Creating room for the curious – University of Copenhagen

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02 June 2016

Creating room for the curious

Research Profile

The newly appointed Creative Director of Medical Museion Ken Arnold believes the museum is facing a new golden age. And he is done putting pineapple pieces into tubes.


- By Mikkel Andreas Beck

Ken Arnold was busy shoving small pieces of pineapple into a tube. It was a Friday afternoon at Exeter University, where he was studying to become a chemical engineer, and the pineapple shoving was part of an exercise on Bernoulli’s equation from 1738 on pressure and velocity in fluids.

‘But suddenly I looked out of the window, and it was a beautiful sunny day. And I thought perhaps this was not my calling in life’, Ken Arnold says with a smile, sitting in his office in Bredgade among still unpacked moving boxes.

So he changed tracks and enrolled at Cambridge University, where he studied different fields of science, including chemistry, geology and eventually history and philosophy, before completing his PhD thesis on museum history at Princeton University in New Jersey, USA.

Later, in 2007, as director he took part in establishing the Wellcome Collection, a large museum in London known for its exhibitions on medical subjects.

What does your job entail?

‘I try to link the capacities of the university and the general public. A university is often for the few, while the museum is often for the many.
Universities can be a little too deep, while museums can be a little too shallow. I like to swim in the middle of the pool, neither at the deep nor the shallow end. To move a little further below the surface without drowning.

In London I started in the shallow end – here in Copenhagen we start in the deep end, so to speak.

At Wellcome we wanted to teach people something by giving them an experience. Teaching them something without shoving it down their throats. Encouraging them to teach themselves.’.

Why history, philosophy and museums?

‘I read Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. He is a modern thinker, and he made me realise that science has a history, despite the fact that science has a unique ability to destroy its own history.

Everything we have learned through the ages as scientific and true has nearly always been replaced by new knowledge superseding the old truths.
We simply do not do things the way we used to. Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea that science is not a cumulative process, but rather a succession of paradigm shifts. I wanted to learn more about that.

In my research on museums I soon discovered that I was just as interested in what people did in museums - how they studied there - as in the items on display. The idea of their curiosity. There are written sources that reveal that, such as catalogues and letters, where people describe the experience of going to a museum.

And I have always wanted to create rooms where people can do things, experience things, learn things. Creating room for the curious. You can do that in a museum’, Ken Arnold says.

How is your research relevant to society?

’One of the interesting things about the way the universities have developed over the past century and more is that they have become more and more specialised. To make one discovery you need to spend all your time for years looking for one thing in one particular area.

The activity offered at museums is far more generous. The interplay between the curators, managers and guests, who rarely spend more than an hour in a museum, before moving on to something else. They are all involved in an activity much like research.

You could call it democratisation of research. You can take ideas from scientists, artists, authors and combine them.

A museum is an amazing place, where you can combine different areas of expertise at once. It is a place where research is unfolded and open to public participation’.
Can you tell me about a high point in your career?

’In the museum world most people find employment in an existing museum. Medical Museion, for example, has existed for more than a hundred years.
I have mainly dealt with other people’s museums, so for me it was very special to take part in the opening on 22 June 2007 of a brand new museum – Wellcome Collection - after five years’ work’.

What is the best thing about your job?

‘There is a word that is used a lot in the museum world – “juxtaposition”. When you move an object from one collection and put it next to another. What is the result? The same is true of the people you work with. When you combine people with different competences and professional backgrounds’, Ken Arnold says, stirring in an invisible pot with an invisible spoon.

‘The result is new energy, new inspiration, new thoughts, new ideas. It is an amazing experience, and I am very happy to be a part of it.

Another thing that gives me great pleasure in my work is the different intelligences offered in a museum. There is logic, mathematics, social intelligence, physical intelligence and so on, and most museums contain several or all of these. As a guest you move among other people. You read, watch, spend time and share a community with a lot of people you do not even know.

I believe the museums are facing a golden age. We have access to so many things online, but the museums can do something the Internet cannot do. We are reacquainting ourselves with the idea of being present in one place, being physically present. It is not about distancing ourselves from the digital world, but about experiencing and sensing things in the physical world.

It is similar to the slow food movement. We are once again beginning to appreciate slowness, and here the museums have immense potential. Museums are a part of the slow culture movement. It is hard to explain, but it is about creating a connection between the eye and the stomach. Being in a room and seeing things with your own eyes. Processing things slowly.

What do you do when you are not at work?

My latest hobby is learning what Denmark is about. I think it is an interesting place, but I know very little about it, so I need to go exploring. Then I have two sons aged 18 and 21, and I suppose trying to keep in touch with them is also a kind of hobby. Ha-ha.

I also enjoy cycling, photography and drawing. Drawing is just an excuse for looking at things. It takes me an hour to draw something, and with pen and paper in front of me I can practice looking at something for a whole hour. It is an exercise in being alone and enjoying your own company’.