Last week I spent a night at Kystens Arv, the Coastal Heritage Museum in Stadsbygd, Norway. The museum’s location is stunning. A cluster of bright red buildings surrounded on one side by green fields and on the other by deep blue water. Its location is also challenging. To get there requires you to get to Trondheim, then take a 25-minute ferry ride followed by a 30-minute taxi ride. The journey is well worth the trouble, but for obvious reasons, most people will find it too far off the beaten track.
Consequently, Kystens Arv is primarily a locally relevant museum. It tells a national story and tries to address universal themes in its programming, but its audience and impact are predominantly local. Most museums are predominantly local.
Telling a universal story in a local museum requires a careful balancing act. For instance, most people do not relate to universal stories such as climate change and loss of biodiversity. These are too abstract, too far from their everyday lives. Instead, they wonder why they cannot grow tomatoes like they used to or where all the birds have gone, as Scott Cooper told me last year. This requires a different approach to storytelling.
Arnfinn Rokne of the Trondheim Science Centre mentioned something similar in the conference we hosted as part of the Making Museum the day after Kystens Arv. He called for locally relevant science centers. Such science centers make universal science locally relevant. Gravity is the same everywhere, but to explain how the laws of science have contributed to specific local circumstances demands another type of presentation.
That doesn’t mean universal and local stories are mutually exclusive. I believe they strengthen each other. The balancing act is between telling a universal story that may be abstract and a way of storytelling that local audiences can relate to.
At Kystens Arv, one of the driving questions is how the museum can help to make sure that children have a better relationship with the world and to the ocean. On the one hand, this implies that the museum tells the local story of boat building and invites school children to engage in this tradition. On the other, it means the museum cannot shy away from topics such as plastic in the oceans. There may even be a direct link: The traditional boats that are at the heart of Kystens Arv’s story are made of natural materials, unlike most contemporary ships. By maintaining and restoring the heritage of boat building, the craftsmen in Stadsbygd may help the global oceans with local skills.
Most museums are predominantly local. To tell a universal story or address a global topic, they best engage their local communities with locally relevant activities around local cultural heritage. The best way to tell a universal story is by starting locally.