According to Director Jette Sandahl, the Museum of Copenhagen is attempting to play a larger role in creating urban identity in Copenhagen, to help residents identify firstly as Copenhageners irrespective of origin and help maintain and promote a beautiful historical and artistic city. For her, the city museum, being the custodian of the city’s past heritage and a continuing cultural present, is in a perfect place to become the mediator and cultivator of the city’s cultural life and projects. Here, the role of the city museum in the urban fabric has become a place for contact and creating outreach among citizens and the Museum of Copenhagen is thereby positioning itself both as a co-creator and as co-custodian on behalf of all Copenhageners.
This role is also visible in the Museum’s use of emerging digital technology in the public context. It manifests itself as the “Wall” a digital interactive installation on the streets of Copenhagen since 2009, a beacon of digital interaction and citizen participation: a piece of the museum that extends outside the real museum. Today, Sarah Giersing, Curator at the Museum takes us out on walk to visit the Wall, to experience the physical simulation of the Museum’s urban outreach policy.
The Wall can be described as a series of plasma screens and twin display boxes encased into a modified shipping container that opens up on one side to reveal its digital contents. It is currently located on the Lakes, its temporary home, by the Nørrebrogade bridge, on the busy crossroads of Peblinge and Sortedam. The container in itself has a low tech look, considering the safety issues, corrugated steel all around, black steel on the front reminiscent of an armored vehicle. Although the Wall unforgivingly emanates an industrial aesthetic in its pretty 18th century urban surroundings, yet when it faces the street, the plasma screens on the front are alight with a myriad thousand vibrant images of Copenhagen, its memories and its people.
The Wall is powered by the digital archives of the Museum of Copenhagen that grows continuously by the hour with the addition of new resident user images. It started with the Museum building their own media database of Copenhagen and its citizens for the purpose of the Wall in the last few years, and this process is ongoing. In this time, citizens have also uploaded their own memories of the city via photographs, scans and videos.
Each of the four large screens are touch-screens, comic-book style colorful views of Copenhagen streets. The twin display glass boxes on the sides of the screens display more tangible material from the City’s history and are like temporary exhibitions. The screens can be individually played with various entry points such as swiping from side to side on an animated street-scape, browsing by map, exploring photos of various neighbourhoods etc. One can even zoom in and out of these visuals, zoom in to see greater detail of the streets, zoom out to see the bigger picture. The street-scapes are also connected to a timeline, and a scroller on the bottom allows to move back and forth between different historical eras. There are entire albums linked to the street views, some from the Museum archives and some from the citizen uploads. A web version of the Wall also exists on the Museum website that allows similar interaction and exploration on your personal screens.
Promoting participation from residents, the Wall actually allows you to write comments, add new viewpoints to the history of the city. A usb hub is located on the bottom of the screens that lets you connect your phone to the screen and upload your images. One can also upload photos to the Museum website, which then transfers them to the installation on site. The Wall is connected to all the major social networks, and in general allows sharing over the internet. Sarah says that since implementation, it has had over a million visitors and a few million touches and clicks over the time it has existed, figures that attest to the “Wall”‘s success.
After an hour of joyful playing with the screens and exploring Copenhagen’s past and present, we head back to Sarah’s office to discuss the future of the Wall. Several important questions are aired, namely, what will happen to the Wall when the funding for the project ends?
How to manage such huge digital archives that keep expanding in gigabits by the day?! Can the Wall become a permanent extension of the Museum? Can it be open to further iterations by residents and artists? Can it become truly participatory? Can the Wall (and indirectly the Museum of Copenhagen) position itself both as an advocate and activist on behalf of all Copenhageners?
In my opinion, the Wall needs to exist longer beyond the completion of the Copenhagen metro and the ongoing archaeological excavations. It should be considered as a long-term investment and as a basic part of the urban infrastructure, given that the Museum of Copenhagen is dealing with and has a stake in Copenhagen’s daily urban life and cultural identity. But then, the Wall also needs to keep transforming itself in physical appearance, digital design and content. It needs to remodel itself into a grassroots citizen’s cultural tool and not just as an outpost of the Museum. It needs to get embedded so deep into the community and neighborhood that residents start to own it, use it, run it, just as they would take care of their own gardens and surroundings.
Currently, the Wall has the appearance of an electronic and digital show, a sort of a spectacle on the street, sometimes a bit too touristy. This impression needs to be changed by a more tactile design of the container itself. A contextual design based on Copenhagen’s urban structure, architecture and identity of its neighborhoods could be a definite possibility. The Screens themselves also are inherently flawed in their approach of interaction when it comes to community and participation. It is literally a wall of screens! You participate with the CPU of the Wall. It is always you interacting with the screen, and not actually with anyone else. Through the history, screens have usually transformed from the cinema to the television to the current handheld, having become gradually smaller and more personal. Here, the Wall defies this logic and goes against the evolution of screens. But, yet it has been to an extant successful in gathering attention as proved by the recorded metrics and served its purpose of gathering resident’s photos and history. It could have been better. Maybe, in the future the evolution of screens and interaction could be more thoroughly analyzed and incorporated into the next iteration of the wall. Maybe the design of the structure could start including ideas of community interaction, become more 3-dimensional and the content adjust to current needs related to participation in neighborhood design, discussion of social issues and urban identity. That way, the Wall can involve a wide spectrum of people in the most critical contemporary topics. Maybe, the Wall could transform from just a wall to a house of the people!
Finally, the Wall, to me is a discussion forum, where the Museum stays in the background, creates a physical sense of place, supplies its technology and archives, and lets people gather and build on that available data, a sort of an Open-source community Museum! It does not in this case have to maintain huge archives all the time, the responsibility could be shared among the community. Residents as ambassadors of culture could participate as custodians of cultural data too. Museums need not always try to become the Federal Reserve Bank of culture!
As, the discussion with Sarah comes to an end, I am reminded of Director Sandahl’s vision of the Museum of Copenhagen becoming the people’s museum, not just a reservoir of cultural and historical information, but a support and guide to the residents of Copenhagen towards new interpretations and ideas. Undeniably, she has redefined the City Museum and brought it into defiant justification. This is a very admirable and respectable position for a City Museum in today’s turbulent times of cross-cultural identities, immigration, and economic crises in Europe. A position that needs to be emulated in other european cities and capitals.
Note: This report is based on a visit to the Museum of Copenhagen on 22nd April as part of the Museum Day activities of the 6th Inclusive Museum Conference at Copenhagen between 21st -23rd April 2013.