14 February 2014

MEG visit to the Världskultururmuseet, Gothenburg, Sweden, December 2013

Never question the commitment of MEG members to participation in MEG events! Back in early December, the attempt of two MEG committee members to get to the Världskultururmuseet in Gothenburg for a MEG event involved a flight to Gothenburg diverted to Stockholm due to high winds and heavy snow then a grueling 14-hour overnight coach journey, much of it spend static in snow. The beautiful Christmassy scenery and fascinating museum almost made up for it.

Ali Clark, MEG Secretary, having finally arrived at the Världskultururmuseet

Gothenburg's Världskultururmuseet opened in 2004 and is very much a product of its time. It chose to focus on 'issues' rather than objects and orientated itself towards a young adult audience, not only through its displays but also though a vibrant events programme which has included regular club nights. To the envy of other European museums the Världskultururmuseet has been phenomenally successful in attracting a younger audience and over 60% of its visitors are aged under 30. It also eschewed traditional, 'permanent' displays of objects for a changing series of often provocative exhibitions and displays, more than 40 of which have been on offer in the intervening period. Displays have dealt with sensitive 'global' issues including the spread and impact of HIV, the trafficking of people and -in the exhibition on at the time of MEG's visit Secret Love: Taboo Love in China - homosexuality in China.

Exhibits in the Museum 

But what MEG's recent visit revealed is that, nearly ten years on, the Världskultururmuseet is experiencing something of a 'material turn'. Following the closure of Secret Love work begins on creating a large area of visible storage on the ground floor. While this will be visibly rather than physically accessible to the casual museum visitor, the museum's curator of contemporary global issues, Klas Grinell, noted that it will be a clear signifier that the collections form the foundation of the institution. This is a clear step away from the more issues-based approach taken in the past, in which objects were used to illustrate narratives of social/global concern, towards a more object-centered approach. This object-centered approach will also be explored through a semi-permanent series of installations which, it is proposed, will make evident some of the key object stories contained in the collections. Some of the ideas around how audiences may be invited to engage in these are currently being tested in a highly interactive and experimental Provrum ('dressing room') display section. Klas also noted a change of emphasis in audience, from young adults to young children and their families, in line with shifting government policy. A whole floor of the museum will be dedicated to this audience, with displays organised under the theme of 'Experiencing together'.

The focus on attracting younger children also has an economic dimension, the theory being that children of this age invariably come with (paying) parents, grandparents or carers. Entry to the museum was free on opening but now incurs an admission fee although free admission remains in place for the under-19s. Clearly the economic landscape inhabited by the museum has changed significantly since 2004. In contrast to UK equivalents, the Världskultururmuseet is almost entirely state-funded, however the initial governmental enthusiasm for its programmes, which attracted a budget of £2.5 million when the museum opened, has had to be revised and the budget has fallen by 90%. It has been a period of extraordinary change for the museum, which has had seven directors in nine years, and it is evident that this period of turbulence has yet to run its course. However, as a museum using ethnographic collections to enable new audiences to engage with changing global realities in new and radical ways there is much that those of us working with similar collections can learn from the Gothenburg example, not least its willingness to change and reinvent itself to ensure relevancy. We await the outcomes of its current transformations with interest.

By Helen Mears

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