National Museums in Sweden: A History of Denied Empire and a Neutral State

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Publicerad: 2011-09-30


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


The history of Swedish national museums is in many ways the story of the problematic relation to the nation’s expansionistic past. During the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries; Sweden had imperial ambitions in the Baltic area; ambitions that reached their zenith in the latter part of the seventeenth century and then slowly faded away during the eighteenth century. After some ery turbulent decades around the turn of the century 1800 – that included the assassination of a king and several coup de et’ats; as well as the loss of Finland; a third of the country’s territory – the following two centuries were; on the whole; a very peaceful affair in Sweden. The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the industrialization of the country and during the first quarter of the twentieth century parliamentary democracy was introduced.

The development of the national museum landscape in Sweden more or less followed the same pace. The first national museums (in the modern sense); Statens portättgalleri; Nationalmuseum; the Naturhistoriska riksmuseet and Historiska museet; came to be as reaction to the loss of Finland and the nationalistic impetus that followed. These were all (except Statens porträttgalleri) existing public collections that; as the result of pressure from the public sphere; were made into statefinanced public museums. The late nineteenth century saw the creation of Nordiska museet and its open-air counterpart Skansen that were both museums of ethnography and cultural history and may be seen as a response to industrialization. Nordiska museet and Skansen were private initiatives that met with great opposition from parts of the state that saw them as an intrusion in the tate’s affairs. The affair was settled in the early twentieth century when Nordiska museet was incorporated into the state system of heritage management while still keeping its independent position.

During the twentieth century; all national museums got their own buildings; the last being Historiska museet that; before 1943; had lived under the same roof as the national art gallery in Nationalmuseum (the name usually refers to the art gallery only; after 1943 rightfully so). The latest important additions to the national museums are Moderna Museet; a gallery of modern art that opened in 1958 after the united efforts of a group ofNationalmuseum curators and public sphere pressure groups and Världskulturmuseet in Gothenburg that opened in 2004 after a governmental initiative.

The problematic relations with Sweden’s imperialistic history are visible mainly in the way it is not dealt with in the national museums. Exhibitions are; with few exceptions; only dealing with present-day Sweden; leaving out objects and history connected to e.g. Finland but including the province of Skåne that has only been a part of the country for the last 350 years. The political ambitions of expansion during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries are also very seldom dealt with; instead most of the modern period is treated as cultural history rather than political history.


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