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The Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm has recently completed a new permanent exhibition about Swedish prehistory. It was planned under the stewardship of the controversial Kristian Berg, a non-archaeologist whose attitude to the museum placed in his care may be summarised as politically expedient, instrumental and post-modernist.

I haven’t seen the new exhibition, and so can’t have any opinion of my own about it. But I am not surprised to find that it is getting some very bad press, and with a recurring theme. This exhibition is asking questions and not providing any answers.

“… wherever you turn you are sent, by means of guiding questions and officious proclamations, back to yourself and your own era. It feels just as boring and disappointing every time, like walking up to a window to look outside only to find that the window is a mirror.

I wish the Museum of National Antiquities had skipped all this pretentious rhetoric. It makes it harder for the visitors to think for themselves, and it hopelessly obscures the exhibition itself, which does contain a few oddities — a bunch of modern dish brushes, for instance — but also many beautiful and interesting pieces. There are more than 3,000 objects in the exhibition, everything from trepanned Neolithic skulls to mystical Bronze Age cult objects and Roman glass vessels.”

Eva Bäckstedt, Svenska Dagbladet 15 November 2007

and

“The questions are many, or should I say, innumerable. It feels a little like taking a quiz walk among the many objects, bones, weapons, ornaments. But there is no key to this quiz, you have to make up your own answers.

[...]

It is as if the museums have lost the ability, or the ambition, to tell us anything at all. There must be huge amounts of solid knowledge and exciting interpretations in there somewhere, but nobody seems to be willing to take any responsibility for them, or relay them to an audience.

[...]

Running the risk of sounding like a Liberal Party Minister of Education: When, and why, did the museums stop believing in knowledge as the foundation of their activities, instead investing everything they have into experiences, cosmetics and unfettered guesswork?

Was it when the unifying nationalism eroded away as the main goal for large museums? Was it when post-modernism started to attack belief in the canon of the humanities and the Great Narratives? Was it when old-time authority went out of vogue in the 60s, or when money became scarce in the 90s? Or perhaps when everything that looked like boring text and demanding explanations could be shunted off to the web?

I don’t know, but one thing is for sure: many of this autumn’s exhibitions in Stockholm form a cohesive picture of an identity crisis that may in time become extremely dangerous for museums. Because if they no longer believe that they have anything important to tell us — then what good are they to us?”

Lars Linder, Dagens Nyheter 4 December 2007

Museum pieces and questions are not enough to make popular science. That is the starting point of the scientific research process. Archaeology has been amassing scientific knowledge about Scandinavian prehistory for a century and a half by now. Because of pomo relativism, the Museum of National Antiquities appears to have missed an important opportunity to relay some of this knowledge to the public in an entertaining way in decades to come. And in my opinion, that is one of the museum’s most important duties.

Update 17 January: Lars Linder comments further on the issue.

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Comments

  1. #1 Mattias
    December 12, 2007

    It is a pity, really, that Berg’s spirit still lingers in the museum. I remember that he justified his dismissal of five qualified researchers in 2002 with a statement that they were “otidsenliga” (‘out of touch with [the present] time’ – a strange ground for criticism in an historic museum. The problem seems to be that Berg himself is so deeply in touch with his own time that he fails even to be interested in answering questions inherently posed by historical artefacts.

  2. #2 Henrik
    December 12, 2007

    Have the people at the big ol’ museum lost their minds completely?!

    I looked around on the website a bit:

    Forntider
    Här är historia många historier.

    Prehistories
    Here history is many ‘histories’.

    Yup, there’s a strong scent o’ them pomos in here! It seems reasonable enough if you miss the strong discourse about histories and questions in plural (Forntider) and telling stories (the pun on ‘history’ and ‘story’ or even ‘fairytale’ in nordic languages). Nothing bad in that.. as such.

    But then I see some typology here: http://www.historiska.se/misc/gemensam/malgrupper/Lattlast/Utstallningar/Forntider/ (bottom, far right picture, deep link here: http://www.historiska.se/template/RelatedImagePopup.aspx?parent=21055&image=21056 ) with clay pots compared to human silhouettes – which is at the same time comforting and quite disturbing!

    Is this From Pots To People in pomo disguise!?

    What-the-f*?

  3. #3 Martin R
    December 12, 2007

    Yep, the silly jargon is plain to see. Welcome to the Swedish museum world! A lot the humanities departments at our universities sound pretty much like that too.

    Luckily, the great majority of Sweden’s professional archaeologists are in the contract dig business and pay little attention to academic trends.

  4. #4 Tobias
    December 12, 2007

    Come on Henrik. I myself want more information and less neverending questions when going to an exhibit – so I agree on the main points in this thread. But regarding the clay pots and the silhouettes: isn’t it at all possible that the intention is to get the visitor to consider the fact that there is an actual person/ancestor behind its creation? That, IMHO, is a positive ambition: to also consider the people who created the items and not just the artefacts themselves.

  5. #5 Fredrik Svanberg
    December 12, 2007

    Is this the most reactionary place of Swedish archaeology or what? Get over your personal controversies with Kristian Berg and, for gods sake, stop grumbling.

  6. #6 Martin R
    December 12, 2007

    Sure Fredrik, just make us a better exhibition.

    Or should I interpret your comment to mean that the exhibition’s faults are not due to Kristian’s influence, but to that of somebody who currently works at the museum?

    The Enlightenment started already in the 18th century, so I suppose you might call a rationalistic attitude to science reactionary. But you know, it is kind of the dominant attitude in all scientific disciplines globally, including archaeology.

  7. #7 Fredrik S
    December 12, 2007

    For someone insisting on a sceptical attitude, you seem strikingly ready to accept the viewpoints of two journalists without having seen the exhibition yourself. The first part gets high visitor rankings. Knowing the exhibition process from within, I can safely say that K Berg has had no influence on it whatsoever (while quite a few doctors of archaeology has). Observe yourself instead of relying on secondary opinions and try getting your facts right, then we can start talking about science.

  8. #8 Martin R
    December 12, 2007

    Yeah, who knows, maybe I’d be pleasantly surprised if I checked it out myself? Though I do hold the opinions of Bckstedt and Linder in pretty high regard. I’d say they’re unlikely to have made it all up. Perhaps you guys should consider learning from their criticism?

    As for archaeology PhDs, far from all current Swedish ones have done any of the real archaeological work that, for instance, you Fredrik, have. Therefore, such a title does not automatically earn a person the respect of this humble blogger. If such respect is anything to strive for.

    You’re a strangely touchy man, Fredrik, but I’ll have you know that I count the day you started working at the museum as a turning point for the better after some mighty dark years.

  9. #9 Fredrik S
    December 12, 2007

    What is this Martin? Choosing the perspective of journalists instead of rational personal observation and getting personal when arguments dry up? Isnt that what you would call… pomo?

  10. #10 Martin R
    December 12, 2007

    Yeah, as usual my arguments dried up and I went all post-modernist.

  11. #11 Barn Owl
    December 12, 2007

    I toured the Historiska Museet two years ago, when I visited a friend in Stockholm, and I’m not sure what I would have thought of the new post-modern exhibit. With my poor-to-nonexistent Swedish, and the handicap of being an American (gasp!) tourist (oh no!), I probably would have been utterly confused by it.

    Though certainly not my fields of expertise, I do have some undergraduate background in archaeology and cultural anthropology, and my bias is to prefer lots of cultural/historical detail and context in museum exhibits. I thought the Vasa Museet excelled at this, and in addition to the detailed text descriptions, there were a lot of displays that required little or no reading, to understand and appreciate the history and culture of the time. This was also true to some extent at Birka (though it is a small museum), and at Skansen-which, however “touristy” it may be, serves as a pretty enjoyable introduction to regional Swedish culture, architecture, farming, and wildlife.

    I know, I know, mine is not a professional opinion by any means; in my defense, I’ll say that I try to be an inobtrusive and undemanding American tourist, and to “blend” as much as possible (which, given my physical appearance, was not difficult to do in Sweden).

  12. #12 Caledonian
    December 12, 2007

    But you know, it is kind of the dominant attitude in all scientific disciplines globally, including archaeology.

    Not quite – it’s the ONLY attitude in science.

    Once you give post-modernism a foothold, it eventually spreads to corrupts everything. (I’m looking at you, Martin R.)

  13. #13 Martin R
    December 13, 2007

    B. Owl, American tourists are an important target group for Swedish museums, so I’m glad to hear about your experience. The Vasa is great! Nothing quite like it anywhere.

    Caledonian, PURITY OF ESSENCE!

  14. #14 Svon
    December 13, 2007

    And what do they show at the museum? I havent been there, but the pictures they showed in the newspaper together with the critisism is from the saami exhibition. Who owns the land? With light and shadows, in many languages.

    There have also now been a debate in Expressen with overtunes of real hatred about the saami reindeer husbandry.

    And why not visit Arkeologiforum.se. They always have interesting discussions about the saami question.

  15. #15 Svon
    December 13, 2007

    I see that the saami exhibition is on another museum. On Nordiska Museet. Then strange with the picture…

  16. #16 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 13, 2007
  17. #17 Johan Lundstrom
    December 14, 2007

    The moment I heard about this on Vetenskapsradion (the state-channel science radio show), I just knew you would hate it! :-)

  18. #18 Martin R
    December 14, 2007

    I’m such a predictable guy.

  19. #19 Svon
    December 14, 2007

    Jag lste Lars Linder igen. Fr jag tnkte att jag nog “var ute och cyklade”, nr jag fick fr mig att det handlade egentligen om samerna idag i Sverige, kritiken av utstllningarna allts. Jag tror nu att jag nd tnkte rtt.

    Detta hittade jag p arkeologiforum skrivet av signaturen Nvdi idag: “Politik” r inte ett fult ord. Det handlar faktiskt om realiteter.
    Det handlar om att urfolk och minoriteter vill ta till vara sin egen kultur och sin egen historia, vidareutveckla dem och helt enkelt VERLEVA !
    Mnga majoritetskulturer – eller representanter fr dem – upptrder som en slags Gargantua som vill sluka allt. Jag ser Jasaws och andras frsk p att avhumanisera, frtingliga, reducera och objektivisera arkeologiska artefakter och slnga hela “kulturella komplex” (och inte bara sina egna stvlar) p sophgen som ett led i detta gigantiska groteskeri…

    Appadurais bok “Vredens geografi” kan vara vrd att lsas – recenseras hr:
    http://www.svd.se/kulturnoje/understrecket/artikel_246303.svd
    (Gorm stngde trden, hrm!!!)

    Och den artikeln r lsvrd. Jag kunde ha skrivit denna kommentar till din recension om Kroiks bok, men den passar hr ocks.

  20. #20 Mary
    December 21, 2007

    Yeah, same sort of problem here. It mostly seems to infect the big, tax-payer funded museums. A bunch of stuff, maybe somehow related, maybe not, maybe some pictures, not much else. I had figured it was due to America’s growing illiteracy, i.e. TV/video addiction and increasingly short attention spans. Me, the more detail the better. So your interpretation might not be the last word–whose ever is–give me something since I paid for it, damn it.