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500 years of Nordic history

500 years of Nordic history

| Text: Björn Lindahl, Photo: Hendrik Zeitler/Nordiska museet

What could you do on Nordic Day on 23 March to feel a bit Nordic? One thing is to go and see the big exhibition Nordic Life at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm. Svenska Dagbladet calls it “perfect”.

It has been five years in the planning and aims to give an uninterrupted narrative about life in Sweden and the Nordic region over 500 years. The exhibition features 4,000 objects, pictures and archive material presented across 27 rooms at the top of the museum.

It sounds overwhelming but the rooms are like large artworks themselves, a firework of colours and shapes where the content in the showcases spills over into the room outside. And there are plenty of opportunities to interact with the content.

Room 1

Exciting spaces have been created, where the design of the surroundings is an integral part of the experience.

There were a few technical faults in the first week after the opening – like when we tried to write something witty with a digital quill on a digital sheet of paper in the room illustrating the emergence of freedom of the press. 

“That doesn’t work right now I’m afraid,” says a friendly woman who turns out to be one of the exhibit producers, Ylva Lewenhaupt.

We take the opportunity to do a quick interview with her instead, about the ideas behind the exhibition, which has been divided into four seasons. At the start, there is snow along the walls and glass crystals sparkle in the ceiling before things turn warmer and greener.  

“It is always a challenge to take such a big sweep across such a long time period. You have to figure out what to do in order to tie the story together. Our designers were very visually innovative. We wanted to bring in the seasons into the exhibition, because they are very important to how we live our lives in the Nordic region. They colour our lives in so many ways. The climate and nature give the exhibition a framework that leads us forwards,” says Ylva Lewenhaupt.

Ylva Lewenhaupt

Ylva Lewenhaupt with Matti Shevchenko Sandin and Hanna Leijon have been the exhibition's producers. Elna Nord has been project leader. Photo: Björn Lindahl.

We have not been to the Nordic Museum since childhood when it was more fun to look for fossilised trilobites in the stone floor than to study exhibits in the sterile glass showcases. But a lot has happened in the world of museums since then. 

“Things are very visual nowadays. We want to engage many senses, which is an overarching trend in the world of museums. People want to do stuff, see things, listen to things. What is less usual is that we have specially composed music for all of the rooms and seasons. 

“One difference from previous exhibitions is that we have tried to focus on human destinies, featuring the individual people behind the objects,” says Ylva Lewenhaupt.

Screens are used to allow visitors to listen to people from that time period being described through objects and telling their stories – like Samuel Kiechel (1563 – 1619) who was the son of a wealthy merchant from Ulm. His 1586 travel diary from the Nordic region is one of the very few contemporary descriptions of Sweden and to a certain extent Denmark. 

Kiechel was not particularly impressed with Stockholm. “I this really a capital city?,” he asked. But he was impressed by Sami craftsmanship and bought many leather shoes that really kept his feet warm. 

Room 2

In the 1800s, café culture emerges and the  bourgeoisie can afford to order portraits of themselves.

150 years later, Catharina Forsberg (1736 – 1788) talks about being trained to be a midwife and how she was chosen partly because of her “narrow, long hands that could save lives”. But sometimes she was faced with the terrible choice of saving the life of the woman or the child.

The exhibition would be different if it had been staged in Norway, as all of the people who share their destinies do so in standard Swedish and not using dialects. That would never have happened in Norway, to be sure, where dialects are such a large part of people’s identities.

“The language and how accessible it should be is always a balancing act. We have no Norwegian or Danish representatives in our video stories. But we have one ethnic woman and three Sami people who speak their own languages and a Swedish dialect."

He is Kristoffer Sjulsson (1828 – 1908) and we meet him as a young boy before he became a reindeer herder.  

“Soon I will no longer sleep between the sheets of my warm bed,” he says while looking forward to following the reindeer herd, while also steeling himself for the experience.   

What hit us the most is not the fact that the exhibition is so Nordic, but that the Sami element is highlighted to such a degree. Not only 500 years ago when only 1.5 million people lived in the whole of Sweden/Finland but all through the history. There are Sami objects in nearly every showcase. 

It is not by chance that the Nordic Life exhibition is held at the Nordic Museum. Few people have done more to promote the term “Nordic” than the museum’s founder Arthur Hazelius (1833 – 1901), who opened his first Scandinavian museum in 1873, exhibiting national costumes on life-size wax mannequins. Hazelius was also one of the first to gather objects and costumes not only from the upper classes but from common people too.  

He also showed a special interest in the Sami population, and the Nordic Museum, which became the name for the collections in 1880, has the world’s largest collection of Sami objects.

Room 3

Many will recognise objects from the 1960s and 1970s, when the role of fathers started changing. 

“This is the Nordic Museum’s unique story, a story that no one else can tell. Nordic Life is based on the museum’s extensive collections, which have been built up over more than 150 years. Focusing on the history of Sweden, within an overall Nordic framework that includes our neighbouring countries, we portray life in the Nordic region based on real human stories and the lives of individuals,” says Sanne Houby-Nielsen, Director of the Nordic Museum, in a press release. 

As we near the end of the exhibition and our own time, the number of objects falls. In the end, we arrive in a room containing a circle of what seems to be random things, but they all symbolise a life story, like a small plastic lion.

This has been chosen by Erick, born in 1990 to a reindeer herding family in Sápmi. He came out as gay as a teenager and moved to Stockholm. Here, he met his partner and they decided to adopt a little boy from South Africa – something that had just become possible for same-sex couples. 

Plastic lion

A plastic lion bought for an adopted son from South Africa. Photo: Björn Lindahl.

“I felt love for him right there in the children’s home. When I held him to my chest for the first time, I did not want to let go,” writes Erick.

This is an enormous leap from one of the first person to be presented in the exhibition – Lars Nilsson from Pite Lappmark. His grandchild fell into a well and he fetches a rope, prays to the gods and bangs his Sami drum to save the boy. For that, Lars Nilsson was sentenced to death for witchcraft and idolatry and burned at the stake in 1693.

The Nordic Museum

Nordic Museum

Situated at Djurgården in Stockholm, it has a characteristic silhouette. The building was imagined as a Nordic renaissance castle and opened in 1907.


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