The Workers’ Museum in Copenhagen was formally inaugurated on 12 April 1982 at a meeting held at the coming museum buildings, the Workers’ Assembly Hall at Rømersgade in Copenhagen where the museum is situated. At that time the museum had a governing board on which sat representatives of The National Museum, The Museum of Copenhagen, The Library and Archives of the Danish Labour Movement, The University of Copenhagen, the National College of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, (LO), the society Friends of the Workers’ Museum and the General Council of the Federation of Trade Unions.
The initiative for setting up a museum was taken by a number of people who lived in the Nørrebro workers’ district in Copenhagen, by teachers at the Trade Unions Training Colleges and by museum staff members at The National Museum and The Museum of Copenhagen City. Since 1980 they had been active in setting up a museum of workers’ housing and everyday life.
The National Agency for the Protection of Monuments, and Sites soon showed its interest in discussing a scheduling of The Workers’ Assembly Hall that was built in 1879, and as early as in the spring of 1983 the buildings became a scheduled monument – the first workers’ scheduled monument in Europe.
The next important thing to achieve was to gain official recognition for the museum in accordance with the provisions of the Museum Act. Already in 1983, the Official Museum Authority had recommended that the museum be officially recognized. However, the liberal minister in charge of the Ministry of Culture did not endorse the recommendation. But with the assistance of two prominent Social-Democratic politicians and a Radical Liberal an alternative parliamentary majority could be mustered – something which happened fairly frequently in the days of the Liberal-Conservative government – and the museum was included in the Finance Act for 1984 despite the wishes of the Minister of Culture. The Workers’ Museum was now a reality with a parliamentary majority behind it and its buildings were listed.
Having worked closely together with the Archive and Library of the Labour Movement for a couple of decades, the two organizations were merged on 1 January 2004. Since then, the institution has been known as The Workers’ Museum & The Archives and Library of the Labour Movement.
Over the years that had elapsed since its opening, the Workers’ Museum had become well known, and since the late eighties the annual number of visitors has been more than 100,000.
The Workers’ Museum is now known for its permanent exhibitions all over the country, and especially during the summer months visitors come from all over Denmark to see them. By contrast, our special exhibitions are primarily visited by a Copenhagen public.
When we began in 1982 we did not have as much as a pin in our collections. There were no collections! That is why in early 1983 we decided to mark the opening of the museum by having an exhibition on daily life in the 1950ies. Since, as already stated, we had no collection, we had to locate and acquire everything. There was a good reason for us to have selected the 1950ies: many people had kept things from this decade, things that were suitable for exhibition and things we could actually get hold of. Consequently, the museum began a hectic campaign in early 1983. Initially we launched an appeal through the dailies which were accommodatingly willing to write about the new Workers’ Museum’s desire to document the 1950ies. But all we gained from that campaign was publicity! It was only when we wrote a detailed description of the types of objects we were looking for from the 1950ies that collecting got under way. These detailed descriptions were transferred to lists and placed in the relevant trade-union bulletins. In the early 1980ies, nearly 30 different trade-union bulletins were still in circulation, and it was fairly easy to target the grouping of the objects we were looking for on the individual bulletins: that of the general workers, bricklayers, domestic servants, the graphical trades, the metal workers, etc. This targeted collecting mode was very successful. In the course of a few months in the spring of 1983, the museum received about 12,000 objects – mainly dating back to the 1950ies. The campaign yielded material for more than a single exhibition on everyday life in the 1950ies, but it also provided us with several years´ work of cataloguing. The exhibition ‘The 1950ies – an Exhibition on Life in a Working-Class Family’ was opened on 1 May 1984. The intention had been to keep it open for six months, until the autumn of 1984, but it was only in the autumn that the general public really took notice of it, for which reason we put off dismantling the exhibition – which is still open today and has during the years been seen by almost 3 mill. guests.
With the exhibition on the 1950ies we established the display principle for which the Workers’ Museum was to become known over the years. Our fundamental mode of communication is openness, closeness, straightforwardness, uncomplicated narration structure, recognizability and richness of detail. Our public welcomed the intense mode of narration of interiors, which made a great number of visitors identify with the museum as an institution. The advantage of this mode is that everybody gets it – school children, grandparents or families going for an outing on a Sunday afternoon.
The succes of the exhibition on the 1950ies made us suspect that we, as a new museum, could probably get away with more than most. So when we next decided to go on to produce an exhibition on the depression of the 1930ies, we had to set up an unconventional collection campaign. This time we decided to base the exhibition on the family home of ‘Red’, a railway worker. He was a working-class character in an extremely popular Danish television series that covered life in Denmark from 1929 to 1950. The settings used for the series were left completely intact in the studios of the producing film company, and the Workers’ Museum borrowed all of them and exhibited them in 1985. The message to the public was not that we were exhibiting Red’s home as a story from the 1930ies. Our message was the completely different one that the museum wanted to put on display how workers lived through the depression of the 1930ies, but that we did not possess the material for such documentation. And that was what we wanted people to help us with. It proved more difficult to carry out targeted collection activities for the 1930ies than had been the case for the 1950ies, but eventually we succeeded, and in 1986 we opened the next permanent exhibition ‘Hard Times – a Working-Class Home in the 1930ies’. The campaign was heavily questioned by museum professionals – but very successful amongst the rest of the population
The production of our first permanent exhibitions was quite hectic, but also quite absorbing, and it goes without saying that the crucial factor was that the public supported our activities by visiting the museum on a regular basis. The interiors, the homes, everyday life, the intelligible story – the feeling of being in the middle of real life – were a great success. There is no doubt that this was what was behind the Yrsa Sørensen’s family contacting us in 1990. The family offered us a complete home with the exceptions of the few things which 90-year-old Yrsa wanted to take with her into the nursing home to which she was moving. This flat had been set up in 1915 when 15-year-old Yrsa and her parents moved in. Apart from a very few renewals, such as some new chairs, nothing had been changed for a lifetime. The flat was located in a Copenhagen district and the whole building had been condemned. We made it a condition that we were to have the entire interior, i.e. walls, ceilings, floorboards, etc., so that the story of the family’s life that we had already decided to exhibit would be as intense as possible. The exhibition was opened as a permanent one in 1994.
Until then, permanent exhibitions had been fictitious, but very realistic, but this time no fiction was involved; it was the story of the life of a family in their home.
In its pioneering phase, an organization can count on incredible amounts of energy. This also applied to the Workers’ Museum and concurrently with the targeted build-up of permanent exhibitions; special exhibitions were put in place as a natural result of the very high rates of activity.
Some examples of the activity:
In the years from 1986 to 1988 the museum’s political commitment was reflected by a series of special exhibitions all of which were based on the concept of solidarity. We displayed peasants’ paintings from Nicaragua in 1986, picture tapestries from Botswana in 1987, and Shona and Makonde sculptures from Mozambique and Zimbabwe in 1988. In the meantime the news of the excellent interior exhibitions at the Workers’ Museum had travelled to Greenland. And in 1987, the Greenland trade union movement asked us to produce a travelling exhibition for them. It was called, ‘Your History – that’s how we lived in 1956’. The exhibition was arranged in the course of a week long stay at the Qaqortoq Højskoliat. The actual layout was remote-controlled from Copenhagen over the following year. If the success of an exhibition can be judged by the percentage of a country’s population that has seen it, it would be fair to say that this one was the most successful one that the museum has ever produced. Over the following years, the exhibition moved from hamlet to hamlet in Greenland, it was on display in every hamlet, and seen by virtually every single Greenlander.
Following the collapse of communism around 1990, for some years we used the special exhibitions to tell people about the GDR and the Soviet Union, but also to narrate the history of Danish communists. One such was the exhibition of the art collection of ‘Land og Folk’ the communist daily. A part of this collection was later donated to the museum.
At the same time the photoarchives of the paper that contained all possible propaganda and information delivered by the Soviet TASS press agency were given to The Labour Movements Archives that today is a part of the museum.
It is a well known fact that good special exhibitions strongly contribute to keeping up the number of visitors to a museum. 1994 provided us with an opportunity to reach a new audience, the photo buffs. As early as in 1984, the museum had gained some attention by showing a photo exhibition by Louis Hein, the American who had documented working life in the USA during the time before the First World War. And 10 years later we had the chance to show yet another interesting photo exhibition. It was Sebastiaõ Salgados’ exhibition ‘Workers”. Salgado had travelled all over the world and had photographed workers and work situations with a truly rare intensity.
From the late 1980ies, the Workers’ Museum had had a close relationship with the Workers’ Art Association. Over the years, the museum has exhibited many of the works owned by the association and we have taken part in disseminating art to many workplaces. Around the turn of the millennium it became increasingly clear that the conditions under which the activities of which the Workers’ Art Association had been meaningful were in the process of disappearing. Around the same time the idea was aired that the Workers’ Museum might take over the association’s collection. It consisted of approximately 600 oil paintings mainly from post-war years, and in the main only Danish artists was represented. There were also approximately 3000 prints by Danish and Nordic artists. In 2002 an agreement was concluded with the Workers’ Art Association to take over the collection.
That ment that the official recognised status of the museum changed to as well a cultural historical museum as art museum. And since that temporary art exhibitions have been an important means for our outreache programme. The world famous – specially in the communist countries – cartoonist Herluf Bidstrup were on show in 2004.
And with the art exhibition ‘Images of Industry’, shown in 2007, the museum marked an extensive research effort made into a subject which art museums in Denmark never had been working with before. The exhibition catalogue is one of the most successful in our long list of museum publications.
The profile of our special exhibitions has been modified and their scholarly basis has been strengthened over the years. The culture history exhibitions are based on scholarly research. This is true, for instance, of the documentation concerning an estate of one family row-houses at a Copenhagen suburb, and with the collection and documentation efforts for the mail order and department store Daells in Copenhagen as well as an exhibition on the Decline of the North-west workers’ district called Copenhagen NV. As regards the art history profile, things have changed more radically from a few tentative small shows in the early days of the museum to many and extensive collection based and scholarly documented special exhibition of an art history nature in recent years in a new underground extension from 2004.
Communication and Presentation
Ever since the opening of the exhibition on the 1950ies, the Workers’ Museum has had a strong appeal for schools. It is very much in keeping with the ideal basis of the museum that schools should be given an opportunity to work with the history of workers and of the labour movement. Over the years, the museum has been so popular with schools that as early as 1985 it became necessary to create a special booking system for school visits – around 20 000 pupils a year.
From the very beginning, the museum has followed an exhibition policy which placed our visitors at the centre of attention. Without an extensive and interested public there is not much point in a museum in telling workers’ history. Consequently, we began systematic advertising in the dailies while at the same time attaching a great deal of importance to thorough and targeted publicity work.
The visitors’ survey through the years provided us interesting data. One piece of information was that the percentage of visitors who came to see us from all parts of the country is higher than that of The National Museum
Collection and Examination
As mentioned above, museum activities were started with an intensive campaign to get hold of objects to be used in the exhibition on the 1950ies. In the museum world, the Workers’ Museum was perceived as quite innovative in focusing on everyday life, and the everyday things that went with it. Lots of people all over the country were made aware of the things we wanted for the museum, and in the course of 1983 and 1984 our collection grew very large. It should be observed that while pursuing this collection campaign and concurrently with the exhibition on everyday life, the museum made it possible for the people who used the museum and who donated objects to the museum to identify with our way of communicating and presenting things at the museum. From the 1980ies this feeling of identity has been important to our activity borne by a feeling of identity among a very large number of individuals with the way the museum narrates down-to-earth history, personalized history, the little history embedded in the big history.
This fact means that many people have spontaneously donated objects to the museum relating to their own lives. As a live wire in a collection campaign on workers’ lives and everyday life, it is, of course, of tremendous benefit and it has been a very valuable thing for the museum and its overall profile that so many people have been able to identify with the way of narrating history invented by the museum.
However, not everything is of a personal nature. In 1986, the small hall at the Royal Rosenborg Castle, which housed King Frederik IV’s glass collection which originally came from Murano near Venice, and which he had collected during a European jaunt in the late 18th century – was to be restored, for the second time. Behind the glass panels conservators found three packed lunches. They were wrapped in newspaper and as luck would have it, one of the newspapers had the date printed on it. It was the ‘Social-Demokraten’ for 24 April 1886. At that time this newspaper had its offices at 22, Rømersgade, which is where the museum is situated today. The Rosenborg director asked the Workers’ Museum if we would like to have the packed lunches. For a museum desirous of telling the story of everyday life it is, of course, a scoop to get its hands on an original packed lunch dated 1886 and consisting on two rounds of black bread wrapped in the first social-democratic paper Social-Demokraten.
Already in 1987, the number of items in our collections had passed 25,000 mark, and now, in 2008, it consists of 52,000 objects and should in the years to come be reviewed in order to sift out mistakes as well as the high number of duplicates.
From the late 1980ies, the Workers’ Museum had had a close relationship with the Workers’ Art Association. Over the years, the museum has exhibited many of the works owned by the Art Association and we have taken part in disseminating art to many workplaces. Around the turn of the millennium it became increasingly clear that the conditions under which the activities of which the Workers’ Art Association had been meaningful were in the process of disappearing. Around the same time the idea was aired that the Workers’ Museum might take over the Association’s collection. It consisted of approximately 600 oil paintings mainly from post-war years, and in the main only Danish artists was represented. There were also approximately 3000 prints by Danish and Nordic artists. In 2002 an agreement was concluded with the Workers’ Art Association to take over the collection.
And now the official status is as well cultural historical museum as art museum.
From its opening in 1983 the museum has made diligent use of every opportunity to inform the public of our activities through the media – both the printed press and the electronic media. As already mentioned this meant that considering its size and news value it did not take long for the museum to become known by the public, and not just in the Copenhagen area, but all over the country, and indeed, outside Denmark.
This was the result of a targeted tactic as, for good reasons, the museum was virtually unknown.
We organized our PR-activities in a highly systematic way, and it had the desired effect. Consequently, since the mid-1980ies, the museum has enjoyed good publicity rates, although the reasons for it have varied a great deal over the years. It was even possible to keep up media attention during the years when the museum was closed for subterranean extension work in 2003-04. This latter media interest was mainly due to the presence of the statue of Lenin in the museum yard.
This high degree of media interest taken in the museum and its activities has, at times, led to crisis-like situations which, at the end of the day, have benefited the museum by making more people aware of its existence.
This was the case in 2000 when the television channel Denmark 2 broadcast the series on the history of the labour movement now also produced by the museum. The series achieved high viewer ratings because of political attempts to get it stopped by an injunction, which only led to even greater press coverage for the series.
The previous year, the museum had caught the attention of the media when the right-wing Populist Party, ‘The Danish People Party’, wanted to exploit the museum’s aura of belonging to ‘the good old days’ – the 1950ies – for presenting their new manifesto for a senior citizen policy. The party had rented our historic bar in the basement for holding its press meeting, and this generated intense media interest. In a situation in which it is not too much to say that the museum was up against expert communicators, the only safe thing to do was to close down the communication flow completely and only release the things we could control. The day before the press meeting virtually all Danish media wanted an interview with the museum director and the head of the party about this event. They were all turned down except for the DR1 news programme. However, this channel was only given three quotations with which to work and picked one for its news, which was, of course, recorded in the exhibition on everyday life in the 1950ies: ‘In the coffee bar accompanying the exhibition about everyday life in the 50ies we sell around 20,000 cups of coffee with chickory – so why wouldn’t we allow surrogate politics to be served up in our basement bar?’ It did not do the party chairman much good that she declared that this was a public place, and that they certainly had a right to be there. But no bad feelings. Ten years after the same politicians created the majority in the Parliament for the nescessary extra appropriation on the Law of Finance for restoration of the museums buildings.
The second large-scale media concern extended over several years and was far more difficult to handle because so many different interests affected the course of events.
Placing the statue of Lenin – originally a Soviet gift to the communist Sailors Union – in the museum yard in 1997 provoked a reaction from right-wing extremists who wanted it to be removed. This message came across in a series of letters to the editor and small articles in Conservative national papers. A quarterly published by the Ministry of Culture, ‘Kulturkontakten’ [Cultural Contact] included an article about the statue with an extremely right-wing slant in the assessment of Lenin’s political action, and this made a politician from the Danish People’s Party demand that the ministry order the museum to remove the statue. The minister did no such thing because the Danish Museum Act contains no provisions for such action. However, he said that he had a great deal of sympathy with the notion, a sentiment which certainly did not put a lid on the matter which was kept on the boil in the media by interventions pro et con. The whole thing went from bad to worse when in an open letter to the press a number of prominent social-democrats demanded the removal of the statue. This coincided with our reopening of the underground extension in August 2004 – made us discontinue our marketing activities for the newly reopened museum – and caused us to cut that part of the budget entirely. The demands to remove the statue rested on the argument that the museum only existed to tell the history of democratic socialism, and no one could reasonably accuse Lenin of being a champion of that in the history of international labour. Our statement all way through was very simple and understandable: Our visitors are able to think themselves. The outcome was that the media gave the whole thing their full attention, that visitors came to the museum in fantastic numbers, and – not least – that the museum became a household name in every part of the country. The number of press cuttings in this matter amounted to nearly 600 and television and radio were also keenly interested. Presumably the opposite effect had always been intended, but the truth of the matter is that the museum gained a great deal of sympathy by refusing to accept political interference in its exhibition policy – and by doing so standing by its integrity and fundamental principles of professionalism – although the quarrel did at times call for a good deal of sang froid.
Throughout its existence, the labour movement has been internationalist in its fundamental outlook. This is not tantamount to saying that workers’ are internationalists. The exhibition of working-class homes in Armuri in Tampere was a decisive source of inspiration for me in the early days of the museum’s history. Co-operation between Workers’ Educational Associations in the Nordic counties and through the various workers’ museums and museum initiatives in the Nordic region continued over the ’80ies and ’90ies. The Workers’ Museum in Copenhagen was the first to open its doors to the public. Only in 1990 did the Norwegian Industrial Workers’ Museum at Rjukan as well as The Museum of Work in Norrköping in Sweden open. And a few years later, the Finish Workers’ Museum Waapriki (factory) in Tampere, a former cotton mill, was opened. The supreme result so far of co-operation between the Nordic museums was the art exhibition of Edvard Munch’s paintings depicting work and workers I in 1996.
In various European countries several initiatives were under way to show workers’ history in a museum. Already in the early 1980ies a comprehensive working-class culture exhibition was opened in Hamburg, and in the ’90ies the Museum of Work, Museum der Arbeit, was opened. A similar event took place in Steyr in Austria. I the late 1980ies a so-called ‘Landesausstellung’ (Regional Exhibition) was shown in Steyr on working life, and subsequently the ‘Museum Arbeitswelt’ (World of Work) was opened. In Britain, Manchester set up a workers’ museum called the ‘People’s History Museum’ at about that time, in Terrassa Barcelona in Spain, what had originally been a technical museum developed into a combination of technical and workers’ history museum. It consists of number of small museums in old industrial enterprises along the LLobregat river valley towards the Pyrenees, the industrial cradle of Spanish manufacturing industry, and a place where the protective tariffs introduced by Franco had left a pocket of industrial history of quite an anachronistic nature.
In 1993 we gathered all those brilliant ideas associated with work that we had encountered all over Europe in the exhibition ‘Work in Europe’. The point of the exhibition was to inform the public of the many different traditions, perceptions, methods, and practices in the field of work and working life that were to be found in Europe. By way of examples we chose a Catalan cotton mill, British coalmining, Finish timber work, and the German motor industry. The exhibition opened in Copenhagen, was shown in Norway, and finally in Moscow.
Around 1990 the workers’ museums in all of the countries were all of them in their infancy, and reciprocal information activities seemed only sensible. There really was no reason why we should all make the same mistakes. Furthermore it was obvious that we could profitably pick each others’ brains, provide inspiration and get interesting exhibitions from each other. Therefore, it was only natural that in 1997 the Workers’ Museum invited representatives of the European workers’ museums to come to Copenhagen to set up the organization WORKLAB – The International Organisation of Labour Museums (www.worklab.dk).
From its early days with seven founder members the organization has grown to 45 members all over the world. Over the years, WORKLAB has arranged a number of joint conferences and international projects. The most successful, ‘Migration, Work, and Identity’ opened in 2001 and was an exhibition project on worker migration produced by seven museums in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Spain, Britain, and Denmark. The project was managed by the Workers’ Museum and was financed under the European Commission’s Culture 2000 programme. This exhibition ended in 2005.
Once again, in 2007, the Workers’ Museum initiated another joint project financed by the European Union. ‘The Dream Factory – Industry and Modernism’ is about the content and physical expression of work on either side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ as seen down through the Baltic Sea. This time, the Baltic countries, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are partners. The exhibition, which was shown in Denmark in 2007, will go on tour until 2010. For the very first time, incidentally, it can be viewed online at www.arbejdermuseet.dk
The Workers’ Museum and the Archive and Library of the Labour Movement
In 2004 the history of the working class and the labour movement was brought into a single foundation, when the two institutions the Workers’ Museum and the Archive and Library of the Labour Movement were merged and became one legal person. In this connection the museum was the newcomer, who in its relatively short life had pushed its way into people’s awareness as a result of its considerable popular appeal. The Archive and Library, on the other hand, represented the long haul. In this institution documents of almost a hundred years’ labour movement activities were kept, it had one of the country’s most distinguished photo collections and a specialized library on the Danish and international labour and trade union history.
The many visitors in the museum experience workers’ history, but more than anything their own lives can be viewed from the perspective of history. Researchers, scholars, authors, and student come to the archive and library and work their way further and further into workers’ history. Yet, no matter what their reason for comings, they are welcomed by the red flags in the street and they share the experience of the attractions in the Workers’ Assembly Hall. History emanates from the Meetng Hall, from of the workers’ bar, and from all the scheduled building, which we have been restoring since the opening of the museum. Everything rests on the collections – the objects, artifacts, works of art, documents, photos, and books – a solid foundation, and on the way in which we narrate history to the public and make them available to scholars.
Today The Workers’ Museum is well situated amongst Danish attractions with up to 120 000 guests a year, with permanent exhibitions not only about workers housing but also about working life and workers politics, with temporary exhibitions about history and about art, with other activities as conferences and meetings in the former workers meeting hall, a good restaurant and a good reputations all over the country. It started as a controversial cultural attempt but is now in a solid position in the Danish cultural picture – and by the way also a tourist attraction as around ten percent of the visitors are foreigners.
Workers history is interesting and many people are very interested in it – if they get the chance.
It would be fine if the creation of some labour museums during the last decades in some years could lead to a UNESCO nomination of monuments from the workers’ history.