One early morning in December 2019, a call came in to a curator at the Workers Museum in Copenhagen. The call was from David, or “Bricklayer-David'' as we had come to know him at the museum. “Are you aware that I am taking part in a demonstration just around the corner?” was David’s message. The demonstration had been set up to support the demand for better working conditions on building sites in Denmark. And David wanted us to come and document what was happening. This was a great call to receive for the Workers Museum. And the following presentation is about why.
We had come to know David through his collaboration on a combined exhibition and educational programme at the Workers Museum called “Clever Hands”. The project, which opened in the summer of 2018, had two closely connected purposes. One was to provide a historical perspective on the ongoing discussions in Denmark about why so few young people choose to educate themselves as craftsmen or to enter into vocational training. The need for people with technical and vocational training is a matter of national importance, and as a Museum we wanted to contribute to solving this problem by focussing on creating dialogues, especially with young people, on what working in these fields is like.
Secondly, the project aimed at bringing the museum into closer contact with people with short educational backgrounds. While making up a large portion of the population, this group rarely visits museums. The inequality in museum visits in relation to educational background is a major political issue in the area of cultural institutions, and one that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of government funding for museums. “Clever Hands” was intended to be a way for the Workers Museum to address both of these issues.
The project was in clear alignment with the DNA of the Museum. Founded in 1983, the Workers Museum deals with the everyday life of working-class people in Denmark. The Museum was set up to fill a gap in the Danish museum sector by documenting and displaying the living and working conditions of the urban working-class part of the population and it holds substantial collections on the subject area. Also, the Museum is working from a mission statement “to strengthen the will to an equal and fair society through engaging encounters with history”. It is our aim to encourage social engagement by clearly relating historical material to issues that concern people today, especially with regard to imbalances in the labour market, in democratic participation and in access to knowledge and education. In that way, “Clever Hands” was also a way to sharpen the very purpose of the Museum that we are working to create.
So in terms of the subject area and the intention of the project, the Workers Museum was on home turf. The challenge, however, lay in trying to form connections with the very people, that we wished this project to be for and about. How could we, as a museum created by historians, ethnologists and educational professionals represent the everyday life of electricians, hairdressers, and silversmiths? And what would make plumbers, healthcare workers or process operators bring their friends, families and colleagues to the exhibition when visiting a museum was something that they rarely did? This was where we as a Museum faced new challenges. And it was clear that dialogue with the target groups was the only possible way forward.
Therefore, much of the development of “Clever Hands” happened at meetings between craftsmen and museum employees, asking the questions outlined above. And with some very thought-provoking answers. “Try to hide the fact that you are a museum” was one piece of advice that put the attractiveness of the institution in itself in a new and less elevated light. Also, the clear message from young people about to make their choice of education was that another enrollment campaign for vocational education was very important. Instead, they wanted to meet other young people who had chosen vocational education and discuss their outlook for the future. And when the general conceptualisation of the project had been developed, the same groups of people went on to take part in selecting themes and case stories for the exhibition, discussing object lists, developing events and not least shaping the educational programme which was central to the project.
The result was a highly tactile, analogue, and yet interactive exhibition. It sought to appeal to museum visitors who prefer to engage physically with the subject matter they are confronted with. And it was designed for an audience for whom the ability to experience the exhibition in a group setting was crucial for feeling safe and empowered. It was an exhibition in which parts would regularly change as newly educated craftsmen exhibited their apprenticeship pieces and where tours were given by the people who had helped develop the project. And not least, it was an exhibition which managed to open a new connection with the vocational education system and bring students from technical schools in touch with the Museum. This is a group which are very rare guests in museums and are likely to remain so for the rest of their lives. Not through any fault of their own, but rather through a lack of museums offering relevant activities.
It was this lack of relevant activities, that “Clever Hands” was our modest attempt at making up for. Many further efforts will have to be made, and there are important lessons that we can take with us. One is the critical importance of co-creation when trying to connect with new audiences. We would simply have ended up with making a completely different exhibition had it not been for our dialogue with young people in vocational education or adults working in technical or production-oriented fields of employment. Not necessarily a worse exhibition. But one that was much less likely to reach the very people we wanted to be valuable to.
Another lesson is how hard work shifting your audience is. “Clever Hands” received an unusually high amount of external funding from private foundations. This testifies to support for museums to engage more clearly with issues that affect society today, and it meant that the Workers Museum could launch its most ambitious dissemination programme so far both on- and off-site. But even then, it took a lot of effort to establish connections with technical schools and with groups of professionals to actually make use of the exhibition and events programme. The divide between people with vocational backgrounds and museums cuts deep, and it will take time to bridge it.
That is why the call from Bricklayer-David that December morning was so important. It showed that he felt the Museum was relevant and responsive to the issues that were important to him. Needless to say, our curator grabbed her coat and hurried to meet David at the demonstration. Hopefully, the objects and stories collected – and the connections made - at this and other similar events will help to form the basis for a more democratic and evenly distributed museum usage in the future
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