CLMS Project Banner

Introduction: Examining Identities in Museums

On an overly warm day in August 2016, a few days after the UiO International Summer School final exams, I found myself in the city centre of Oslo, Norway, making my way off the main drag of Karl Johans gate towards my destination for the day. I walked past my favorite bookstore and turned left on the corner of the block of the National Gallery, home of the famous The Scream painting by Norwegian artist, Evard Munch. I strode past and continued down the block, the gallery falling behind me and the back of my destination in sight. As I continued towards it, I scanned for an entrance. Not finding one, I continued on, it growing ever larger as I neared it. I turned at the corner of the building and found the entrance, marked by a large set of stairs and ornate black doors. The glass sign next to the doors denoted my destination’s name: Kulturhistorisk Museum. The University of Oslo's logo reflected in the sunlight of the mid-afternoon, and the hours written underneath confirmed the museum was open that day. After proceeding up the stairs and through those large doors, I scanned the racks in the entranceway for the museum pamphlet and layout guide, picking both an English translation and a Norwegian one; one for navigation, one for practicing my Norwegian. I glanced at the gift shop to my left – as well as made an additional mental note to visit it on my way out – and proceeded to my left, which seemed like a logical place to start as it was the only exhibit hall on that floor. Upon passing through the large doors, I found myself in a hall full of Viking Age artifacts: the half-dozen stave church door frames. A rune stone taller than me. Several swords and pieces of armor, rusted and tattered. The iron forks and bone drinking horns. I made my way through the hall, taking photos of one set of pillars after another, and proceeded into the darkened room adjacent, filled with medieval tapestries and small model recreations of stave churches. This scenario played itself out for the next hour or so, as I strode through the history of Norway in the Viking Age and into the medieval period, the entirety of the first floor.

Now, I greatly enjoyed the exhibits of medieval Norway, but I assumed I’d find more about Norwegian cultural history than just the medieval. I checked the guide to see where it would take me next: the second floor, consisting of the Arctic, Americas, and Egypt. I climbed the broad stone stairs, stopping along the way to examine the posters of current graduate student research collaborations between the university and the museum. When I made it to the landing of the second floor, I turned to my right and proceeded through the glass doors labeled “Arctic”. The exhibit hall for this region resembled stepping onto an iceberg: the floors and ceiling all white, with individual exhibits built with backdrops covered in scenes of winter and floors covered in fake snow. As I made my way around the oblong path of this hall, reading through each exhibit fixated in the center of the room, something caught my eye in the corner. It was a photograph an older woman, wearing a gákti, a piece of traditional ceremonial clothing worn by Sami groups found in northern Norway. I made a beeline for this photograph, remembering a past paper I had written about the Sami and their experiences in boarding schools and wondering what information this photograph could tell me. The photograph turned out to be part of an exhibit called Ti samiske tidsbilder, and consisted of photos and stories of the Sami experience in Norway, describing their struggle to learn and maintain their languages, keep their songs and stories and traditions alive, and define their place in Norwegian society. I examined each story in detail, taking pictures to capture these accounts.

After reading each account and examining the pictures, an odd, perhaps out-of-place, thought struck me. I found this exhibit to be incredibly rich and interesting, not least of all extremely important, because of the issues of identity and erasure addressed in these personal accounts. But, as I thought to myself, why is this exhibit here? Why is it in the corner of the Arctic hall, behind exhibits of snowshoes and polar bears and boats? Why isn’t it with the rest of the exhibits about Norway, or at least in its own space? Why is it included here, in this space, but almost hidden away? I might have been thinking into it too much, but these questions ran through my mind as I made my way through the rest of the museum and considered the different artifacts chosen to represent the other regions of exhibits in the museum. As I exited the gift shop (with yet another book of Norwegian folktales ready to be added to my library), I paused again to consider the museum pamphlet. I examined the layout and pondered why everything was organized the way it was. As I closed the pamphlet, put it in my bag, thanked the museum guide with a “takk skal du ha!”, and walked out the massive entrance doors, I contemplated why I just saw the exhibits I saw, presented with the material culture they contained. Why those exhibits were considered to be defining of the regions of the world and nations they were so labeled? Why were these representations chosen as the “cultural history” of these places?

My experience as outlined in the vignette above reflected broadly upon questions of representation in the space of the museum. I considered how the space of the museum and the material culture represented therein both created and received narratives of cultural history. But at the core of this examination lay the driving forces behind the creation of these representations and narratives. What types of discourses influenced the material culture chosen for museum exhibition, and the way it is represented? In the example of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, what discourses drove the museum curators to create an entire floor dedicated to medieval history and the Viking Age in Norway, with the rest of the world dispersed throughout the rest of the museum? Why was a group that is internally located within Norway externally represented in the museum space, on another floor, in the corner? And what kinds of narratives are created from this organization of space, both for and by the public who view them?

In this section, I aim to more closely examine the questions that arose from my visit to the Museum of Cultural History, but through the context of the relationships between the museum spaces and their representations, and the discourses that influence, regulate, and construct the narratives that embody the material culture present in museums. In particular, I focus upon the representation of the nation and the influence of nationalism upon museum spaces, and how through the space of the museum, constructions of what embodies the nation and the national identity are created for and by visitors. I also consider the situation of the place of the museum in Norway within the city versus outside the city in a rural setting, and how this urbanized condition also influences museums in unique ways that also further contribute to narratives of the nation relative to the world. Ultimately, this section aims to discuss the narratives and identities of the nation as constructed in the museum space, and how discourses of nationalism and the city in the museum space create a dialogic of Othering, both externally on a global scale and internally through the marginalization of groups that lie outside of internal boundaries of the Norwegian national identity.

I examine these dialogues in Norway in their museums of cultural history, notably the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History and the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, and how different degrees of nationalism and urbanization affect the museum space and thus the narratives of the Norwegian nation created in these spaces. I’ll provide a brief overview of each museum, including a brief history, outline of the exhibitions and major focus of each museum as defined through their publically available information and based upon my visits in the summers of 2015 and 2016, and an overview of their online presence, a key component for these museums as globally accessible spaces of cultural history. Through the framework of these nationalism and urbanization discourses that focus upon imagined boundaries, invented traditions, and the concept of Othering, there emerges also instances where cultural history is marginalized and silenced, particularly with respect to the place of the indigenous Sami population of Norway, which I will examine in detail. It is my hope that through this exploration, we can gain a better understanding of the regimes of power that operate within the museum space and how they create national narratives that permeate within and without the space of the museum.

Locating Norway's Museums

On the map below you will find the location of the museums examined in this section, with the intention to add to this investigation and research in the future. Each museum is represented by a marker on the map, with a small pop-up with a link to the museums website. Below the map, a small summary of the history and development of each museum is presented to establish the setting in which I examine the issues of representation, identity, silencing, and the narratives of the nation created by the museum space.

The UiO Museum of Cultural History

The Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo, also known as the Kulturhistorisk Museum in Norwegian, is located in the city centre of Oslo, the capital city of Norway. A museum was first established in the current location of the present museum and opened to the public in 1904, mainly focusing upon the ethnographic collections containing artifacts from the Arctic, Africa, and East Asia. The current Museum of Cultural History, established in 1999 and originally known as Universitetets kulturhistoriske museum until 2004, is operated by the University of Oslo and is part of a system of museums and research labs that also includes the Viking Ship Museum located on the peninsula of Bygdøy, just outside of Oslo. The main museum building, which houses most of the museum’s collection, is located on Frederiks gate 2 and Frederiks gate 3, and is just a block away from the main street of Oslo, Karl Johans gate. This main street originates from Oslo’s train, subway, tram, and bus hub, the Oslo Central Station or Jernbanetorget, on one end, and ends with The Royal Palace on the other. The street is flanked on both sides by several other landmark buildings in Oslo, including the National Theatre, the National Gallery, and the Stortinget (Norwegian Parliament). According the museum's website, the Museum of Cultural History "conducts innovative high quality research in close interaction with the management of culture, heritage and public outreach." It presents an interdisciplinary approach to its research groups, and "possesses the largest archaeological and ethnographic collections in Norway." The collections at the Museum of Cultural History encompass material culture that focuses upon the medieval and Viking Age periods of Norwegian history, as well as artifacts from regions from all over the world, including the Americas, Ancient Egypt, East Asia, Antiquity (Rome and Greece), and the Arctic. The layout of the museum as of July 2016 can be seen in the photos to the right and on the next page, which contain both the English and Norwegian translations of the museum pamphlet guide given at admission to the museum.

The Museum of Cultural History also maintains a considerable online presence, with a detailed and extensive website consisting of separate pages for their research groups, research projects, pages for each regional collection, and extensive databases cataloguing much of the museum’s collections, organized into the Norwegian Archaeological Collection, the Classical Archaeological Collection, the Numismatic Collection, and the Ethnographic Collection. The purpose for producing much of their collections in digital format is to facilitate research collaboration between the university, the museum, and outside, international sources. In addition, the website includes links to research news, research events for the university, the museum, and the surrounding museum system, recent publications, and information for fellowships in the museum. The website also includes contact information for the many groups of interdisciplinary scholars that work with the museum, and general information about the museum’s operations and visitor inquiries. Interestingly, there is little information about the history or the establishment of the museum other than that presented earlier in this section; much of their “About” page pertains to the management board of directors, the types of services offered by the museum in terms of photographs and the loaning of objects, job vacancies, and a broadly-named category of “Cultural Heritage Management”, relating to the laws pertaining to the import and export of material culture to and from Norway.

The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (Norsk Folkemuseum) is located on the peninsula of Bygdøy, in the Oslo Fjord just outside the city. According to the museum’s website page The History of the Museum, the museum was founded in 1894 by Hans Aall, a Norwegian librarian and historian. The website notes that this museum was established during an era where “This time period was marked by strong national fervor and a desire for a more independent position in the union with Sweden.” From its founding until 1907, several buildings were added to the museum, including the Gol Stave Church, which was originally built in the year 1200. In the 1950s-60s, the museum became an institution for research, in addition to its purpose as a space for the preservation of Norway’s folk history. The museum is currently maintained by the Norsk Folkemuseum Foundation, maintained by a board of directors. The Norsk Folkemuseum Foundation also manages several other museums located around Oslo, including The Bogstad Manor, the Bygdø Royal Manor, the Eidsvoll 1814 (site of the signing of Norway’s constitution in 1814), the Ibsen Museum (former home of famous Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen), and the Norwegian Maritime Museum.

This museum is located near several other museums that focus upon various aspects of Norwegian cultural history, including the University of Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, the Fram Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Norwegian Maritime Museum. This museum focuses upon Norwegian cultural history from all around the country, and the majority of the exhibitions occupy the space of an open-air museum, consisting of buildings such as houses, barns, shops, and churches relocated from different regions of Norway. The purpose of displaying these buildings, as described on the website, is to “represent different regions in Norway, different time periods, as well as differences between town and country, and social classes.” In addition, much of the University of Oslo’s Sami collections were transferred to the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in 1951. The indoor exhibitions of the museum consist primarily of "folk art, folk costumes, toys and Sami culture."

Much like the Museum of Cultural History, the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History also holds an online presence, which includes detailed information for: visitor experiences and events, individual pages for each major collection of buildings around the open-air museum, and pages for each of their exhibition collections on folk art, Sami culture, knitting history, folk dress, and church art, including links to online databases with more extensive information pertaining to the collections. It also includes information about accessing archival material and non-displayed collections, a broadly-named Knowledge section, which contains links for information on ethnological research, collaboration with the museum on research projects, and education provided by the museum. Lastly, their detailed website contains information about the Norsk Folkemuseum Foundation, contact information, staff information, and information for the media.