Museums play a vital role in bringing people together. I always believe that museums cannot be standalone institutions catering to just academia and elites of society. Instead, they have to engage the general public and local communities in order to play a meaningful and impactful role.
Although museums have long been regarded as repositories of culture and knowledge, preserving and showcasing artifacts that define our collective heritage, however, their significance extends far beyond mere curation. Museums are also critical in connecting people, fostering understanding and strengthening communities.
In this modern era of digital dominance, where social interactions often feel disembodied, the physicality of museums offers a unique space for connection, sparking conversations and inspiring personal connections.
When I visited the Maritime Museum of Denmark on August 25, I sat down and talked to curator Morten Tinning, and explore why it is vital for museums to focus on connecting people and how they have the power to shape our society.
Tinning said that in Denmark, there is an emphasize of cultural institutions, for example museums and libraries, as part of a democratic society, to engage with local communities and open up a two-way communication to better understand them, to seek feedback on what they want from the museums, and to convey what the museums can do for the communities.
Tinning said: “Specifically here in the Maritime Museum of Denmark, we have projects like the playground for children where they can experience maritime culture and history.”
The children’s play area includes a sailor’s workshop, for kids aged three to 12, to try on sailor’s clothes and if the mood strikes, they can even belt out a sailor’s song. There are stations to learn about traditional sailor crafts, find out about compasses, sea maps, wind gauges, and there is even an exhibit of a replica of the legendary mermaid skeleton.
The highlight is Dreamship, a model of a real ship, where children, accompany by adults, get to experience what it is to work and live on board a ship.
Young people are often tech-savvy and appreciate interactive and digital experiences. To attract more young people, the museum has incorporated technology into their exhibits, offering interactive displays to enhance their overall learning experience.
Young people appreciate hands-on and participatory experiences, which allow them to touch, explore, and engage with the artifacts or artworks. Therefore, incorporating elements such as touchscreens, multimedia presentations and interactive installations will attract young people and encourage active participation.
Museums are rich educational platforms that provide interactive and experiential learning opportunities. Beyond traditional academic settings, museums offer a unique environment that encourages exploration, critical thinking and innovation. The children and young visitors are exposed to artifacts and exhibits which cultivate curiosity, creativity and problem-solving skills.
Moreover, museums have the ability to cater to a wide variety of learning styles, making education accessible to all. Through hands-on activities, interactive displays, and engaging experiences, the children and young visitors can actively participate in their own learning journey, connecting with ideas and information on a personal level.
Just beside the children play area, there is a big social space where they can relax, connect with friends and engage in conversations. The space offers comfortable seating, tables and benches. By providing a welcoming atmosphere and a sense of community within the museum, children and young people are more likely to spend time and engage with the exhibits.
The children play area where they can step into the seafarers’ world.
Entrance to the Dreamship where children get to see what it is like to be on board a ship.
Display of food and beverage inside a container.
Young visitors using touchscreen and interactive display.
Tinning added: “We have a social program for single parents and socially-vulnerable families where we provide free entrance for them and their children. The aim is to give these kids the same opportunity as other kids and families who have the means to pay for the entrance, otherwise they would not be able to experience the museum.
“This program is a reflection of our democratic attitude in Denmark where we believe all people, regardless of their financial status, should have opportunities to enjoy and engage with the museum, because this will make us stronger as human beings.”
I believe this social program, together with the emphasize on catering to the learning needs of children and young persons, is important because a visit to the museum enables them, the future pillar of the society, to learn about and embrace diversity through the visual expressions of different cultures.
For example, the special exhibit when I was there is about the Haenyeo culture, the South Korean women of Jeju who free dive for seafood and sell them for a living. It is not that common for Europeans, especially children, to be exposed to a sub-genre of South Korean minority and fast disappearing culture.
Therefore, the Maritime Museum of Denmark is providing a useful public service in educating and expanding the horizon of the next generation of Danish cosmopolitans. And the current Russian invasion of Ukraine and geopolitical tensions in other parts of the world make it much more urgent for the young generation to develop a sense of empathy and understanding.
The encounter with exhibits from around the world and throughout history, hopefully, will be facilitating just that, and with the recognition of shared values that transcend time and borders, will foster an appreciation for historical difference and cultural diversity. Importantly, the museum promotes the connection of people from various backgrounds and around the world.
The museum serves as a hub for dialogue, where diverse perspectives can be acknowledged, celebrated, and challenged. Exhibits are carefully curated to provide visitors, young and old, with opportunities to learn about different perspectives, experiences and challenges faced by communities worldwide.
By facilitating discussions around these issues, the museum encourages visitors to develop empathy for different communities, fostering a sense of social responsibility. Visitors are prompted to confront their preconceived notions and evolve their understanding of the world. It is through these learnings and conversations that connections are forged, enabling people to recognize the shared thread of humanity that unites us all.
Regarding other initiatives to engage with local communities, Tinning said: “We also have volunteers, mostly seniors and retired people, helping in areas such as customer service, photography, archival works. We make it such that the museum is part of their lives and serves as a place for them to remain socially active.
“Additionally, we also ask visitors for feedback like what they would like to see in terms of future exhibits, what are areas of improvements, what other areas that the museum can play a role in, etc. In a way, this is also their space, culture, history, and we want them to have a say.”
Although the museum has a core group of people who visit regularly, Tinning said the museum also wanted to reach out to people who may not think of visiting, by holding a wide variety of workshops to cater to different interests, outreach programs and having exhibits that are more relatable to modern lives like the love life of seafarers, LGBTQ seafarers, sailor fashion, and female seafarers. The key is to tell stories that resonate with different groups of people.
The museum’s workshops and outreach programs involve collaborations with schools and businesses like Maersk. By forging partnerships and working closely with the community, it can address specific social issues, promote inclusivity and positive change, and organize events that resonate with the community’s unique interests and concerns, like introducing seafaring as a career to students.
Lastly, Tinning shared that within the next two years, the museum is working to curate a whole new exhibition focusing on four hundred years of Danish maritime history, bringing in new voices, not only from Denmark’s perspective but also from the global perspective. This new exhibition, which will take up half the museum space, is slated to open in 2025, the exact date to be announced later.
Tinning (left) explained the finer point of container shipping to the writer.
An interactive installation.
Incorporating touchscreens and multimedia technology to the exhibits.
Museums play a pivotal role in community building by providing spaces for collective experiences. They function as focal points for local residents and visitors to come together, fostering a sense of identity and belonging.
By organizing community events, exhibitions and workshops, museums bring people from diverse backgrounds together, facilitating cross-cultural interactions, fostering mutual understanding, and building stronger communities. The connections made have a profound impact, promoting social cohesion and unity.
Museums have stories to tell. Stories that can bind people together. Since ancient times, seafarers have been travelling the seven seas and bringing back wonderful stories to enthrall and enchant us. There is no better industry than maritime trading and seafaring that can connect us with people from different nationalities and cultures, that can enable humanity to become more connected and global at the same time.
However, in an increasingly fragmented and disconnected world, museums must now serve as beacons of connection, compassion and understanding. They provide spaces where visitors can actively engage with history, art and culture, inspiring empathy and dialogue. Museums educate, enrich and enlighten individuals, igniting curiosity and encouraging lifelong learning.
By connecting people, museums play a vital role in building stronger communities, fostering social cohesion and promoting tolerance. They have the power to shape our collective future by connecting our past, present, and future.
The Maritime Museum of Denmark is an embodiment of this important role and represents values which connect people and transform lives through their exhibitions, programs and thought-provoking experiences. For me, it is well worth the 12 hours journey from Singapore and the subsequent jetlag to experience what the museum has to offer.
All photos credit: Lee Liang Ying. Taken at the Maritime Museum of Denmark, August 25, 2023.
Top photo: Morten Tinning (left), curator, Maritime Museum of Denmark and the writer.