National museums – audience experiences and identities

When I learned that Nordiska Museet* in Stockholm was among the museums that Alexandra Bounia  and Kristin Kuutma had included in Eunamus’ study on audience experiences and identities I was quite surprised. To me, the obvious choice in Sweden would have been Historiska Museet (the National Historical Museum). This museum shows archeological´findings and ecclesiastical objects from prehistory to the middle ages.
Currently they are showing a temporary exhibition on Swedish history with the aim to offer new perspectives on the exercising of societal power.** Nordiska Museet instead focuses on everyday culture and folk art. In my opinion, Nordiska Museet’s exhibitions tend to be aesthetically strong, whereas Historiska Museet deliberately struggles with how to deal with issues of national history and identity.

After spending several days working with the audience survey at Nordiska Museet, I find Nordiska Museet an equally good choice. Nordiska Museet does not explicitly deal with Swedish history, but it does overtly deal with Swedishness, for example by having “Swedish trends and traditions” as a kind of slogan on their website and on banners on the building. The museum also starts its audio guide, much used by foreign tourists, in front of its impressive statue of the king Gustav Vasa in the main hall, pointing out that he once was part of uniting Sweden in the 16th century.

Eunamus studies museum audiences by distributing a questionnaire to visitors at ten major museums in Europe and by focus groups in a selection of cities. We do not aim at capturing what visitors actually do at museums by observations or interviews. Instead the questionnaire asks visitors of their opinions. However, while conducting the survey, I could not help noticing that tourists enjoy taking photos of the statue of Gustav
Vasa, sometimes including themselves in the photo. Swedish visitors showed considerably
less interest in the statue. Curious about this interest in Gustav Vasa I asked my Estonian colleague on her opinion on the matter. According to her, the statue evoked interest because of its mix of grandeur and kitsch as it makes the former Swedish king look like Zeus, Tor or Buddha.

There have been a lot of methodological considerations preceding Eunamus’ audience survey, not only on how to pick museums, but also on how to do the sampling and on how to convert overarching research questions into, neither too simplified, nor too complex, survey questions. Having met and listened to people participating in the survey, I can tell that some people find the questions rather problematic or tricky to answer. Others find them interesting and stimulating for discussions on what is a national museum, on who should start them and what they should display.

Sometimes it was necessary to explain that our research program on national museums includes several different types of museums. Each state tends to have a set of museums dealing with different aspects of the nation, its past and relations to other nations, such as art museums, historical museums, ethnographical museums, maritime museums, museums of science and industry, museums of natural history, et cetera.

Eunamus’ visitor study will be presented at a conference in Athens in April 2012. The audience research will then be connected to our research on museum objects and narratives.  For example, Simon Knell from Leicester University is looking into Nordiska Museet’s displays.

Bodil Axelsson

*Nordiska Museet has no official English translation of their name. If there were one, it would be the Nordic Museum. Initially it aimed at displaying heritage from the Nordic or Scandinavian, region. See Magdalena Hillström’s article “Contested
Boundaries Nation, People and Cultural History Museums in Sweden and Norway
1862–1909”.  

**Sheila Watson from Leicester University are currently writing on the ways in which Historiska Museet and other historical museums try to disconnect from ethnic nationalism.  Read more in Eunamus’ Newsletter #3 June 2011.

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