A fortnight ago I was invited to present a session about Happy Museum project at the 2012 Swedish Museums Association Conference in Gothenburg. The conference theme explored how museums could be for the ‘here and now’. Three timely keynote speakers reminded delegates how culture, to paraphrase Brecht, could be both hammer and mirror inspiring and reflecting change and events. Alaam Wassef an Egyptian artist showed how his work provoked and reflected the ‘Street’ during the overthrow of President Mubarak whilst Prof. Knut Kjeldstadli from Oslo University discussed the current debates in Norway of how best to record and mark the horrific shootings on the island of Utøya. Gaby Porter vice president of the UK Museums Associations described the impact on the financial crisis on the UK and museums. Invoking Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level, she noted the steady growth in inequality in the Anglo-Saxon world since 1979 and how many UK museums viewed their purpose as agents of social change.
On the surface talking to a Scandinavian about how more equal societies do better is a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle. Scandinavian countries consistently score high in research related to well-being and quality of life. I spoke to a Norwegian audience about the importance of volunteering and social capital in 2010 and was met with a polite response that strong civic society was a contract between citizens and the state built around a high degree political, economic and social equality.
However recent political developments in Sweden have seen the country edge closer to an Anglo Saxon capitalist model or Welfare Capitalism. The centre-right Moderate government of Frederik Rheinfeld in power since 2005 has privatised many state run services. Indeed the British government often resorts to making some of their more radical ambitions (such as Free Schools) sound more palatable by noting that they have been first developed in Sweden. And whilst many people in the UK would marvel at the efficiency of services, especially health and transport, few Swedes I met equated the profit motive with better services.
A more market orientated approach seems to have influenced the Swedish museums sector, Kulturparken Småland which is this year’s Swedish Museum of the Year has developed an entrepreneurial approach not dissimilar from Independent museums in the UK. Some of the newer exhibitions in the fabulous Världkulturmuseet (Museum of World Cultures) seem less confrontational and more abstract than the older displays created when the museum was founded in 2005.
Nevertheless many Swedish museum professionals are keen for their museums to play an active part in the public realm, dealing with contemporary issues and viewing their institutions as places for debate. A good example of this is the newly redisplyed Goteborg Sjofarts Museet (Gothenburg Maritime Museum) which charts the recent history of how the shipyards have shaped communities and identity of Scandinavia’s largest port. Indeed the museum is perfectly placed to explore many of the principles of the Happy Museum. It has an aquarium on the ground floor which explores the effects of climate change in the oceans. There are obvious connections made between the natural world and an economy built on the export of raw materials and import of consumer goods to Scandinavia.
I spoke to a number of Swedish Museum professionals intrigued by the Happy Museum and eager to apply its principles to their organisations. I’m really interested to see how some of the principles can adapted in a context where civic society and activism differs from the UK. In the UK, despite the high degree of social and economic inequality created by 30 years economic liberalism, there are thriving activist charities, social enterprises and micro-businesses which have filled the gaps between the private and the public realm. This is especially relevant to the third point of the Happy Museum Manifesto – Pursue Mutual Relationships. In Scandinavia the dominant Social Democratic compact has delivered a more equal society and one which is both more trusting and reliant of the state. Yet it is one with less muddle and fluidity and less accepting of diversity, all elements in themselves which contribute to our well-being!