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2001 "Museums: building community"


EXCHANGE - Keys to Memory

Lena Millinger
Head of Marketing, Malmö Museer, Sweden.

Objects in museum collections are often accompanied by detailed information concerning their material, year of manufacture, use, etc. What really gives life to an object, however, is the story behind it, what it once meant to someone, how it affected lives and changed views. Alongside the blockbuster exhibitions in museum programmes, we need smaller exhibitions which offer not only knowledge but moments of thought, compassion and reflection around objects in their context.
Malmö (Sweden) has a population of 250,000 of which 32 % are first or second generation immigrants. It is in many ways a segregated city and neither the museum collections nor the museum staff reflect its multicultural composition. Rightwing elements, racism, segregation and street gangs are an increasing problem in Malmö. The city's and the museum's corporate plan is to take action to change this. The exhibition "Keys to Memory" is the museum's strongest statement for tolerance and equality so far.


This exhibition, which opened on International Museum Day 2000, arose from a series of questions: what becomes important and meaningful when, for one reason or another, you leave your country and your home for an uncertain future? What do you take with you? What reminds you of happiness and sorrow, family and friends? Can an object, a scent, a sound become a key to memory? Can museums be "Keys to Memory"?
The exhibition centres on personal objects, pictures and short texts. It also contains a soundtrack (railway stations, bees humming, bombing, waves, silences) and scents in boxes to trigger memories. A sofa is provided for quiet reading and reflection. The main issue is the object, and the person's story behind it. The selection criteria were that the stories had to come from people living in Malmö, and who had come there from another country. We wanted a spectrum of women and men, children and adults, new and old arrivals, those who had come for love, for work or to find safety. It was the stories, not the nationality, which was important. We asked the people selected for interview to talk about their most precious object. The exhibition takes excerpts from these interviews and presents the object.

"The key brings me back to my childhood when I spent the summers with my grandmother in her house in the countryside. The key was for the shed where food, bed linen, hay, candles, etc., were kept. Just by looking at the key I can smell the dried hay for the mattresses and the scent of candles. I can still feel the calm, the peace. It has helped me in many phases of my life to have that security within me. It is as if my grandmother protects me through the key".
Kerttu Nurminen, 49. Came from Finland in 1974 because her husband got a job in Sweden.

"There was a war in our country. We were scared. You could hear the bombs and thought the house would fall. We had no time to take anything. We don't even know how we got out of the country. We had to hurry up and save our lives. I only have some toys that a woman in Sweden gave me when I came here. I feel sorry for them. They are really tiny. I take them out of the box and tell them it is a pity they have to be in there, so I keep them in my pocket. I talk to them when I am sad. It feels as if I am talking to a friend or something".
Arlinda Kelmendi, 10. Came from Mitrovica, Kosovo, in 1998 as a political refugee with her family.

"I miss the landscape in Australia. The light is quite different, it is sharper, lighter, whiter, more intense. The colours of this picture are summer colours, the yellow, brown, golden. It is something that I miss very much. I keep it on the wall so I can see it when I enter the house. If I smell lemon eucalyptus and mimosa I am right in that painting. I am a child again, walking in the sunshine with all those smells around me".
Lyndell Lundahl, 42. Came from Australia in 1986 when she married a Swedish man.

"I don't want to forget. To remember has been a way for me to survive and get on with my life. I made the poncho and the bag in prison. From this period I have not only bad memories but also good ones. There was much friendship in the prison, very strong friendship. The record by Pablo Neruda where he reads his poems, was given to me at the airport by good friends when I was leaving Chile. Everything was not politics. There was also a lot of poetry in all of it".
Enrique Pérez 49. Came from Chile in 1977 as a political refugee after two years in a political prison near Santiago.

"Keys to Memory" is distinctive in several ways: it is housed in a museum but has no museum objects in it ; the objects, pictures and stories presented in the exhibition, as well as the contributions by visitors were, however, subsequently turned into museum objects in the form of contemporary documents, giving personal and singular views on recent world history and connecting the past to the present. This exhibition therefore also establishes a personal relation between the museum, its visitors and society, involving the museum directly in the social world and giving a voice to those whose history is rarely given space in exhibitions or museum collections.
The exhibition led to new networks in the community and communication across generations and across the political spectrum. It also led to the involvement of new visitor groups in the museum, since it attracted, among others, immigrants, Swedes who had lived abroad or had emigrated from Sweden and tourists. In order to involve a younger age group, a school exhibition on the same theme, called "I remember" was mounted in the museum by a class of mostly illiterate immigrants who were learning Swedish. Children's workshops on memory and on what is important in life were also organised. The visitors themselves were also invited to contribute their memory to the exhibition and to the museum archives on a Memory Wall and in the Guest Book.

In conclusion, this project can help us to understand how each and every one of us is effectively a museum of their own, with memories to keep and a story to tell. The museum itself is important in giving form to this aspect of ourselves, allowing it to be expressed and generating dialogue between different members of society.

Malmö Museer
Box 406, SE-201 24 Malmö,
Tel. (46) 40 344404. Fax (46) 40 124097.
Email: lena.millinger@malmo.se
http:// www.museer.malmo.se

Articles around the theme:

EXCHANGE - Key to memory
INNOVATION - Cyberspace Communities: MUVA, the Virtual Museum Of Arts El País
DEVELOPEMENT - A model community museum in a village in the High Atlas
INTEGRATION - Celebrating Australia's multicultural history
PARTICIPATION - A community regulates its own heritage

Articles published in: "ICOM News", Volume 54 - 2001 N°1

Updated: 22 September 2005