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Museums and cultural institutions as spaces for Cultural Citizenship


Cultural citizenship is about opening up to multiple voices and participation, and sharing the stage, ownership, and authority with the users. In this brief essay, Lise and Nana draw out the principal lines of the extensive and ambitious project “Museums and cultural institutions as spaces for Cultural Citizenship” and provide two examples of exhibitions within the project that are founded on dialogue, inclusion of differing voices, and listening to what the users have to say.

How can museums and cultural institutions make a stronger impact as democratic educational institutions; as places where knowledge is not just something that is presented and put at the disposal of visitors, but actually created through interaction between museums and users? How can active participation, self-reflection, and multivoicedness be integrated into the museum’s practice and potentially provide a space for cultural citizenship? These are just some of the questions that infuse the project “Museums and cultural institutions as spaces for cultural citizenship”. In what follows, we will outline the project’s overall objective and organisation, and expand on two examples from our field of study – an exhibition at The Museum of Copenhagen and a teaching session at Statens Museum for Kunst.

Project objective and organisation

Ten museums and cultural institutions explore how they can contribute to cultural citizenship. The participating institutions cover a wide variety of collection and research areas from cultural history to art history and music, from neoclassical sculpture to installation art. We base our understanding of cultural citizenship on the approach taken by professor of sociology Gerard Delanty, who regards cultural citizenship as a learning process. Delanty points out that “the power to name, create meaning, construct personal biographies and narratives by gaining control over the flow of information, goods and cultural processes is an important dimension of citizenship as an active process.”*1

The participating institutions work with their exhibitions and school programs to explore how they can create inclusive learning processes while taking their point of departure in the concepts of ‘participation’, ‘multivoicedness’, and ‘self-reflection’. The concept of multivoicedness is based on the thinking of the Russian linguist and cultural theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin who says, “truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.”*2 He is interested in how meaning is constructed where many voices confront each other. The wish to create space and scope for the many voices is also reflected in the methods of co-operation applied in the project. It can be seen in the effort to improve institutional collaboration with users, and in the close collaboration between curators and educators. Here, we will briefly outline two examples from the project that address the co-production of meaning and knowledge in different ways.

1. The past beneath us – The Museum of Copenhagen

The exhibition is based on finds from recent archaeological excavations in Copenhagen. The Museum of Copenhagen has developed the exhibition together with a wide range of Copenhageners; a collaboration that encompassed the objects themselves as well as the way they are presented to the public. The museum invited users to take part in selecting objects for display. And in the exhibition, the objects are not just presented by archaeologists and historians. For example, a hairdresser writes about a wig and a kindergarten child tells us about a toy spear. This means that each object is accompanied by two different written interpretations.

A piece of furniture designed for the exhibition invites the users to touch, describe, and draw objects, and their contributions become new voices added to the museum space. [1] Three 9th graders write the following: “We believe that object no. 32, which an archaeologist thinks is a book cover, might be a leather purse or a container for glasses; we think so because it looks more like a wallet, and it would be more useful to make a wallet or a case than a leather book cover.”3 The example shows that the girls relate directly to object no. 32 and to the archaeologists’ interpretation of the object, as a point of departure for actively constructing their own meaning.

[1] A piece of furniture in the exhibition The past beneath us at Museum of Copenhagen, which invites users to leave a note or a trace – in the shape of drawings or written comments to selected objects on display. The objects may also be touched. CC BY 4.

[1] A piece of furniture in the exhibition The past beneath us at Museum of Copenhagen, which invites users to leave a note or a trace – in the shape of drawings or written comments to selected objects on display. The objects may also be touched.
CC BY 4.0 Lise Sattrup.

2. “The Golden Age and national identity – a photographic workshop” – Statens Museum for Kunst

“What can you say about my identity?” That is how the museum educator at SMK begins a teaching session for a group of 9th graders; a teaching programme that aims at challenging and adding new nuances to the concept of ‘national identity’. The sessions will posit questions such as “What is patriotism? What are national sentiments? How has art been used to co-create the notion about something uniquely Danish? How do we decode and meet the world around us?” Over the course of the programme, the students’ voices are juxtaposed with those presented by the museum educator, thereby creating space for the many narratives. Some of the tools used include conversations about artworks and exercises in which the students take part as active generators of meaning – for example by producing photographs on the subject of national identity. Multivoicedness is also encouraged by considering Danish Golden Age art and 19th century notions about what is ‘uniquely Danish’ together with examples of artworks from our own era that challenge and question national identity. By providing a space for students where they can construct their own interpretations in a museum space, such activities may invite the construction of identity and narratives, something that Delanty points to as a crucial aspect of cultural citizenship. The book Dialogue-Based Teaching. The Art Museum as a Learning Space presents more examples of teaching sessions based on the three concepts ‘participation’, ‘multivoicedness’, and ‘self-reflection’.*4

The two cases mentioned here point to how meaning is constructed through a multi-voiced dialogue. We believe that museums and cultural institutions already play an important role in democratic education and the formation of identity, and that they have the potential to take on even greater significance if we as museums become better at not just sharing knowledge, but also at creating spaces for co-production and inclusive learning processes.

The collaborative project is staged by ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, Designmuseum Danmark, J.F. Willumsens Museum, the Museum of Copenhagen, KØS Museum of Art in Public Spaces, the National Museum of Denmark, Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, Statens Museum for Kunst, Thorvaldsens Museum, and the Education Centre for Music & Theatre in co-operation with the Royal Danish Theatre. The project is funded by the Danish Agency for Culture.


*1  Gerard Delanty, “Citizenship as a learning process”, International Journal of Lifelong Education 22:6, 2003, p. 603.
*2  Mikhail M.Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
*3  Marie-Louise, Therese, Rikke 9.A, 23 January 2013. The quote is translated by the authors.
*4  Olga Dysthe, Nana Bernhardt og Line Esbjørn, Dialogue-Based Teaching. The Art Museum as a Learning Space. Unge Pædagoger, 2012.

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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