Museums and the Anna Karenina Principle

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Those are the famous first words of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal novel Anna Karenina. It has since lent its name to a model for system dynamics — the Anna Karenina Principle — describing the idea that for a system to succeed, a large number of factors have to succeed, whereas failure instantly occurs merely by failure of one key factor. Such is the world of the apex animal of cultural institutions: the museum. On top of the cultural food chain only by appearance, the successful life of a museum depends on a large number of factors to succeed — externally, internally and structurally.

Urgent.Agency
Aug 19 · 6 min read

We are not sure when or how working with museums became a niche for us but somehow we have managed to engage with a handful of the most popular museums in Denmark — thereby consolidating a reputation as the go-to agency for re-branding museums. We like to think that it has something to do with our company makeup as a cross-disciplinary agency with a highly cultural profile — and everything to do with our capacity to embrace the Anna Karenina Principle of cultural institutions.

There’s no place like home

In 2015, we were contacted by Kunsten, Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg. They found themselves in a peculiar predicament. After having endured two full years of eviction from their iconic building by Alvar Aalto due to renovation, they were now facing the challenge of moving back into their actual home — but instead of relief, they felt a certain amount of hesitation. The last two years had been spent in a provisional kiosk at Aalborg train station and the art had been a “to go” product — literally being transported around the region.

Carrying a multimillion dollar painting of Andy Warhol around in bulletproof glass has quite the impact on people. Maybe even more so than seeing art in its usual surroundings. This made the museum realise that they had made a virtue out of necessity — and that there was something about the activistic approach that gave them the edge they needed.

Having activism, approachability and immediacy as benchmarks for their homecoming, we came up with a brand strategy with the essence of “creative force” (skaberkraft) at its core. No matter what the museum wanted to achieve, it had to channel the original and very human creative force that lies behind any work of art.The trick was to hold on to that feeling of genuine nearnes combined with spatial flexibility while still embracing the amazing space created by Alvar Aalto.

The iconic building by Alvar Aalto (left) and their new signage (right)

We came up with three principles: 1. Pretend that the museum is not yours — you are merely borrowing it. With this mindset, the “to go”-energy could be preserved. 2. We found a solution in “to go signage” — an unusual concept for art museums but it allowed the museum to insist on a dynamic exhibition practice while giving its visitors a visual and highly recognisable format for navigation. 3. When you communicate, follow a recipe of: Context + Art + Communication. As a rule, these three elements had to be present in all forms of communication, whether in graphics or in the “to go” signage. Not only did it literally tie the art to the museum through the images, but more importantly it forced the curators to work more closely together with the communication department, just like they had been forced to be innovative together during their out-of-house period.

Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg

The museum as a supertanker!

When Designmuseum Danmark approached us in 2016, the situation was quite the opposite. The museum was not about to leave its listed building but it was faced with the pleasant problem of a rapid increase in visitor numbers — partly due to the fact that the museum had updated its name from the Industrial Arts Museum (Kunstindustrimuseet) to Design Museum Denmark.

All of a sudden, the increasing amount of tourists in Copenhagen understood that the museum was all about design! Visitor numbers soared, leaving the museum with the distinct feeling of being underdressed for success.

The Design Museum is a Danish cultural institution and when faced with institutions of a certain weight class, you will quickly learn that not only are decisions not made on the spot, but more importantly, the long tradition of the place casts a heavy shadow on the process of rethinking and re-designing. It is more than a workplace, it is a passion project for its employees, some of which have invested their lives in the museum.

Does that mean that change is unwelcome? Not necessarily. But it means that we as an agency had to regulate our approach to fit with the rhythm of the museum and to take our time trying to identify the factors that were making this particular family less than happy. The Anna Karenina factor was identified: It was not about the amount of visitors, the restrictions of the building, the museum’s internal capacity for collaboration, or any other practical factor. It was more about the mindset governing all the decisions relating to these factors.

We share design

In close collaboration with the museum, we developed a brand strategy that consolidated the museum as the collective design memory of Denmark. With remembering comes the responsibility of sharing your memories and knowledge. The museum knew it all along but articulating it as an actual brand promise transformed the responsibility into something not unlike a mantra: “We share design”. We share it with the public in any shape, form, and platform. We share it with each other in the process of creating new exhibitions or communication initiatives. We share it with the press, making sure that the collective memory reaches all corners of its design constituency.

To top it all off, we designed a new visual identity that turned out to be the most effective driver for change. By actually dressing for success — in welcoming colours and a modern yet approachable typeface — the museum underwent a make-over from website to signage to publications to every little piece of merchandise.

The power of design is the ability to transform the framework of everyday interactions, so by looking more the part of a modern and welcoming museum, it started feeling — and behaving — the part!

The happy museum

The Anna Karenina model requires a thorough examination of the patient. Why is the patient not happy despite its success, beautiful surroundings, growing visitor numbers, talented staff?

Which factor is causing the system to fail? An inquisitive branding process means listening to and observing the patient before identifying the failing factor. In the case of Kunsten, the trick was to transfer the newfound temporality and activism to the old home, whereas Design Museum Denmark had to unlock a mindset that allowed it to share more freely, openly and visually.


This article is an excerpt from “Urgent.Practice — Culture design and design culture in the 21st century”. Read more interviews and articles from the publication here on Medium or click here to download the full publication.

Read more about our work and projects on our website.

Urgent.Practice — Culture design and design culture in the 21st century

Urgent.Academy

Knowledge is as needed as ever before — yet, links between institutions, informal networks of knowledge and the business world are mostly weak and inefficient. Urgent.Academy is our platform for mediating knowledge and market, theory and practice, academy and hands-on projects.

Urgent.Agency

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We are a bastard agency; a dedicated crossbreed between culture analysis and design.

Urgent.Academy

Knowledge is as needed as ever before — yet, links between institutions, informal networks of knowledge and the business world are mostly weak and inefficient. Urgent.Academy is our platform for mediating knowledge and market, theory and practice, academy and hands-on projects.

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