I Am Becoming Museology

I’ve blogged before about becoming an archaeological dad, when new work built upon and superseded stuff I did in the 90s. Now stuff I did in the 00s has become, if not history, then at least museology, in the pages of Dr. Carl-Johan Svensson’s PhD thesis in didactics (freely available on-line as a 2.4 MB PDF file). He presented his thesis yesterday at the School of Education and Communication, Jönköping University.

Ten years ago I was involved a drawn-out and pretty violent public dispute about the policies of the then director of the Museum of Swedish History – which is misnamed because its collections are almost entirely Prehistory and Medieval church art. This man had worked at the Ministry of Culture where he had written a new instruction for the museum, involving wordings about greater contemporary societal relevance, and then he’d applied for the job as director and gotten it. He soon fired almost everyone who had archaeological training and instead hired museum generalist staff. He filled the halls with modern art commenting on the Holocaust, probably because the Prime Minister at the time was using genocide awareness as his ticket to international statesmanly recognition. And then the whole thing blew up in the museum director’s face when an installation about a Palestinian suicide bomber was vandalised on camera by the Israeli ambassador and Israel threatened to boycott the Swedish Holocaust Conference. (The ambassador’s actions later received a reward for installation art!)

Anyway, the reason I cared was that the resources of the country’s main museum for prehistoric archaeology were being used for politically opportunistic and thematically irrelevant purposes. Though many of my post-modernist colleagues really, really want to believe that we have a considerable impact on politics, we don’t actually. When was the last time the words “Middle Neolithic” were uttered in Swedish Parliament? The museum director certainly agreed with me on this point. He wasn’t interested in old arrowheads. But he was interested in politics.

The subtitle of Dr. Svensson’s book is “Public debate about the audience-oriented activity of the Swedish History Museum from The Swedish History to History of Sweden.” The two latter are the names of exhibitions that opened at the museum in 1992 and 2011. I don’t quite understand why this is didactics, but then I’ve never been able to understand the distinction between pedagogy and didactics either. The book aims to

“contribute knowledge on how basic didactic questions regarding a national museum have been answered in public debate over time. Standpoints on what should be exhibited, how this should be done, to/with whom the mediation of history should be addressed / communicated and, what mission in society The Swedish History Museum’s is considered to have, are summed up in the concept of ‘exhibition ideal’” and also “to put the publicly expressed positions on The Swedish History Museum in a wider historical-cultural context.”

I’m quite proud that Dr. Svensson has paid so much attention to what I said back then, putting me into a canon as it were, though his transcriptions of stuff I said on TV aren’t very accurate. And he thankfully spells my name correctly 20 times out of 21. I don’t like it when he calls me an essentialist, but then this is in the context of one Gerald L. Gutek’s four-type classification scheme for education philosophies (Dr. Svensson, Gutek is not in your bibliography!), not in the sense that humanities scholars generally use that word, so it’s OK.

If you’re into museology and the role of archaeological museums in society, then this is a book for you. Pp. 325-332 is an English summary not listed in the book’s table of contents.


Sweden’s Main Contract Archaeology Units To Merge With Main Archaeological Museum

Contract archaeology is the current term for what used to be called rescue archaeology: documenting archaeological sites slated for destruction through land development. (Swedes sometimes fall for a false friend and translate an old word of ours, exploateringsarkeologi, into “exploitation archaeology”, suggesting fieldwork undertaken by people in pimp/ho outfits to the soundtrack from Shaft.)

Swedish contract archaeology has seen steady growth measured decade by decade since the end of WW2, both in terms of the number of active field archaeologists and of the number of units. I seem to remember that there are about 45 units right now, running the organisational gamut from benevolent foundations to government branches to limited companies. The oldest and biggest ones — known collectively by the beautifully opaque name UV, originally Undersökningsverksamheten, “the Investigation Occupation / Activity / Business” – are part of the National Heritage Board.

Somebody has to keep an eye on these organisations from a quality standpoint, making sure that Joe’s Diggin’ & Dynamitin’ Ltd. doesn’t get away with cheap sub-par work while obliterating the archaeology. That somebody has always been the National Heritage Board. This is a problem along the lines of Juvenal’s “Who watches the watchmen?”. It’s been on the cards for decades that UV will have to be cut off from the Board. The question has been where to put it instead. And now that question has finally been answered.

From 1 January 2015, UV’s several regional units will be part of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, one of Scandinavia’s largest archaeological museums (being somewhat misnamed). For about 150 years, almost every really interesting archaeological find from Sweden has ended up in this museum’s stores and display cases. Now a lot of the people who make those finds and document their contexts will be working for the museum.

I think this is excellent. With a few shining counterexamples, Swedish field archaeologists don’t know enough about finds. And with a few shining counterexamples, in recent decades the staff of the History Museum have not had much up-to-date fieldwork experience. I am confident that the merging of these two organisations will benefit both and prove a boon to Swedish archaeology.

Thanks to Niklas Ytterberg for the heads-up.