A visit to the Nordic Museum in Stockholm and why the Swedes don't have curtains.
Letter from Sweden by Gary (not Alistair) Cook
Letter dated 26 June 2021
The other day, I read something written by a Swedish social historian about curtains. There is a general lack of curtains in most Swedish homes, something we can attest to having wandered around the streets in the depths of winter, enjoying the sights of families around Christmas trees.
According to the social historian the lack of curtains dates back to when the vast majority of Swedes were so poor they couldn’t afford windows. So, when they managed to get to the level of affording windows, why would they cover them up?
Also, and possibly more to the point, one Swede wouldn’t want another Swede to think they had more than their neighbours. There’s no keeping up with the Jones’ here. As a society, Sweden is very egalitarian.
How the Swedish developed socially is partly explained by the Nordiska Museet or the Nordic Museum, which I visited this week.
It comprises a huge collection of social objects, gathered together by Artur Hazelius in the late 19th century in order to preserve the ordinary lives of the Nordic people. Regular listeners may remember I have talked about Artur before. It was he who collected a load of buildings for what became the open air museum that is Skansen.
He collected all manner of stuff. In fact, some of his less kind contemporaries said he collected junk. But Artur knew he was bringing together a lasting legacy of culture and tradition.
Artur wasn’t interested in kings, queens, politicians and the general sweep of history. Other museums could deal with those things. He was collecting everyday society and showing why the Nordic countries were Nordic.
Starting in 1872 with a woollen skirt from Stora Tuna, the eventual museum opened in June 1907 and has been a commanding presence on the island of Djurgarden ever since.
From the outside, the building appears to house a lot of exhibits. I feared that it would be one of those fusty old museums of case after case of uninteresting identical objects with old cardboard identity cards, scrawled with ancient fading inked catalogue details. I’ve visited a few.
My fears, however, were left well behind when I headed up to the top floor and started working my way down.
Possibly my favourite part was a wonderful exhibition on the Sami, the indigenous people of the north. An amazing selection of objects showing what makes them who they are.
For instance, I discovered that a Sami hat indicates where the person is from. Each one is different, depending on the wearer’s origin. Sometimes the differences are small but, to the Sami eye, they are as clear as a message on the front of a t-shirt.
And it’s not all the same. For instance, there was a lovely little exhibition featuring the art of August Strindberg. Known for his writing, his paintings are an interesting diversion. And a single sculpture, the Weeping Boy, a fascinating inclusion.
He made it in 1891 as part of what people were calling ‘automatic art’. It was a case of not planning something and just jumping in there with hands that worked the clay without direction. Being Strindberg, he gave the artistic process its own name. He called it ‘forest sirenism’.
The whole museum was a delight and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true.
At the beginning, the visitor is invited to view a short film about the beginnings of the museum and the work of Artur Hazelius. Excellent idea, I thought.
Now, obviously the film is all in Swedish, as it should be. However, some helpful person decided to add English subtitles. All good and handy, except that the subtitles were in white and, against the primarily black and white images, generally impossible to read.
I can only imagine that the person responsible didn’t actually view the finished product. Which is a bit weird if you think about it. I’m sure a lot of staff members must have seen it.
But that is a minor quibble when it comes down to the museum as a whole. I’d say, the Nordiska Museet is a magnificent testimony to Artur Hazelius and his desire to save the past, well beyond his own future.
And, finally, in the Great Hall there’s a mock-up of a 1940’s flat which you can wander around. And, it’s no surprise, it has no curtains.