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Poul Erik Tøjner. Publicity photo

Building a Contemporary Museum Means Building a Contemporary Society 0

A video interview with Poul Erik Tøjner, director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
09/12/2013, in cooperation with Platforma Film, decided to find out what is a 21st century museum's role in society – including everybody from children to adults.

To understand the functions and potential of a 21st century museum, we headed to Humlebæck, Denmark, 35 kilometers from the capital city of Copenhagen and home to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Louisiana was envisioned as one environmental entity in which art, architecture and the landscape would all interact. Founded in 1958, its aim was to form a collection of Danish modern art, but it didn't take long for the concept to expand and also include international contemporary art. Today, the Louisiana is regarded as one of the world's most respectable exhibition halls with a notable collection of modern art – one of the largest in Scandinavia. The collection contains more than 3000 artworks dating from 1945 to the present day. Just some of the artists represented include Picasso, Giacometti, Dubufett, Yves Klein, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois, Philip Guston, Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Per Kirkeby, David Hockney. In the last few years, the museum has supplemented its collection with works from completely new artists. The Louisiana hosts for to six exhibitions a year, and for its youngest visitors, it even has a “Children's Wing” with an art playground. On an interesting side note, the Louisiana Museum got its name thanks to the three wives of the museum's first owner, Alexander Brun – all three women were named Louise.

For almost fourteen years now, the museum has been under the direction of Poul Erik Tøjner, who is not only the director, but an art critic as well. had the chance to meet with Mr. Tøjner.


When Poul Erik Tøjner took the position of director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2000, his acquaintances were perplexed as to why he chose to continue his career in such an old-fashioned institution – one in which visitors rarely stayed for more than 20 minutes. “This happened during the cyberspace upsurge, when everyone was convinced that the only thing that we will have in the future is an image on a screen. It's the exact opposite! I was sure that the role of the museum would return. In today's visual culture, museums are essential in that they secure a balance between an image and the body. To satisfy our need for something real.” Poul is convinced that this is also the reason behind the Danes hysterical obsession with sports. “In Copenhagen, people run, ride bicycles and everything else – just to be aware of themselves as a body! That is exactly why museums are important, even though they may be perceived as an old-fashioned institution. Actually, there is nothing more futuristic than palpable reality.”

Poul accents the educational role of the museum, pointing out that in Danish schools, the emphasis on visual art has decreased. The museum must care for the new generation. “If we won't armor our children and young people with a critical mind, then they will simply get lost in today's visual over-saturation.” Poul stresses the fact that museums are a place to see originals. In the virtual world of images and imitations, the museum is a touchstone where one can reclaim the feeling of being present.

The museum already had a designated children's area from its very start in 1958. Tøjner remembers how in his childhood, his parents would take him here to play with Legos and draw. “In the 90s, the museum's board decided to go a step further and really emphasized the museum's pedagogical importance by creating a special room in which children wouldn't feel as if they had stepped into the world of adults.” The “Children's Wing” was opened in 1994, its architecture tailored to fit the museum's youngest visitors. The idea was borrowed from an expansive exhibition that the museum had organized in the 1970s; titled “Children are People”, its point was that children are not merely the offspring of adults. In speaking about museum pedagogy, Poul reveals that in his opinion, the most important thing is that “children experience art before they learn about it intellectually. Later on, knowledge acts much like a filter through which to interpret what you see. Without this filter, children are still in possession of naivety – a productive naivety in the most positive sense of the word.”


“A museum is conservative in the sense that it conserves cultural artifacts. We fight against forgetting and destruction; we care about preserving the past for the future, which does, of course, make museums a bit old-fashioned. But at the same time, one of our most important missions is to bring the past into today. It is no longer enough to just gesture in the general direction and say: here's your history. That is no longer possible. Museums must study and understand how people live today – how they perceive and understand the world. I make my curators not only have a thorough knowledge of art history, but I also make them travel a lot to see how people live elsewhere, to read their newspapers and books. In this sense, the mission of a contemporary art museum is to feel what is going on in the world right now.”


When asked whether a contemporary art museum can ensure an economic contribution to a city, Tøjner replies that that is something that must be looked at from a larger and more long-term perspective. “It is clear that large expenditures are to be expected when building a contemporary art museum. But building a museum means building society. It is not just the profits to be had from attendance. A museum is a new networking center – like throwing a stone into a pool and observing the resultant waves. These waves will influence society in a myriad of ways, some of them quite invisible.” Poul believes that a museum's contribution should not be judged by economic indicators alone. It is crucial to understand the value that a museum brings to society. He also points out that for today's cultural tourists, it's not just good restaurants and hotels that are important, but the cultural scene as well – without that, a trip is mundane and boring.

How can one prove to people the necessity of a contemporary art museum? Tøjner believes that it is important to sell people on the idea of a museum as such, and not on specific details. “One must emphasize the decisive role that a contemporary art institution – that contemporary art itself – has, in a  comprehensive sense. In comparison, one can ask – What is the role of schools? Why is the University of Latvia necessary? One needn't discuss concrete research programs or the virtues of teaching Latin with politicians, but rather the idea of education as such. It should be the same with a contemporary art museum.”

How should one address that section of society that believes that just having a 17th-, 18th-, or 19th-century art museum is sufficient? “Do they live in the 17th century?” asks Tøjner rhetorically. “For a society to be contemporary, it needs a contemporary art museum that will help it not only understand today, but that will also help it understand tomorrow. Because it is artists that oftentimes are able to precisely grasp the course that the future will take. It is important to think about where we will be tomorrow, and who we are today. And this is exactly what contemporary art serves to do.”