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.”
“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?”
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.