SMK blogs

Qi Zhang from China speaks to SMK visitors about Købke’s A View from Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake Looking Towards Nørrebro from 1838. Photo: Ida Høyrup / SMK Foto

Mikkel Bogh blogger | 19.aug.2015

Language school students at the museum

The director of the SMK, Mikkel Bogh, blogs about what it’s all about: art

In this entry, Mikkel Bogh speaks about how the SMK reinvents the museum’s role and tasks through programmes for language school students at the SMK.

The question of the role played by cultural institutions in Denmark is often up for discussion – what kind of tasks should they carry out? This is exactly as it should be, for the functions served by art, culture and its institutions, for individuals and for society as such, is never set in stone.

At a time when a swathe of cutbacks is sweeping across the Danish cultural sector – with wide-ranging consequences – the question of balance becomes a key issue: should we focus exclusively on core tasks, or should state institutions engage with new and innovative additions to their activities? I keep hearing, as if it were a mantra, the view that in times of austerity we must stick to our core tasks and pare back our ambitions for exploring new territories and testing the boundaries of our institutions. I couldn’t disagree more. We must rethink our tasks, we must evolve and experiment – whether times are lean or not.

Rethinking the museum’s core tasks
Quite apart from the fact that our current “times of austerity” can no longer be described as a passing crisis – after fifteen years of steady decreases in the funds allocated, these lean times seem rather a permanent state of affairs ­– I believe that it is now more crucial than ever that we should take an open-minded, inquiring and explorative position on the question of what a museum’s core tasks are.

It is true that the Danish Museum Act sets out a framework for our activities, but even so there is plenty of scope for interpretation, for example of the terms “interpretation & learning” and “research”. This point is certainly borne out by the many changes seen on the museum scene in recent decades. Always operating within the wide perimeters of the law, art museums have changed greatly in how they operate. Maintaining your relevance, flavour and attraction as a cultural institution demands, more than anything, a willingness to follow and listen to one’s users. It also requires a keen eye for the general developments of society. If you simply stick to outmoded notions about “core tasks” that have been defined for different times and different users that ours, then the institution is at risk of growing stale or losing traction.

The museum as a space for learning
At the SMK, interpretation & learning is a core task on a par with collection, registration, conservation and research. However, the concept of interpretation & learning covers a very wide range of activities – and one that expands very rapidly at present. The museum experience is increasingly becoming a layered, involving experience, and this also makes the museum a complex space for learning. One of our particular focus areas right now is to build on our excellent experiences with staging language school teaching based on works from our collections.

From its very earliest days as a publicly accessible collection, the museum has served a didactic and educational function. That tradition has now been imbued with new life as we work with language school students to improve their Danish skills. It is my belief that with this work, the museum makes a valuable and crucial contribution to the integration of immigrants in Denmark while also venturing out into territories that are largely unexplored by most museums.

Language school students employed at the SMK
The language school students at SMK take part in a language course, but that is not all. A special programme has been set up to employ them at the museum as paid employees. The significance and impact of this initiative should not be underestimated. The six-week employment period creates a real, tangible connection with the Danish labour market – and for most course participants this is also their first real job in Denmark. With this initiative, immigrant Danes become more comfortable with the language by interacting directly with Danish-speaking colleagues in real-life work situations – and by engaging with an art historical heritage that allows them to contrast and compare as they draw on their own experiences with art, images and culture.

This combination of factors yields excellent, documented results in terms of language acquisition. But it is equally important that the course participants find it easier to find a job after having experienced real employment – even if only briefly – which required them to solve a range of presentation and communication tasks.

The museum and its users benefit by getting fresh perspectives on art from people who have recently arrived in this country and are getting their bearings in a culture that is more or less alien to them. When they bring their experiences and perceptions to the table, we see the collection in a new light. Everyone is enriched.

An active contributor to society
With its programmes for language school students, the SMK builds on one of its original objectives, which might be termed a “core task”: to be a space for learning and for the development of creativity and other competences. At the same time we have taken another step towards rethinking the role of the museum in an era where cultural institutions have historic opportunities for contributing to society – not just with its unique collection of art, but also as a concept developer, a launcher of public debate and as an informed rallying point for a wide range of users.

If institutions such as ours are to be active contributors to society, we cannot simply stand still and look inward for “core tasks” that were defined several decades ago. We must direct our attention to the world around us, to the experiences and the knowledge that is relevant and valuable to people today. It is efforts such as these that will give us renewed relevance – to our loyal established audiences and to new users who visit our museum for the very first time.

The museum is growing
The language school programmes may not take up much of the SMK’s budget, and they require external funding if they are to grow in scope – as we hope they will. But they do take on ever-growing importance as inspiration and models for how museums can help fulfil society’s tasks at local or national level. In a time of scarcity, we as a museum cannot afford not to expand our scope. Language school students help our museum grow.

arrow Comments (1)
Godt gået med ændringerne i jeres værktitler.
Og tak for et godt indlæg med ønske om fortsat at fokusere på udvikling og at gå nye veje, uden det bliver museer avancerede arkiver for fortidige genstande. Der er brug for museernes udsyn og soft power i en tid, hvor nationalt snæversyn vinder stadig større indpas.
  • lone johnsen
  • 11-06-16 14:49
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