Reworking Röhsska


16 February 2017

Late last year, Mariya Voyvodova of the City of Gothenburg Culture Committee announced the temporary closure of Röhsska, Sweden’s only dedicated design and crafts museum. The measure was taken, wrote Voyvodova, in order to address the "poor psychosocial work environment" at the museum, its "high turnover of executives", and its "deficiencies in leadership and organisation". In the coming 15 months, Röhsska will review its organisational shortcomings as well as its curatorial vision.

Röhsska was founded in 1904 following a substantial endowment from the estate of Gothenburg banker Wilhelm Röhss. The original collection of Swedish and European furniture and crafts was installed in a Carl Westman-designed National Romantic red brick building, and opened its doors to the public in 1916. Since then, the collections have expanded by 50 to 1800 acquisitions per year, with added donations and an increasingly ambitious exhibition programme. At the beginning of 2017, a local newspaper reported that Röhsska was Gotheburg's fifth most visited museum, and it continues to serve as an important pedagogical collection for its neighbour, the Gothenburg Academy of Design and Crafts (HDK). Yet, a month or so earlier, towards the end of Röhsska's centenary year, the City of Gothenburg Culture Committee had ordered the temporary closure of the museum.

"We've had problems with the psychosocial work environment at Röhsska for a very long time," explains Britta Söderqvist, director of museums at the Gothenburg City Cultural Affairs Administration. "A high turn over of directors, many people taking sick leave, a lack of continuity. We've tried to remedy the situation internally with a series of measures in the last 10-15 years, but without the desired effect." Röhsska is a public museum under the administration of the City of Gothenburg, so ultimately, local politicians made the decision to shut the museum. "The decision to close the museum was taken from on high," says Söderqvist. "It's been tumultuous for our staff and I have great respect for that."

As tumultuous as the sudden closure is, Söderqvist deems it necessary for a successful overhaul of the organisational deficiencies at Röhsska. "It would be too difficult to develop the organisation and maintain the museum's regular operation in parallel," she says. "That's why it will be shut for 15 months from 27 February." While the museum undergoes its developmental work, staff will be placed in other public institutions of their preference. At the same time, efforts will be made to make Röhsska's collections visible on other platforms. "We will lend out a number of works in the year ahead," says Söderqvist. "To Thiel Gallery in Stockholm, for example. The Torsten & Wanja Söderberg Prize exhibition, which Röhsska hosts every year, will happen next year too, and we'll oversee the ceremony. But it will take place at the Gothenburg City Library."

One of Röhsska's longest standing collaborators is its neighbour, the Gothenburg Academy of Design and Crafts (HDK). "We've collaborated for a century. HDK was founded 169 years ago," says Ulf Dalnäs, who is head of academy at HDK. "In more recent years, we've always had our spring exhibitions at Röhsska. It's been a place for critical discussion about what's new in design and crafts. It has been a knowledge exchange where teachers and students could draw inspiration from the collections."

The spring exhibitions collaboration ended seven years ago, however, when the curator Ted Hesselbom was director of Röhsska. Under Hesselbom's directorship, which lasted from 2007-2013, Röhsska was in the national media spotlight for a series of professional breaches and instances of mismanagement. Hesselbom's maladministration included the selling of artefacts worth 100,000SEK (c. £9,000) to the museum collections under his partner's name and using funds reserved for research to finance trips to his home in Stockholm.

Dalnäs says there were different reasons for discontinuing HDK's collaboration with Röhsska at that time, but acknowledges "personal conflicts" played a role. "We want to have our spring exhibitions at Röhsska again," says Dalnäs. "They're about to recruit a new director, and it's important to us that it is someone who is interested in developing our collaboration."

The person to take up the post, which is currently open for applications, will not only be charged with overhauling Röhsska on an organisational level, but also with developing a curatorial vision that does justice to the museum's position on the Swedish design scene. Unlike ArkDes, Sweden's centre for architecture and design in Stockholm, Röhsska has a sizeable and wide-spanning permanent collection - a unique position often overlooked in national cultural politics, according to Dalnäs.

"Gothenburg is an interesting design city," says Dalnäs. "At HDK, we have the ambition to make it an important international hub for design and crafts. We're stronger if we have Röhsska on board." This ethos has been brought to bear on the school's recent recruitment strategy, which has seen the appointment of British designer Onkar Kular and German architect Markus Miessen. Similar aspirations seem evident at ArkDes, which recently recruited British curator and design critic Kieran Long, currently of the V&A, as its new director.

What characterises these recruitments is not so much that the appointees are international, but that they are leading professionals in their fields. This appears not to have been the case with the leadership of Röhsska in the past 10-15 years, with the exception of designer Tom Hedqvist, whose stint as director lasted less than two years in 2013-2015.

Hesselbom, for instance, was a PR agent who admitted he had no previous experience of heading a museum. His successors included two departmental heads charged with interim leadership - Annika Johansson and Christa Törn-Lindhe - who, in 2015, published an open letter accusing their staff of being immature and incapable of working independently. Susanne Erixon, a human resources expert with no design background, was then taken on to boost staff morale. This, too, was unsuccessful: in November 2016, Erixon was accused by the union of being "disrespectful and offensive" towards her employees. She left her post shortly after.

To do justice to its own collections, match the ambitious agenda of its neighbour, and compete on a Stockholm-centric Swedish design scene, Röhsska needs to enthuse audiences and staff alike about the societal impact of design, craft, and their histories. A good place to start might be to appoint a director with an actual interest in design, and proven experience of communicating it.