“We need radical ideas if we want museums to become accessible spaces in our communities,” says Marianne Bargeman, Head of Learning and Interpretation at ARoS, one of Scandinavian’s largest art museums

Hi Marianne, please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Head of Learning and Interpretation for ARoS, Aarhus Art Museum, which was established in 1859. Before that, I used to work at the National Gallery of Denmark. For the past year and half I’ve been developing a public space within ARoS — ARoS Public isn’t dedicated to the art within the walls of our museum, but encourages conversations inspired by it.

“We need to understand… that the community is not a homogenous, compliant group.”

You want to create a space that isn’t dedicated to art, inside a museum?
I believe art is interesting when it meets people. I find it fascinating when people can relate to an artwork as part of their day-to-day lives. Art has the capacity to activate knowledge, which is why we believe ARoS Public can inspire reflection and meaningful conversations.

ARoS Public — rethinking the museum experience as a modern community centre

This sounds great in theory, but it’s not a straightforward process, which is why we need a framework to engage with the public and understand that the community is not a homogenous, compliant group. As a result, ARoS Public is a work in progress. We’re a space for ideas, within and outside the museum.

How do you connect these esoteric goals with real outcomes?
Digital plays a vital role, as it’s enabling us to take incremental steps to build the framework. The experiments we conduct in ARoS Public also inform what we do across the rest of the museum. For instance, The Eye Tracker uses cutting-edge technology to give visitors an opportunity to challenge their attention spans by focusing deeply on a single work of art. It’s also helping us understand human behaviour and perception. It’s fascinating to learn which details visitors pay special attention to.

[Img The Eye Tracker at ARoS Public]
“I would love for museums to become spaces that encourage political discussion and debate.”

Let’s get back to the idea of museums as a space for discussion…
I would love for museums to become spaces that encourage political discussion and debate. But we need to dare to have an opinion. It’s not just about taking political sides. It’s about mediating different and increasingly polarised communities.

Whenever there’s an election, we have posters for candidates plastered across the city. But museums can be these strange sanitised spaces. Let’s discuss the posters in relation to the portraits in our collection. How do they express power, hope or confidence?

The museum is full of provocative expressions that go back several hundred years. Our collection is a lens to view the world around and it’s imperative we take risks to instigate positive social change and build bridges.

“At ARoS Public, we use digital when we cannot achieve our goals using more traditional means.”

Where does digital fit into all of this?
At ARoS Public, we use digital when we cannot achieve our goals using more traditional means. It’s a powerful and playful approach to realising radical ideas. Every tool we develop is part of a playground that instigates reflection and conversations.

The Recording Booth, ARoS Public (click here for img src)

I’m interested in the physical aspect of digital technologies and it’s transformative potential. For instance, one of our early projects was the Recording Booth — a room for conversations where the starting point is an artwork, but the conversations can be about anything. The Booth became a neutral space for people to reflect and listen to each other. It is an ephemeral moment in their lives, which creates unexpected outcomes. I saw so many people enter the booth hesitantly, but come out surprised, with a smile on their face. Their body language had changed!

“Start with a purpose… be honest, are you relevant to your local community, city or region?”

What would your advice be to museums defining their digital strategy?
Start with a purpose. Revisit your mission. Look around you, be honest, are you relevant to your local community, city or region? Once you have a clear purpose, take small steps. There are so many options with digital, which is why you need to focus. It’s a case of knowing what you shouldn’t do.

We need radical ideas, not necessarily big budgets. We also need data. At the moment, there is an absence of data about our visitors. We need more research and collaboration in this field, then, as a sector, we can focus our attention on digital experiments that are replicable by everyone!

ARoS Salon, the venue for the Digital Identities seminar (img src)