2 minutes to read Posted on Wednesday July 21, 2021

Updated on Thursday August 5, 2021

portrait of Merete Sanderhoff

Merete Sanderhoff

Curator / Senior Advisor of Digital Museum Practice , National Gallery of Denmark

portrait of Georgia Evans

Georgia Evans

Editorial Officer , Europeana Foundation

New European Bauhaus - an interview with Merete Sanderhoff

The European Commission’s New European Bauhaus initiative wants to put sustainability, inclusivity and beauty at the heart of Europe’s future. Through conversations with cultural professionals and heritage advocates, we are exploring the key role that cultural heritage can play. Today we speak to Merete Sanderhoff, Senior Advisor at the National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst).

Merete Sanderhoff speaking with colleagues
Title: Merete Sanderhoff
Creator: Jonas Heide Smith
Institution: SMK

Can you tell us about your role at the Statens Museum for Kunst?

I’m so lucky to be working as a bridge builder between the largest art collection in Denmark and the public – not just in my own country, but everywhere in the world. Since 2008, our strategy has been ‘to be a catalyst of users’ creativity’. We try to deliver that ambition by making the digitised collection radically open, and encourage active reuse by designers and artists, school kids and young people, citizen scientists and many more. It has been key for us to implement clear and user-friendly open licensing so that people know they can freely use the art. Our collection is part of the Commons, and we all have shared rights to it.   

How is the New European Bauhaus relevant to your work? 

To my knowledge, it’s the first time we’ve seen such a clear and compelling call on the cultural sector to contribute to a more sustainable future. All too often, art and culture are perceived as an add-on once the basic infrastructures of society have been put in place – like decorative icing on the cake. In the New European Bauhaus, art and culture are fundamental to building truly livable societies where we take better care of nature and each other, because – to quote Elizabeth Holstein, a young Danish entrepreneur who I’m very inspired by – ‘Creativity is fundamentally problem-solving… The more you let your creativity guide you, the greater your ability to break free from what can feel like a locked situation.’ That is exactly why we set our digitised cultural heritage collection free: so it can be a resource in the innovative and creative hands of the public.  

What does New European Bauhaus mean to you?

A chance for the cultural sector, in the widest sense of the word, to show that art and culture – and the liberating, participative forces inherent in making them digital – are key to building societies that are sustainable not only from a technical point of view, but also on a human level. The legacy of Bauhaus is collaboration across borders, both where the word originated, in the cathedral workshops of medieval Europe, and in the 20th century art and design movement: across disciplinary, national and cultural borders. That’s exactly the mindset needed to tackle the climate challenges we all face. We need everyone to contribute and to be taken seriously, from science and tech experts to citizen scientists, from professional designers and artists to creatives from the general public, from scholars to students. The digital cultural heritage sector has critical experience in getting those people together to break new ground.    

A wikipedia editathon - people sat working around a table
Title: From a Wikipedia editathon at SMK
Institution: SMK
Country: Denmark
A wikipedia editathon - people sat working around a table

If you visited a cultural site or heritage institution in five years time, what do you hope that experience would be like?

Welcoming. Vibrant. Stimulating thinking and doing things differently. And diverse, like people are. A Danish museum director said that if cultural institutions want to be an integral part of society, the one thing not to do is make people feel lonely or estranged. The worst thing we can do is to make people feel stupid; that when they leave our site, they feel like a lesser person than when they arrived. That ought to be a no-brainer, but it’s really an area where we can, and have to, improve. We need everybody’s creativity in order to solve the problems we’re facing today, and it’s obvious to me that our public cultural institutions should be a convener. 

How do you think that digital can support this vision? 

Digital is participatory by design. It is accessible to almost two thirds of the world’s population. Combine those two factors, and digital holds enormous potential to let more and more diverse people take part in the conversations, negotiations and actions that shape how we live together and treat the planet – that most fundamental Commons of ours. 

You’ve previously written about the social impact of using art to increase civic participation of young people; how do you think digital heritage can support the development of enriching and inclusive social experiences?

I find the interplay between two terms closely connected to the Bauhaus legacy quite productive when trying to answer that: the English verb ‘building’ and the German noun ‘Bildung’ – something I’ve reflected on in more depth before. Bildung is impossible to translate entirely as it converges into one word the joint meaning of education, formation, and culture. With digital access to cultural heritage as raw materials for creativity and innovation, Bildung becomes closely connected to building. Creating an understanding of the world and your own place in it becomes a product of active processing, adapting, rebuilding and repurposing. 

That’s what we try to support whenever we facilitate people in using our digitised collection. As our impact studies show, this approach potentially helps them find ways to understand and express difficult concepts, while working creatively and intuitively creates an open space to reflect on their emotional response to difficult concepts on a deeper level. If we can bring those kinds of impacts to the problem space of the New European Bauhaus that’s potentially very powerful.

A creative workshop
Title: From a creative workshop with SMK open art at Young People’s Democracy Festival in Copenhagen
Creator: Merete Sanderhoff
Date: 2018
Institution: SMK
A creative workshop

New European Bauhaus encourages interdisciplinarity – Commissioner Mariya Gabriel has described it as ‘a bridge between the world of art and culture on one side and the world of science and technology on the other’. How can the cultural heritage sector work with other sectors to make a contribution to the initiative?

One important way is by being a convener. Cultural heritage institutions, and Europeana as our shared network hub, are ideally positioned to be places, physical as well as virtual, where citizens and experts can meet in an inclusive environment to discuss how to tackle today’s local and global challenges. As Peter Kaufman of MIT Open Learning reminds us in The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, we have a strong tradition of being platforms of enlightenment and democratic citizenship. We hold trustworthy sources and knowledge that people can rely on when taking part in debates and sensemaking in an overwhelming reality. We can use that to build a Bauhaus for change.