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Intercultural Dialogue: What People Need to Know

Eva Hansen and Emily Johnson argue that by making museums places for exploring human values, multiple stories and contemporary issues, we may not only become more relevant cultural sector institutions, but we may also facilitate positive changes in how people relate to each other in wider society.

Malmö Museums is situated in the city of Malmö in the southern part of Sweden, close to Denmark and Copenhagen. It is the third largest city in Sweden with a population of 300,000. The museum is set in the medieval Malmöhus Castle, surrounded by canals. It has 250,000 visits annually and seeks to display and interpret collections and stories of local and international significance in a way that is accessible and inspiring for a broad range of audiences. Malmö is Sweden’s most diverse city. It is also one of the most segregated.

The quote in the title of this essay is from a visitor to an exhibition at the museum in 2010. The exhibition was the result of a long-standing learning partnership between Malmö Museums and a range of South African cultural sector organisations to encourage intercultural dialogue and understanding.

Research in both Sweden and in the UK show that audiences, increasingly, are expecting museum interpretation to feature multiple voices and perspectives; on the past, present and future, as well as the exploration of big topics such as the notion of human values. Maybe it is that, as our communities diversify, we look to those aspects that unite us as well as those that are unique.

This essay argues that by – to a greater extent – making museums places for exploring human values, multiple stories and contemporary issues, we may not only become more relevant cultural sector institutions, but we may also facilitate positive changes in how people relate to each other in wider society. We believe that people’s positive experiences of engaging with culture and cultural heritage can contribute to – in its extension – society’s sustainable development. Our question for future exploration will be to understand to what extent this is true and what real impact the involvement of wider society in our decision-making and heritage work might have.

For now, this essay presents three examples of Malmö Museums’ attempts to explore how making space for multiple stories, exposing contemporary topics and working in partnership locally and internationally can help us reflect upon museum practice, and meet the needs and motivations of our audiences in exciting and challenging new ways. The case studies we have chosen range from activities produced in collaboration with a South African wine estate, Roma minority groups in Sweden and a persecuted writer based in Malmö.

Stories never told
Malmö’s population is wonderfully diverse with residents from all over the world, representing more than 170 nationalities. Malmö is also situated in a region with a nationally comparatively low educational levels and high unemployment figures. A report (2010) from Save the Children on child poverty in Sweden reveals that 31 percent of children in Malmö live in poverty. These are the highest figures on child poverty in Sweden.(1) This complex context presents new creative, as well as, to some, unsettling challenges to the cultural sector.

Part of Malmö Museum’s vision is to create opportunities for more people to develop knowledge, creativity and skills in order to feel more motivated and confident to engage with the arts, culture and cultural heritage, as well as with wider society. The museum wants to ensure that people have access to these opportunities irrespective of their background or needs. We also understand that in order for this to be possible, the learning has to be a two-way process. We too, as a museum, need to develop knowledge, skills and creativity in order to facilitate such opportunities. We need to develop our curiosity and knowledge about local communities new and old; skills to communicate with a wide range of people, and creativity to find new pathways to engage them. In order to realise our vision and to live our ethos of becoming more relevant to Malmö’s diverse population we have to challenge ourselves, in particular, on the issue of representation, both in terms of our collections, as well as in our programming, interpretation and exhibition making.

In our local Council’s current plans to increase the welfare in all areas of Malmö, the cultural sector, including the museum, have an important role to play in the democratization of culture and heritage: what is collected, presented and interpreted as cultural heritage? The decision to preserve people’s stories, artefacts and old buildings are shaped and negotiated by political, social and individual priorities and attitudes. Whereas some have been preserved within the framework of heritage institutions, just as much have been ignored, neglected and fallen into oblivion. Cultural heritage is as much a result of choices as past events.(2)

As we move to reflect upon our own role and work towards aligning ourselves with our vision and ethos, we have to ask ourselves: whose heritage did we ignore? Which stories have never been told? What impact might our ‘absent-mindedness’ or ‘editing’ have had on society? How can we redress this? Malmö Museums sought to explore this issue in partnership with a South African wine farm.

Digging for democracy
What do a wine farm in South Africa and a museum in Sweden have in common? More than one might think at first glance. Malmö Museum’s partnership with Solms-Delta Estate in Franschhoek was born out of a mutual conviction that museums, culture and the arts can play an important role in the process of shaping a sustainable society.
Solms-Delta has its own museum, the Museum van de Caab that tells the story of the Delta farm, through the subjective viewpoints of individuals; right from the beginnings of human settlement, through pre-colonial pastoral usage of the land, the establishment of private ownership through colonial viticulture, the scars left by slavery and apartheid to the establishment of a democratic South Africa: ‘It is hoped that the Museum will not represent a “voice of God”, an authoritative account of how things were, as the director of the Museum sees them, but rather that it will reveal the complexities of the farm’s history and present situation.’(3)

However, the Museum van de Caab is a small museum that deals with the concepts of democracy and sustainability in a much larger context of South Africa’s past and present. The farm’s owner Professor Mark Solms says: ‘These farms were built by those people whose ancestors were brought here against their will…and enslaved. How can that not be important for understanding our relationships today?’(4) In the process of creating the museum, everyone involved, whatever their cultural and ethnic background, faced the history of their country together. In the second decade of democracy, hidden or ignored narratives have revealed themselves, and the appreciation of this heritage has become far more inclusive: ‘We have discovered that our history, however difficult, painful and complex – as well as inspiring – is the shared basis for our future.’(5) In the same process, with the aim of breaking the cycle of poverty and dependency, the owner of the estate decided to share the ownership of the land with the estate’s farm workers. The Museum van de Caab is an excellent example of how cultural institutions can, by highlighting shared histories and cultural heritage, have a visible impact on the development of societies today.

The partnership between Solms-Delta and Malmö Museums has aimed to jointly explore what audience engagement in culture and cultural heritage meaning making can be, by developing and testing models with local communities in South Africa and in Sweden, such as family learning as well as internal reflection around the semiotics of exhibition narration and ‘sense of place’. By working with communities and challenging ourselves at the same time, we hope to contribute to the growth of stronger and healthier communities, and stronger and healthier museums: Communities and museums that value diversity and have more insight into the complexities of human rights.

A tangible output of our collaboration was the exhibition Digging for democracy, which was an interpretation by Malmö Museums of Solms-Delta and the Museum van de Caab’s permanent exhibition, and was part of the Malmö Museums’ year-long themed initiative entitled Mandela and South Africa: a series of exhibitions and programmes running between 2009 and 2010. The overarching aim for the initiative was to interpret and illustrate the complexities around human rights. A summative audience impact evaluation that sought to measure the extent to which the exhibitions engaged audiences and the effectiveness of the interpretation offered showed that: ‘The exhibitions have been successful in bringing the challenging global issues of apartheid and human rights to a Swedish audience.’ The research also highlighted that visitors felt that human rights issues are important for museums to deal with: ‘It is clear that there is an appetite for this type of exhibition content and it could be strategically wise to capitalise on this success by continuing to provide an ambitious and internationally significant programme of exhibitions and events.’(6)

Through this partnership, bridging the northern and southern hemispheres, we have had the rare opportunity to share experiences, knowledge and understanding of issues around access, inclusion, diversity and democracy, from the point of view of the different national and local contexts, and as part of the social and cultural commitment to the communities in which we work and live. Being faced with, and exploring the stark differences between our contexts, as well as commonalities, we have found that we reflect more deeply upon our own practice, which in turn inspires change.

Who has the right to speak for whom?
The Ganges, the River Jordan, the Seine, the Thames and the canals surrounding Malmö Museums were all scenes of the celebration of the Roma International Day or the Gypsy World Wide Day on April 8, 2002. Wreathes and candles were set adrift upon the world’s waterways – including the moat of Malmö Museums. It was a magical moment. The River Ceremony was celebrated to draw attention to the vulnerable situation of Roma people. 2002 saw the first real celebration of this event in Sweden and was part of Malmö Museum’s partnership with Swedish Roma communities.

Roma people are one of Europe’s most persecuted groups and antiziganism is growing rapidly. The Roma minority in Sweden is estimated to include around 50,000 people and is far from a homogenous group. Some Roma groups arrived in Sweden several hundred years ago, whereas others came quite recently. In 1999, the Roma were recognized as a national minority in Sweden. Yet, the discrimination is rampant.

In 2007 the Swedish Delegation for Roma Issues was appointed by the government in order to investigate the situation of the Roma minority and propose reforms. The delegation evaluated to what extent Roma people have access to their human rights. In their report (2010) the Delegation writes: ‘Attitudes towards Roma are more negative than towards any other group.’ Roma people are almost completely excluded from mainstream society and there is ‘a strong, almost unbreakable pattern of social, economic and political exclusion and marginalization.’(7) It is not hard to draw the conclusion that Roma have access to almost none of their rights.

The structural discrimination of Roma has deep roots. Antiziganism has influenced laws and actions on behalf of the state, institutions, the church and individuals throughout the centuries. Museums are part of this institutional discrimination by, more or less, ignoring the Roma cultural heritage. Roma people have a 500 year long history in Sweden. Yet so little of their heritage is known outside the Roma community. Very little, if any, of their history has been taught in Swedish schools, displayed in museums or influenced the wider cultural and social context. This ignorance paves way for tenacious prejudices, stigma and conceptions of ‘the other’ that have plagued the Roma for centuries.

When there are no opportunities for a minority to communicate their culture and history in public spaces, others (the majority), patronizingly take over the right to interpret this for the minority group, on their behalf. Museums can redress this imbalance by injecting status and legitimacy to a cultural heritage, whether it is Roma heritage or someone else’s.(8) Cultural heritage becomes more tangible if it is represented in a museum and is visible in cultural activities offered in a public space; it gains a legitimacy that can otherwise be hard to achieve. Museums have a responsibility to tell the untold stories. By telling the untold stories we attempt to work, not only in accordance with the Human Right’s bill (article 27) but we also attempt to encourage a shift in perspectives in society at large.

Malmö Museums has produced an exhibition to shed light on Roma history as part of a national cultural heritage. Importantly, the initiative came from the Roma communities themselves. The exhibition was made possible through working in close partnership with Roma organisations and individuals during an extended period of time.

This project was the first at the museum to deeply involve external stakeholders. As well as it being a challenging project, it was a tremendous learning experience for everyone involved. For example, the long-standing discrimination of Roma has, of course, created a deep-rooted lack of trust within Roma communities towards society and public institutions, which brought suspicion to the partnership. There was also some resistance at the start of the project from both staff employed by the museum, as well as from local government politicians, to support or engage with the project. The museum management facilitated discussion and negotiation for mutual understanding and trust between individuals from Roma communities and museum staff, which gave good results. The Museum of the Year Award from the Swedish Museums Association that was granted in support for the museum’s work with Roma communities, also helped to stem the criticism.

The exhibition shed light on the origins of Roma, the means by which they have been documented, measured and categorised by others and the exclusion of Roma from the Swedish welfare system. A main objective was to highlight Roma communities as non-static and focus on individual stories in contrast to gadjé (i.e. non-Roma) prejudices. The exhibition content was mainly presented from a Roma perspective, a choice that led to debate within the museums’ sector in Sweden, as well as in the media. The debate exposed the processes by which museums interpret cultural heritage which is uncommon. Almost 1,000 people attended the opening, many of them from Roma communities, and many whom had never visited the museum before.

The process of creating the exhibition encouraged us to reflect upon the profound question of who has the right to speak for whom? This brings us back to South Africa and the Museum van de Caab: as an oral history centre for farm workers and surrounding communities, avoiding an authoritative, singular interpretation of past events, it ‘allows a story to emerge that is authored by the inhabitants themselves [ ] even where this contradicts other aspects of the exhibition. The theoretical issues that underlie the use of oral history in the Museum include the question of who has the right to speak for whom.’(9) Using contradicting stories and perspectives could be a tool for the democratization of history and cultural heritage in museum practice.

Freedom of Expression
Part of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums’ definition of a museum is that it is ‘a non profit making, permanent institution in the service of the society and of its development [ ].´(10) This definition inspired Malmö Museums to develop the Hot Spot methodology for exhibition making.(11) Hot spots are quick and easily put together exhibitions, using a static form and with the objective of being responsive to contemporary issues siding with a particular cause or opinion. ‘The strength of the Hot Spot approach [ ] lies in the possibility of taking quick action and incorporating multiple expressions. It also relies on the museums’ willingness to actively take a stand. All this provides a possibility to change the role of the museum in relation to today’s society and to have a direct dialogue with citizens. Through very small funds the museum is able to deliver significant messages.’(12)

Malmö Museums is exploring the Hot spot methodology, and in the process exposing a range of topics – locally relevant ones as well as global ones. A local topic that was given exposure through Hot Spot was a demonstration against EU Economics that took place in Malmö in 2003, where the police brutally stopped the demonstration and arrested 250 young people. In this Hot Spot, visitors could engage with the views of demonstrators on what happened that day. A recent Hot Spot shed light on animal cruelty and the disclosure of the treatment of Australian Merino sheep. Now, Hot Spot will be used to set focus on the freedom of expression.

Safeguarding the freedom of expression is one of the aims of Sweden’s national cultural policy and Malmö is one of four ICORN Cities in Sweden. The International Cities of Refuge Network is an association of cities and regions dedicated to the value of freedom of expression. ICORN Cities offer persecuted writers a safe place where they can live and work without fear of being silenced.(13) In 2010 an Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist became Malmö’s first guest writer.

Often the guest writers come to a city that they know very little about and without any social or professional networks. Museums could offer a space for them through networks, exhibitions and other activities. Collaboration with persecuted writers and journalists will also enrich the museum with important insights into issues on violation of human rights and oppression. To celebrate and provide exposure to persecuted writers´causes, Malmö Museums will in partnership with the Malmö-based writer present a Hot Spot on Freedom of Expression, at the Book Fair in Gothenburg in Sweden.(14)

Take a stand
The UNESCO Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage recognizes that ‘communities, in particular indigenous communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals, play an important role in the production, safeguarding, maintenance and recreation of the intangible cultural heritage, thus helping to enrich cultural diversity and human creativity.’(15) To be denied your cultural heritage is a negative action. However ‘cultural heritage, by nature, is neither necessarily positive, nor negative – it is for what purpose the heritage is used that makes the deciding factor.’(16) Furthermore, there is a political dimension in the creation and demarcation of cultural heritage; it can be used to include or exclude. To avoid any excluding use of history and heritage we will need to re-think our museum practice of public history and develop inclusive methodologies for working in close consultation with communities and members of the public. Storytelling can be a starting point for this work, both because it is what people do naturally, and because it is what museums are all about. The International Storytelling Centre says: ‘Storytelling is central to how we express ourselves – healthy, respectful and productive relationships are founded on people listening to, understanding, and knowing each other’s stories. Stories are gifts – passed on from one to another through time.’(17) Equity in the interpretation of history in museums makes the incorporation of people’s stories crucial.

I cite Nico Jansen, Solms-Delta Estate Manager, in a film as part of the interpretation in the Museum van de Caab: ‘… because the museum is about people, it is very good. Most of the time, objects are valued more than people. If the museum is about people and their lives, then I would say that it is the best thing that has yet happened in my lifetime. For the first time, people’s value is set higher than anything else.’(18)

Museums have the opportunity as well as the possibility to make an impact on both individuals and society by involving multiple perspectives in our heritage work. If we are able to change the way we look upon the past, we can influence the society of today and the future.

Museums can also choose to take a stand for issues on human rights and facilitate opportunities for people to gain insight into the far-reaching impact of oppression and the violation of human rights in order to encourage debate around citizenship, social justice, freedom of expression and democracy, as well as empathy and understanding between people. Museums can mediate an understanding of contemporary issues and how these relate to the past.

It is high time that this, so far largely unexplored opportunity, is grabbed and acted upon jointly by the international museum community

Eva Hansen, Head of Strategic Development, Malmö Museums, Sweden – with Emily Johnson, independent culture sector consultant

Notes | References | Bibliography

1. Save the Children Sweden, report 2010
2. Högberg 2006, 2007
4. Prof. Mark Solms, owner of Solms-Delta Wine Estate; quote from a film in the Museum van de Caab
6. The evaluation was undertaken by Morris Hargreaves McIntyre Consultancy and Research in Manchester, UK, and is presented in the report Stories to remind us about human values. An evaluation of the Mandela and South Africa exhibitions at Malmö Museums, 2010
7. SOU 2010:55
8. Hansen & Johansson 2006
10.; ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums
11. The Hot Spot methodology was developed in partnership with Mutare Museum in Zimbabwe and Skellefteå Museum in Sweden and within the framework of Samp (African-Swedish museum network)
12. Thelin 2010
14. Göteborg Book Fair is the biggest meeting place for the book trade in the Nordic countries
15. Unesco Convention on Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2003
16. Högberg 2006, 2007
17. Johnsson 2006
18. Nico Jansen, Solms-Delta Estate Manager and Wijn de Caab Trustee; quote from a film in the Museum van de Caab

Hansen Eva & Johansson Kennet, 2006: The Cultural Heritage of the Roma and Resande represented in the Malmö Museer. In: Gypsies and the Problem of Identity. Contextual, Constructed and Contested. Marsh Adrian & Strand Elin (Ed.). Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. Transactions vol. 17

Högberg Anders, 2006: The EU: in need of a supranational view of cultural heritage. In Landscape Ideologies. Meier T. (Ed.). Archaeolongua Series Minor 22. Budapest

Högberg Anders, 2007: The Past is the Present – prehistory and preservation from children’s point of view. Public Archaeology 6 (1)

ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, International Council of Museums, 2006 (Available on

Johnsson Emily, 2006: Telling Tales. A guide to developing effective storytelling programmes for museums. Adler Claire (Ed.). Renaissance London. London Museums Hubs

Save the Children annual report on child poverty in Sweden, 2010

Stories to remind us about human values. An evaluation of the Mandela and South Africa exhibitions at Malmö Museums, 2010: Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, LateralThinkers, UK

The governmental commission on Roma strategies in Sweden; The Delegation of Roma issues in Sweden. SOU 2010:55

Thelin Samuel, 2010: Hot Spot – A forum for social debate. In: The Museum as forum and actor. Svanberg Fredrik (Ed.). Museum of National Antiquities, Stockholm, Sweden

UNESCO Convention on Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2003.


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