A Report and Conversation with our Project Partner, Denmark’s Rock Museum
by Fabian Holt
Museums for rock and pop music are mushrooming in the early 21st century across the Nordic countries and Europe. These museums are one of the components of the new institutional infrastructure of popular music, along with showcase festivals and music export agencies. What is the role of rock and pop museums in future Nordic culture and society, and why was it the right decision to focus on network development at this stage? Fabian Holt reports on the museum dimension of the project "Popular Music in the Nordic Countries in the Early 21st Century" and talks to the management at Denmark's Rock Museum.
Pop culture’s own exhibition spaces
From Graceland to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and beyond to the new museums for pop and rock music around Europe, spaces designed for the experience of the music’s history have long been part of pop culture; a culture known for its focus on what moves popular interest in the here and now. The designed spaces of pop music history are sites of music tourism and embedded in the associated cultural economies of heritage, place branding, and private sponsorship. Being a dedicated space with its own organization and audience access all across the year, these exhibition spaces seemingly offer a different kind of continuity and access than the fluid media cultures on display. Popular culture is fostering its own exhibition spaces. They mix elements of museums, laboratories, performance spaces, and other models that are themselves historically and culturally contingent.
In the early 21st century, national museums for popular music have mushroomed around Europe. The ideal of the national museum, drawing from strong institutional traditions, creates a kind of historical space that is not only about giving fans an entertaining experience and selling merchandise, although that, too, remains important. Working within the established institutional infrastructures for museums, a popular music museum is also aiming at developing, maintaining, and exhibiting objects of history with a whole range of professional responsibilities. That typically involves educational outreach activities, archival assistance to researchers, and research production in association with museum collections.
The evolution of the Danish museum
In the case of Denmark’s Rock Museum that opens in Roskilde in 2015, research has shaped the evolution of the museum since the beginnings. The initial motivation for what eventually became a museum was to document and preserve Danish rock music history. A self-organized group of experienced rock musicians and other music professionals got funding from the ministry of culture to develop the project. The project was developed further when the subsequent steering group adopted the museum format. In competition with a few cities in Denmark, the municipal of Roskilde succeeded in being chosen as the host city in 2001. The steering group consisted of the project partners Roskilde Museum (now the formal host organization of the Rock Museum), the municipal of Roskilde, the national broadcast corporation, and Roskilde University. In 2007, the municipal purchased the industrial area of closed concrete factory Unicon and started developing it into a creative industry area under the name Musicon. The project director of the museum, Lena Bruun, had been a project manager in the municipal’s creative industry project Musicon Valley since the early 2000s. The museum emerged within a local context of culture-led development strategies evolving from the city’s main popular culture attraction, the Roskilde Festival.
Adopting the museum format in 2003 shaped the project because of the institutional sphere that comes with it. Institutional responsibilities and collaboration with university research networks are part of the package. The first research project to play a role was a project on the history of rock music in Denmark organized at the music department at the University of Copenhagen in the early 2000s. The results were published in the 2013 edited volume Rock i Danmark (Rock in Denmark). This research had the role of informing the museum management of its subject area, the history of the music. The second research project, so far involving the most extensive university research collaboration, is a project on young people, learning, and new media in museums called The Danish Research Centre on Education and Advanced Media Materials (DREAM). All this has been going on for about ten years before the museum has opened and a great deal of the management’s focus has been devoted to fund raising and more recently the construction of the coming building.
The evolution of the Danish museum in Roskilde is part of a wider trend of popular music museum building across Europe. This trend is part of a broader institutionalization of rock and pop music within an agenda shaped by contemporary ideas of how cities and nation-states can develop their cultural economies and build new identities and histories in the process. Academic research happens within this larger agenda defined by networks of public and private organizations, and this provides a new horizon for popular culture research without limiting it to this agenda.
Growing the Regional Perspective
The regional perspective advanced by our project (“Popular Music in the Nordic Countries in the Early 21st Century”) has demonstrated its potential for complementing this institutionalization of popular music, in part because the internationalization is common condition in the face of growing competition and the general internationalization of markets. This was the motivation behind the creation of a regional umbrella organization for national music export agencies, Nordic Music Export, and it is now a natural step for museums seeking collaboration with counterparts in other countries. The most important outcome of the museum dimension of our Nordic music project is the creation of a potentially global network of popular music museums with a Nordic platform. This idea was inspired by the research project and developed by Denmark’s Rock Museum.
Our collaboration with museums began in fall 2011 when I approached Denmark's Rock Museum and proposed the idea of bringing some of the knowledge from the research networks to a wider public. Museums have unique potentials for bringing culture and knowledge to audiences. The Roskilde museum had not opened but generously took on the challenge and was already talking to Rockheim in Norway about sharing experiences. The two museums got aboard, and the plan was to create a small digital exhibition based on findings in the chapters of the edited volume of scholarly research that started the project. At the first project meeting, held in Helsinki in early 2012, the scholars presented their ideas. It became clear that the international research experts and the national rock and pop museum management have different horizons for thinking about Nordic music. Scholarly writing about Nordic music is not currently focused on the Nordic mainstream. The main focus on the book is to take a few but hopefully groundbreaking new steps beyond the nationalist and regionalist approaches to the culture (regional essentialism is best known from narratives of Nordic-style music such as "the Nordic tone").
Photo: Fabian Holt
Lena: When I first heard about the idea of Danish Rock Museum I understood that it was not going to be a traditional museum but that the visitors could also play music and learn about how the music has shaped our society. The project became a unit under Roskilde Museum and got the designation as a museum of history and contemporary culture. This really framed the project which was then called The House of Rock Music, now Denmark’s Rock Museum. We then traveled for inspiration to a handful of museums from Vienna to Seattle and learned about the potentials of interactive technology for experiencing the music and learning about its history.
Fabian: Did those visits also inform your perspective on globalization?
Lena: We knew that we wanted to have a local, national, and international dimension. The point of departure and center of attention is the national, but the other dimensions are relevant and necessary for understanding it. In other cities, it was very local. In Seattle, they had a focus on California, the American Northwest, but it wasn’t contextualized much for the rest of the country and the world. Vienna had a focus on six local composers and a focus on interactive technology, although with greater emphasis on the technology itself, it was designed by Siemens, and we were again asking ourselves what the story is. Museums can create spectacular elements, but it is important to create a coherent story and context for all that, and this became a key priority for us at the time. We also learned that it was important for us to have original objects rather than copies of manuscripts and to have the story of those original objects. In many music museums there are still not the same attention to the societal dimension that our museum emphasizes. The significance of music for youth culture and how youth culture shaped society is unparalleled in history. The music changed youth culture and youth culture in turn shaped society.
Jacob: It’s funny because I remember initially being both excited and skeptical of the name ‘Denmark’s Rock Museum.’ Why Denmark? It’s an international history. But we conceive it as a museum of how the history played out in Denmark. We also focus a lot on fan culture, not just the stars.
Fabian: So Cliff Richard fan culture in Denmark is also part of your territory?
Jacob: Absolutely. And Roskilde Festival is an international festival. The evolution of media technology is also international.
Lena: It’s a global culture. Rock music is a global language. Rock is a historically significant example of a global popular culture. We continue to think about what this means. Our aims have developed quite a bit in terms of both understanding the culture and the design of the museum. When the idea of the museum first started it was really about documenting the history before the artists who lived through this period are gone. That was much closer to a focus on national culture. It’s a natural evolution from such motivations to the fully developed organization more than a decade later. We have learned more about the international dimension in the process.
Jacob: With our core exhibition project “The Roots of Rock Music” we have also turned away from a chronological narrative, instead developing a much more thematically driven narrative. We are looking at the evolutions in fan culture, fashion, media, and more.
The Nordic dimension: Interactions and Identities
Lena: We are also looking at the regional dimension. That’s our motivation for participating in your Nordic popular music project. The conclusion in the chapter you sent us yesterday seems to say what we are thinking, namely that the culture is part of wider international movements than the national and the regional. At the same time we are doing a project called the map of rock music in Denmark to explore small local situations.
Fabian: Interesting. One of my arguments is that the international interaction is increasingly happening at the regional level, the Nordic level because the world at large is looking at our area as a region. The media in Asia or the Americas, for instance, are often looking at us as a region, not at Denmark or Sweden. The other development is the proliferation of artists with their own small managements and recording companies in our region. Many of them speak fluently English and tour internationally. There is so much more now than national rock and pop icons within the conventional national spheres of major labels and broadcasting corporations.
Jacob: It also came up in the conversation we had with Anna Hildur at your conference last year, the idea that the Nordic makes more sense to people outside the region.
Fabian: An interesting question might be if the external gaze and global media will shape our culture to become more Nordic, more regional. I think I’ve started to see just during this project a future where we talk about ourselves as Nordic more than we do now. Not just as a kind of buzz but because new media and transportation technologies reshape the geography of world societies.
Lena: It’s also interesting that musicians around our country can now present their music directly in global media. Before a band in a remote rural area could not do that.
Fabian: And those interactions are essential to understanding the current changes. It is limiting to focus on a Nordic style of music. Teitur, for instance, he is Nordic but he has also lived in the US and in Berlin. That’s characteristic of the Nordic region of our time. Jan Sneum is traveling to Tallin Music week. The Nordic region of today has more fluid boundaries. The culture moves less within the former boundaries of national cultural spheres. It’s also many things in different situations. Sometimes it’s Iceland, other times Scandinavia. The Nordic is an infinite series of mediations.
Jacob: And some of the examples you mentioned, including Agnes Obel and Efterklang, they are living and recording their music in Berlin.
Lena: It’s another example that music erodes boundaries, of nation-states or whatever, but yet there is something regional.
Fabian: In the research process, I was struck by how many nations and regions present their culture as unique in a language of the pure and authentic, many use the same words to describe their uniqueness. The first and most immediate difference when encountering different cultures might be the visual difference. The colors are immediately different. Some areas with a warm climate have strong, expressive colors, whereas a cold area such as the Nordic region has lots of grey and light blue but rarely red. The natural environment is important in much music, even in atmospheres of some urban pop music.
Jacob: And when it comes to landscape and nature, Denmark is the least Nordic country. And the idea of a Nordic sound was maybe first used in jazz and much associated with Norway, with Norwegian mountains. Perhaps some of the Nordic countries invest more in Nordic identity than others.
Responses to the Museum Project
Fabian: I wonder how people from other countries respond to your story? What are the reactions so far?
Jacob: When we tell them about the museum, people always say that it makes perfect sense to have it in Roskilde because of the festival. The international scene really understands that. In museum and research networks, there is great understanding of our approach, that our museum is concerned with the broader culture and not just the music. When the museum opens, it will be easier for international audiences to relate to our museum because of the universal themes of music, youth, and society than if we had adopted the Hall of Fame approach, with a lot of Danish musicians that few international audiences have ever heard of. Yet even in the UK, with The British Music Experience, what seems like an easy job because of the many stars from the country is not so easy after all because you still need a story. It’s not necessarily enough to exhibit multiple objects owned by a number of stars. Simon Reynolds has written about this.
Lena: That’s right. We learned a lot and got some of our ideas validated by the David Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum earlier in 2013. They did not just present David Bowie objects. They said something about his influence.
Jacob: There was a focus on David Bowie as an artist. A lot of pop and rock exhibitions are not very focused.
Fabian: And have you received direct responses to your “prototypes”?
Lena: I think the best example is when we present our work at the Roskilde Festival in the exhibition area. We do this every year. People come and say “Well, can I see David Bowie or Elvis Presley...?” In these situations, we get a direct response. Some are puzzled by the Danish name, others disappointed. They nonetheless get excited about the interactive stuff. Moreover, when we tell them more, they start to understand. It really worked the time we presented our approach to fan culture, for instance.
Fabian: The universal elements of fan culture
Lena: The universal dimension. Whether you’re from Japan, Ukraine, Germany, or another country, the experience of listening to rock music has had similar meanings in your life. We might use Danish examples, but we capture something that international audiences can recognize.
Fabian: Are there other typical responses?
Lena: People often ask if they will be able to see something about their favorite artists. “Can I see Elvis Presley or…?” The first question we get is “Is it only Danish rock music?”
Jacob: We tell them that it’s about how rock and pop music history played out in Denmark. And we work on the universal themes we talked about earlier. And with Beatles, their first US tour is not as interesting to us, but their appearance in Copenhagen in April 1964…
Fabian: If you are Beatles fan, anywhere, you will probably be interested to see that of their history, a history not exhibited elsewhere….
A Nordic platform for pop museums
Fabian: When did you start collaborating with other Nordic museums?
Jacob: It started with the first meeting in the Nordic popular music project in Helsinki, spring 2012. We had been in Rockheim in Norway once before but the idea of an international museum network in the Nordic region and later broadening it is an outcome of participating in this Nordic music project.
Lena: It is important to find a base for the network in the Nordic region before it can be expanded to a wider international network. The Nordic network becomes a platform. Iceland is now aboard. The director comes from the Iceland Music Export. We are meeting in Stockholm in February — Iceland, Rockheim, the ABBA Museum, Swedish Hall of Fame. We are still in touch with archives, but the music museums have their own tighter collaboration and there is a new museum opening in Hungary. Cité de la musique in Paris wants to join. This network started between museums and archives. You always need someone to drive a network, it could have been Holland, Denmark, and Germany, but in this case the base has been created in the Nordic region. There is also another institutional ground for museums here, also compared with the UK.
Fabian: The idea of being a platform for the culture, a kind of cultural institution, developing culture, working with cultural heritage, also applies to the area of live music venues. This approach to cultural organizations can also be found in The Netherlands.
Fabian: What’s your experience of the research meetings?
Lena: It’s hard to say but it seemed a bit specialized.
Fabian: Writing about music generally has wider appeal if it engages with the fan and artist perspective. There are examples of really great music research that has also found a wider readership, but it’s not easy. The risk of specialization is fragmentation – the broader connections are lost even for the specialists who have devoted their lives to studying the culture. This was a concern for me when I wrote my chapter for our edited volume on Nordic music. We did not receive any proposals on the Swedish pop icons from ABBA to Avicii, and it is such an important part of the history that I decided to give it higher priority when I finally wrote my chapter on the Nordic popular music landscape.
Lena: We think it was a big task to enter this Nordic research network project. It has not been easy. It needs to be matured.
Fabian: More knowledge is needed.
Lena: And closer collaboration between research and museums. We have felt that the researchers were quite far away from us.
Fabian: Yes, it’s not just knowledge.
Jacob: It was interesting to hear about Sami music and Icelandic music, but I was a little unsure how the Nordic dimension was interpreted.
Fabian: Yes, some contributors discuss the Nordic dimension more than others. But I think the comparative perspective is growing and helping us understand the Nordic dimension better.
Jacob: Yes, the comparative perspective is really interesting
Fabian: Thanks for your thoughtful responses, and thanks very much for your contribution to the project. I am very grateful.