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University of Copenhagen
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Thrilled to bits: Natural history museum in turnaround after losses

Success — The Natural History Museum of Denmark had 452,000 visitors in 2022. This is a tripling of its visitor numbers over the course of five years. According to museum director Peter C. Kjærgaard, the boost in numbers is due to a transformation towards using the museum as a laboratory and in understanding how reality changes.

The museum director and professor of evolutionary history, Peter C. Kjærgaard, comes running into the museum dressed in a suit and parka jacket for his appointment with the University Post. Out of breath, he tells me that he has an office at the other end of the botanical gardens, and eagerly starts to talk about the Natural History Museum of Denmark before I even manage to turn on the dictaphone.

We had met up so he could tell me about how, through the last five years, the museum has transformed itself from having to endure large-scale financial losses to being the second most popular museum in Copenhagen. But the idea/science historian has a lot to say, and he speaks with enthusiasm about the diverse communities, the problems with political polarisation, and the the dreadful climate crisis.

»The best thing we can do is to equip our visitors to be able to handle reality. Reality is challenging right now and needs an effort. I believe that we fail as a country and as a knowledge institution if we do not take on this responsibility. This has been part of the transformation we’ve been through. This is our raison d’être

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The museum as a laboratory

In the autumn of 2025, a new natural history museum building will open that will include the Zoological Museum, the Geological Museum and the Botanical Museum. The museum will have a large ‘ocean’ room, where Kjærgaard dreams of doing audience-involving events just like museums do in New York and London. But when Peter C. Kjærgaard took over the museum eight years ago, there was a long way to 2025, and so the assignment was this: What do we do with what we have?

The new building was not be some kind of deus ex machina, that would come from the outside and save the museum from the financial challenges which the new director inherited. Instead, it was to be a large-scale process and a cleanup of the existing museum. It was about transforming what had been a rather quiet and very traditional institution into a modern museum with everything that this entails.

»The most important thing that happened was that we were allowed to become a museum, and I was given the mandate to run a professional museum organisation. This mandate ensured that we were able to bring in the right academic skills for all of our positions, so that we can run a healthy business today.«

The director wanted to use the museum as a kind of laboratory. A place where the museum could try out new things, approach new target audiences, and set up changing exhibitions. And it paid off. While we walk around the exhibition ‘Neanderthals’, the director speaks of new initiatives that will make the present exhibition interactive by way of sound and images.

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Reality changes

In the museum’s courtyard, you find a huge blue container that visitors can go into. Over an Internet connection, they can talk to people who live in Tanzania and hear about how climate change affects the population there. This is symptomatic for something that is is important to Peter C. Kjærgaard. He explains how he is interested in listening to the desperate voices from young people.

»I can understand the young people’s climate concerns. And I hear a desperate voice that asks if anyone can hear what we are saying! I think we have a duty to take this desperation seriously.«

The museum inspector explains that he is trying to be aware of his own blind spots. That he knows that he doesn’t know everything, and that there are many perspectives on reality. He takes great pride therefore in creating diverse communities that, in practice, have been panel debates, forum discussions and rooms for the Green Student Movement.

»Our experience is that we are constantly learning something new about reality. Perhaps it turns out that some of the things we have been very certain about, are different from what we thought they were. We can handle the fact that our knowledge is developing. This makes science incredibly exciting. No matter how much we learn about each other, nature, and culture, there are constantly new questions that we are able to ask.«

The wordy museum director finds it more difficult to answer what it is that the formula for success exactly is. But the enthusiasm is contagious when he talks about how he wants to do a Minecraft exhibition with the museum’s minerals or examining the magic of the gems.

That might be what will keep the museum successful until the new building opens in two years time.