Den Gamle By

Thomas Bloch Ravn

Director, Den Gamle By

Den Gamle By

Den Gamle By 8000 Aarhus C Denmark

Aarhus, Denmark
European Museum Academy Micheletti Award 2016


Updating Den Gamle By And Focusing On Being An Inclusive Museum




In 1914, Den Gamle By opened as the world's first open-air museum for urban cultural history. Today the museum consists of 80 historic houses from 26 towns and cities across Denmark, with homes, workshops and shops, different public institutions and historical gardens. According to the Danish Museum Act, Den Gamle By is a museum with a designated and outstanding collection also housing comprehensive, national collections and exhibitions of different kinds of artefacts.

When Den Gamle By and other first-generation open-air museums emerged in the decades around 1900, they were innovative in both their theme and in their approach to the audience. It was new, that the museums focused on the daily lives of ordinary people, and it was new that they wished to target ordinary people with their storytelling. This approach also applied to Den Gamle By in the early years, but from the 1950s the museum gradually became more traditional in its focus. In the new millennium, we therefore began to go back to the roots and the basic ideas of the museum in order to update and rethink the museumrs"s mission and purpose.


The outcome of this process has been a four-way strategy. The first is to update Den Gamle By also to include the recent history, the second is to develop programmes for social inclusion, the third to address more controversial and difficult issues, and the fourth is to transform the museum into what we call a cultural enterprise in order to become more sustainable, resilient and robust.

As to the first strategic goal regarding recent history, we decided to establish a completely new town district focusing on a time-period to which most of the visitors can relate. At the same time, this new district should encompass some of the basic values of the modern Denmark: the welfare society, the open-mindedness, the equality between the genders, and the non-authoritarian thinking. The storytelling encompassed the post-WWII period, seen from the focal year 1974.

We have translocated several buildings from towns and cities all over Denmark, we have collected shops, homes and private enterprises to furnish the buildings, so that large groups of the museum's visitors now can experience walking into a time-period to which they can relate. In making this modern town district, we engaged and co-created with the people who lived and worked in the homes, shops and workshops. We also co-operated with experts and nerds who helped us establishing a workshop for mopeds, a plumber, a functioning 1970s-telephone network, working radio- and TV sets and other outdated technical devices from the 1960s and 70s. This development has caused an extraordinary growth in visitor numbers and own income.

The first major part of the modern town district opened in 2013, the second major part opened in 2015-16, and in 2021, and this huge extension will be finished by adding a street depicting Denmark as it was in 2014.
Secondly, we also embarked on finding new platforms for our work. We sincerely believe that museums, in order to keep their relevance, will have to address some of the big challenges of modern society. One of them is the marginalization of still larger groups.

According to this ambition, we have opened a three-room flat exclusively for people with dementia, The House of Memory. This flat substituted old facilities with insufficient accessibility. The results are stunning. People who had "drawn the curtain down" for years suddenly begin to open up and communicate. Annually, the house of memory is visited by around 1.500 people with dementia plus several hundreds of social workers on a one-day training. Everything is carried out in close cooperation with the public eldercare, and a group of university researchers into psychology studies our work.

Based on our general experiences from this project, we embarked on a project for kids and youngsters with mental disabilities (learning difficulties, ADHD, OCD and autism), and projects for youngsters from non-European backgrounds. It is the general experience that Den Gamle By" hands-on activities and especially the use of role-playing help these youngsters to have positive and durable experiences from their visit.
The third focus has been to deal with topics of a more controversial type.

/In June 2012, a homeless man proposed to use the museum to inform about his life as homeless. Den Gamle By is, among other things, a museum of people's homes. However, we did not have a "home" of a homeless, so when we were offered the opportunity, we accepted at once. Together with the homeless man, we documented his life and exhibited himself and his home in one of the museum's backyards. He stayed at Den Gamle By for three months. What is left at the museum is the documentation and some good memories about visitors who met and communicated with a person, they would never get in contact with in the "real world" outside the museum.

This project was followed up by community engagement and trying to raise the awareness of the power and value of your own stories. This took place in a large run-down area of concrete blocks, primarily inhabited by people with non-European background. We helped the people to run their own "museum", where they can tell their own stories, collect photos and develop guided tours in the area etc.

From the beginning, we intended some of these stories to be visible - one way or another - within Den Gamle By. Therefore, we were happy to open a Somali home as in 2016. The initiative came from a group of Somali women, and the furnishing and fitting of the flat was done in collaboration with them. Den Gamle By's focus is to look at the Somali home as a part of a typical Danish neighborhood, exactly as it is the case with the 1974-home with six male Turkish immigrant workers and the 1974-home with a female student from Greenland. Not as something unfamiliar and strange, but as a part of daily life in modern Danish society.

The fourth strategic focus has been to become more financially sustainable in order to be better to carry out our basic tasks. We say that we do not run the museum to earn money, but we certainly wish to earn money to make a still better museum and thereby compensate for the general cuts in public subsidy for arts and culture.

From 2010 to 2016, the museum's income from entrance fees increased with 70 pct, and the total turnover increased with around 50 pct. The number of visitors raised from 312,330 in 2010 to 515,667 in 2016. We expect the increase to continue in the coming years. This also constitutes an important context for attracting private donations to support the museum's capital development projects.

This development has made Den Gamle By more resilient and financially sustainable, and has enabled the museum to make considerable improvements in collection care, research, publications, updating of exhibitions and non-profit offers for marginalized groups.


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