a piece on Køge Museum, reopened in a new guise, going all out for Danish design and iPads. Interesting, but not very social on any level. Will the Museum of Copenhagen go for a radical change in style? (Also in the series: Frilandsmuseet.) See also Hull History Centre.

In på dansk corner we have Kim Furdal (Museum Sønderjylland) on Livserfaringer og de sociale medier and Kirsten Egholk on placemaking in Greve, which deserves full attention IDC. Den lokale museumsopgave er i dag en helt anden end tidligere gives the view from Faaborg, while Charlotte SH Jensen looks at borgernaer kulturarv (citizen level/local heritage).

Following on from #flmuseums here’s a look at urban museums, curators of the history and narrative of place.

Urban museums I have known

The MOOC started out at the Museum of Liverpool, opened in a spanking new building in 2011 and clearly on trend. In contrast, the Museum of Copenhagen currently occupies a building dating from the 1780s. This historic setting very much sets the tone – salon rather than living room, and a rather hokey website. When I visited the exhibitions felt a bit thin, although the city walks are rather better. Of note is Væggen (The Wall), a collection of photos, both historic and current, uploaded by museum visitors and available online and as a 12m long touchscreen in various venues around the city. Deemed a success in terms of creating an audience-centred museum where the public shifts from visitor to participant, but not very usable as a photo collection.

The museum is moving to larger quarters (dating from the 1890s) and hence is closing in October, yikes, reopening in 2017, when it will be sammenlagt with the council’s other museums (Thorvaldsens Museum and Nikolaj Kunsthal) as well as the city archives (Københavns Stadsarkiv).

Even closer to home is Forstadsmuseet, the “museum of the suburbs”, created in 2000? by local ildsjæle and archivist Poul Sverrild (story), and currently under the steer of Anja Olsen while Poul polishes off his PhD. Not officially recognised as a museum, in part due to its lack of a clear research profile but also its small size, and hence not in a position to apply for funding (story). I’ve never actually been there, but I’ve been on a couple of its walks and made copious use of its online resources, not least Historie i gaden and 52 historier fra Hvidovre. They also cover the neighbouring kommune of Brøndby, where they act as a mobile museum, with weekly displays in two locations.

The museum doesn’t do #some and has no English – it’s aimed fair and square at the local resident. It also has no objects, showcases or custodians – the collection is made up of local places. In a paper, 15 years as an urban museum in the public space: learning, wondering, reflection, at this year’s Organisation of Danish Museum’s annual international meeting Poul Sverrild quoted a Danish mayor in the late 1990s who asked: What’s the point in having a museum when we don’t have a history? The response was a “novel key principle and outreach concept, turning a whole history-challenged area into a museum collection and literally placing the exhibition spaces in the public sphere”.

So much for my local museums – would I visit them if I wasn’t on my own particular quest? Of places I have lived, turns out that Huntly House in Edinburgh has been rebranded as the Museum of Edinburgh, like several other examples having evolved from history and local archive collections. Is this part of the much famed spatial turn? OTOH the Museum of London has been going since 1976, while Bristol, Newcastle, Manchester and Sheffield have skipped on the concept so far. Au contraireMartins Museumsblog has a review of the Newcastle Story (along with Helsinki and New York city museums), while Bristol’s M Shed “tells the story of the city and its unique place in the world”.

Less place oriented but still drawing on the local are ‘old school’ collections of random objects. I visited Coventry’s Herbert on a rainy day with a guest and it was pretty interesting, as was the Crawford in Cork, but these are a different animal from the ‘new’ museum of n, targeted at locals under the mantra of the museum as agent for social change, but in practice as much a magnet for idle tourists. From our last holiday compare and contrast Budapest’s rather dusty History Museum hidden in the castle with Vienna’s vibrant Wien Museum, based in a 1959 building on Karlsplatz with numerous exciting subsites. And it’s not like Budapest lacks excitement.

Urban history and the local museum

A recent ODM meeting included a dedicated stream on local museums, facilitated by Rainey Tisdale (@raineytisdale):

Municipalities expect local profiling and attraction of tourists. The state expects research at an international level and outreach as part of the museum’s social responsibility. At the same time the museum has to act in relation to other cultural institutions, event organizers and commercial players in the battle to offer experiences with cultural heritage content. Furthermore, the museum is also expected to have an opinion on current problematic issues. How can museums navigate in this and why are they relevant?

The session looked at different ways of being a museum in local society, exploring notions of place, rootedness, community and belonging. Sadly no coverage, but one paper asked whether the role of the local museum as an ‘identity marker’ for a community, rooting it in local history, is actually anachronistic in a globalised world, concluding though that focusing on what makes a community different can actually allow global perspectives to be expressed and explored in a local context, joining the debate and inviting dialogue on old and new stereotypes (see The Russian Current at the Perspektivet Museum in Tromsø, and also the Museum of Copenhagen’s At blive københavner/Becoming a Copenhagener).

A 2011 seminar in Aarhus’ Gamle By on urban history exhibited (vids) was even blogged! See Rainey Tisdale’s slides on trends in European city museums. Residents should be the primary audience and first priority of a city museum, whose primary concern should be curating contemporary experiences of the city for residents (but who is a resident? false dichtomy alert!). She explored apps comparing then and now, commissioned stories, residencies by eg chefs…activities should go beyond the museum and the city centre, with neighbourhood, hyperlocal and even one block projects. Forstadsmuseet on trend!

From the intro to the Journal of Museum Education 38(1) March 2013) on city museums and urban learning, with city museums defined as institutions that collect and interpret the history of their city and activities including:

  • collecting maps and street views
  • collecting objects and archival records documenting historical events, the city fathers, local industry, and major landmarks
  • mounting exhibitions about cities
  • providing lectures, walking tours, and school field trips
  • publishing educational materials
  • building modest but loyal constituencies

There is a clear area of crossover with local history societies. The expectations of audiences are rising with the inexorable growth of city life, the smart city, the green city, the global city, the comeback city, the creative city…while urban art museums tend to lead the field in collaborations with audiences and innovative programming, city museums need to broaden both their collections and interpretation to represent multiple socioeconomic groups and ethnicities.

History is no longer at the heart of what a city museum does. Rather it is a vehicle through which urban citizens actively engage with their city and connect with each other, exploring and reinforcing their individual identities through the musuem content, with room for memories and emotions as well.

The expanding toolbox: geotagging, pop-up projects, psychogeography, mobile apps, hyperlocal history…a multi-disciplinary approach centred round place based learning and a growing understanding of how people learn in free choice environments.

A different slant

But people no longer fit into nice, neat categories and have more complicated allegiances to place than before. Søren Bitsch Christensen (Dansk Center for Byhistorie; slides) asked whether city musuems really reflect what the city is today. The urban may be the central frame for modern life, but different conceptions of the city exist. We tend still to see a closed built-up area, think the tradition købstad (or Death Star Copenhagen?), when in reality today’s city is part of the networked society. The link between production and settlement is now less clear cut, the spatial less relevant (in 2011?). Today’s post-industrial urbanism, characterised by experience, the residential and architectural quality, all captured in a ‘snapshot’ paradigm of mobile and geotagging with the keywords of presence, belonging and identity, does not offer critical comment and lacks context. The personal and individual captured in stories, rather than collective. (Does this not ignore the fact that place may well be different for everyone?)

Paul van der Laar (Museum Rotterdam; slides) called for new heritage models and concepts (‘bonding’ rather than ‘nostalgic’ heritage), different urban storytelling methods and more imaginative strategies. City curators should expand their expertise beyond “classical driven collection based scholarship”. In the transnational (international?) city we need to avoid nostalgia (excludes those whose culture was not part of the story) and embrace different sorts of knowledge and dynamic interpretation, such as working memory, usable in the present day.

Again, the city as network, with a diverse population who do not necessarily feel a strong allegiance to a single country or place. The here and now, self realisation and representation are all of importance.

transnational city

cultural heritage

mental heritage

So, is there still an Us? Denmark/Danskere, with its homogenous self image and exclusive cultural values, has an issue here. Golden Days is going to be interesting…

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