The museum as reality machine


So several of the museums in Stockholm stay open until eight o’clock on Wednesdays which is fortunate because it gives normal people a chance to visit them without having to do so during the weekend when its very crowded. I understand people with children going during the weekend, they can’t stay out late (and many museums are very good at providing pedagogical entertainment for the young), but for those of that can, it’s a chance to see the exhibit in a calmer environment.

I had not been to The Swedish history museum for ages but their current exhibit “History unfolds” intrigued me. Basically they’ve let a few contemporary artists loose in the collections and they have created works of art based on, inspired by or interacting with the permanent collections, and to great effect.

Sidenote; This is the thing all museums  do now; juxtapose the old with the contemporary. It can by Turner next to Twombly, or old greek vases next to a Mona Hatoum installation. Sometimes it does put thoughts in motion, sometimes it just feels contrived.

The Swedish history museum is very aware of “the museum as reality machine”(a phrase they used in the material, a very good one although I don’t know if they came up with it) and the incident where a skeleton assumed for many years to be a man, because it had been buried with weapons, was in fact a woman according to DNA-samples, is often brought up in media as a classic case of letting prejudice and preconceived notions trump objective study and research.

As this is a museum that houses artifacts from the stone age to medieval times there is also that sore spot about vikings; the proud warriors that take up plenty of space in historybooks and the minds of many people, when they were in fact a rather marginal group it turns out. Most people during that time were farmers, and not even the vikings themselves seem to live up to their romanticized image. A lot of that I’ve actually heard through swedish radio which did a show where they contrasted the literary works of Frans G. Bengtsson(The longships in english)  which played on and cemented the image of the viking warrior for many of my generation, and what archeological finds tells us. That viking imagery has been used in nationalist, and later nazi propaganda, and by right-wing movements in our time makes it even more important to point out what is what.

One of the contemporary pieces actually takes it starting point there; Minna L.Henriksson made a map over the study of race-biology and archeology that has been used to argue for nationalist sentiments. The mindmap created, in collaboration with head of research Fredrik Svanberg, is an interesting one to study.


The piece I liked the best was “Ten tons of dust” by Dusica Drazic*; In the archives there are samples of soil collected from archeological digs over the years. The reasoning went that in the future these samples could be the source of new information( assuming technological advances). That hasn’t happened so they’ve been boxed up since then. Drazic connects these samples to bigger ideas of national identity, of kissing the ground when returning to the motherland, being buried in the earth and so on. It was very interesting to see the video where she explained the process and her thoughts. Something to discuss.


Something more to experience was “Prayer” by James Webb. It should first be explained that the building that houses the museum was built for that purpose. As such some rooms where made to look like churches as a vital part of swedish history is also how we became Christians (not through Ansgar though as they told us in school, but later) and then went from Catholic to Lutheran. Some old altars and relics are displayed and amongst them is currently a big red carpet and speakers. From the speakers the voice of prayer is heard, all different kinds; muslim,christian,jewish and others. It’s a chorus of faith and yet very harmonious and mood setting. Poignant in these times of politically imposed division, of trying to create difference between people.

You can find more information here.


*name slightly misspelled because I’m technically incompetent/tired.


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