New museum director: Diversity creates knowledge

The University Museum of Bergen’s new director, Henrik von Achen, has a background in religious art. That may explain why he views the work of the University Museum as a trinity.

Professor Henrik von Achen er ansatt som direktør ved Universitetsmuseet i...
Professor Henrik von Achen er ansatt som direktør ved Universitetsmuseet i Bergen.
Walter Wehus

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– The University Museum is engaged in research, management, and communication. If we were to neglect any one of these three areas of engagement, we would cease to be a university museum, says Professor Henrik von Achen.

Since 1994, von Achen has occupied an office fitting an art historian with a special interest in religious art. With its stone walls, the cross-vaulted ceiling, and the old window facing the Puddefjord bridge, the office is reminiscent of a monastery. He is going to miss his old office.

No job application needed

But Henrik von Achen did not apply for the director job. He had actually planned his first sabbatical since 2000, planning to write a book on the history of religious medals. A book on the symbol of the heart is also in his desk drawer.

But it was not to be.

Since March 2012, von Achen has been acting director after his predecessor Christoffer Schander suddenly died. And in November, the University Board used the opportunity to offer von Achen the position without a public advertisement of the job. Norwegian law opens for this option in special cases such as this, and the museum needed a person with the rare combination of professional competence and experience in museum work and administration. Von Achen is now employed as director for the next four years.

– The director is a servant, in the sense that he shall serve the institution. I will lay the conditions for the best possible terms for our employees. Our aim is to be best on research, best communicators and best managers of the museum’s collections. Our aspirations need to be at least this high. We meet the same demands as all of academia, but we must always set higher goals for ourselves, he says.

Darwin vs. creationism

The University Museum of Bergen consists of the Natural history and the Cultural history collections. The work done at the museum is extensive and multifaceted.

– There are people here who study molluscs and midges, altarpieces and arrowheads, gardens and gardeners. There are employees who excavate according to Kulturminneloven (a Norwegian law to protect cultural heritage) and there are anthropologists making films in the field. There is an incredible diversity, says von Achen.

He believes that this diversity gives the staff at the museum an extraordinary understanding of the world outside of the offices they usually occupy, and that this opens up new ways of thinking.

– Our role in society goes beyond providing research-based insight. It is equally important to represent a counterculture. Not only do we present society with what it wants, but also with what it needs. This is not necessarily always the same, he suggests. – Knowledge should be a separate, critical corrective. When everyone else talks about Darwin, we dare to suggest Biblical creationism. And when they all talk about creationism, we bring out Darwin.

Amongst von Achen’s goals are to improve the museum’s dialogue with society outside and to create knowledge jointly with the public. He compares an exhibition with an ocean liner followed by ”a fleet of small boats that ask questions”. He also wants more cooperation with museums in the Bergen region.

Always room for improvement

The University Museum is currently relocating due to the reconstruction work. This is a challenging time for the institution, but will lead to vast improvements of exhibition space and storage facilities. But he also believes that the museum must keep on improving continually.

– There is a theological discipline called exegesis, about the conditions at the time of Jesus and what this means today. Likewise history is never just history. Not only is history constructed of the present, but is also significant for the present. Our aim is to make an impact on people’s lives here and now, and to add entertainment without necessarily putting a heavy didactic pressure on people, Henrik von Achen says before smilingly adding.

– It is perfectly legitimate for the museum to be of entertainment value. The best thing is actually to entice people by presenting something that they perceive as fun.

Read more on upcoming exhibitions and other information at the University Museum of Bergen's webpages.

(Translation: Sverre Ole Drønen.)