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Discourses of Nationalism and the City in the Museum

What discourses of meaning can be found?

There are many narratives I have extrapolated with regards to the nature of representation in these two museums, and there are elements of the influence of nationalism and urbanization which find footing within representation in museums in Oslo. By setting up the framework of nationalism and the roots of Norwegian national identity, I can comparatively analyze and explain some of the key narratives of representation I observed that occur in both the Museum of Cultural History and the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, narratives influenced by Norwegian nationalism and which embody identities of inclusion, exclusion, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and silences.

The first instance in which we can see specific influences of Norwegian nationalism and urbanization present in these museums spaces pertains to their locations relative to the city centre. As stated before, the Museum of Cultural History is located within the city centre, one block away from the main street of Oslo, Karl Johans gate, and is situated among several other prominent buildings that reflect both the influence of nationalism and the influence of a global neoliberalism (mainly tourism), such as the Norwegian Parliament, the National Theatre, the National Gallery; all of these are down this same street directly from The Royal Palace. It is unlikely a coincidence that these institutions which constitute physical representations and spaces of cultural history, political power, national art and theatre, and the legacy of the royal lineage of Norway are in close proximity to each other within a very centralized space, connected by a well-traveled thoroughfare and anchored by a hub of modern transportation. The locations of these institutions, and the narratives they intend to create with regards to their purpose in Norwegian society, reflects a possible urban infrastructure plan that illustrates those institutions, and thus narratives, that are representative of Norwegian culture and values to the international crowd that frequents this central space of the Karl Johans gate and the surrounding grid of streets and structures. It is creating an organized, interrelated grid of spaces of reflecting a cohesive national identity within a busy, chaotic urban city centre (Graham and Marvin 2001:8).

These institutions become symbols of a national discourse, featured prominently in an area frequented and consumed by international tourists as must-see pieces of a larger Norwegian cultural discourse. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen would position this, the presence of the Museum of Cultural History within this centralized urban framework creates an interacting national narrative, created by this network of national institutions and consumed by both the nation and the international public, is "intended to stimulate reflection on one’s own cultural distinctiveness and thereby [to] create a feeling of nationhood" (Eriksen 2010 [1994]:124). In other words, the presence of this centralized network of nationalized buildings is intended to create a distinctly Norwegian cultural narrative, one intended to be consumed by both locals and tourists alike.

We can also see the prominence of Norwegian nationalism and the emphasis on the rural identity as authentically Norwegian in the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, reflected in its location as outside the city and accessible via a bus route that takes the visit through the royal farm estates. These two specific instances of a situatedness with in the rural – outside the city and among farms – are very much a reflection of that tenet of national identity that focuses on the nostalgia for the rural peasantry as the ideal of what it means to be Norwegian, which was born out of the nationalism of the late nineteenth century urban elite. The setting of this museum therefore embodies a very specific aspect of Norwegian nationalism, and also adheres to this representation with the specific contents of its exhibitions, of which I will focus upon next.

My second observation of the influence of nationalism upon the space of these museums is through the contents of their exhibits, and how these exhibits are defining narratives of cultural history to the public for consumption and interpretation. To begin, the narrative of the authentic Norwegian as rooted in the rural is the focus of the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, a narrative born out of the nineteenth century nationalism and one that still prevails as part of Norwegian national identity today (Eriksen 1993). The presence of this nationalist narrative governs the layout and contents of the museum, as it focuses upon conveying rural folk culture from the year 1500 onward as the entirety of the exhibits, both in person and in an online presence. Even the name reflects this influence of the rural national identity: the name of the museum in Norwegian is called Norsk Folkemuseum, and an alternative English translation, common in the tourism industry of Oslo and as a way to distinguish this museum from the city centre-based Museum of Cultural History, is the Norwegian Folk Museum.

As stated before in the overview section of the museum, this museum contains artifacts, material culture, and relocated buildings from regions from all over Norway, and specializes in a focus upon the folk culture of the Norwegian people and the Sami peoples (though the presence of this particular material culture is problematic, as I will discuss more below). The particular emphasis on the rural is embodied in the choices of these different representations of material culture. There are several areas occupied by large botanical gardens filled with flowers, trees, and plants typical of the Norwegian landscape, bringing the preindustrial, rural Norwegian nature back into the city structure. The buildings themselves, all authentically built and relocated to the museum from their original locations in Norway, illustrate the rural connection, as many of them constitute traditional country housing, barns, rural churches, and stables typically associated with the rural, sustainable farm life so espoused in the nationalist attitudes of the urban elite in the 1890s. Traditional folk dress, instruments, and tools find their presentation in the museum’s exhibit halls, as well as part of an extensive online database of the museum’s collection. This museum, overall, would seem to cater to a specific audience consisting primarily of those who are specifically looking for an “authentic” Norwegian culture defined by a distinct Norwegianness or national identity of the rural, whether they be international tourists or locals wishing to learn more about that nostalgic rural life outside of the city.

The Museum of Cultural History, on the other hand, is much less distinct in the presence of nationalism as an influence over the representations of cultural history present in this museum. If anything, this museum is much more cosmopolitan and organizes its space through discourses that permeate throughout many Western museums of cultural history, in order to be seen as a global player in cultural history museums. Thus, I will discuss a few nuanced observations with regards to the discourses that I see governing the definitions of cultural history in this museum, particularly those that indicate the influence of nationalism and globalization. This museum presents itself through a culturally-nonspecific name, the Museum of Cultural History, and thus the narratives of representation within this space reflect just that: it is a museum that contains material culture, research, and cultural heritage narratives from a range of cultural histories.

This museum presents itself as an international museum, comprised of material culture that reflects world cultural heritage; it is a place of access to this heritage from the busy city centre of Oslo and makes the city a space of access to global culture, much like a mall can give access to international material brands and global presence on the international capitalist market (Davila 2016). It is a space that presents a cosmopolitan identity, where cultural heritage from all over the world can and should be accessed and experienced by the visiting public (Geismar 2015:76). And by choosing which pieces of material culture from each region represents that region, the museum is creating a narrative of what cultural histories are to be created for the visitor, exhibiting a sense of control over the narrative of these particular spaces and times (Cinar and Bender 2007:168). Much like a mall in terms of exhibiting a product to consume, this museum is a space where the value of world cultural heritage can be assessed in terms of what is given the prestige of exhibition. In a museum of world history, visitors expect exhibitions from Europe, the Americas, Africa, East Asia, Classical Antiquity and Ancient Egypt; therefore this museum again reflects that globalizing discourse in the representations of familiar exhibits found in many museums of world cultural history (Johanson and Olsen 2010:13). This structure of the international museum then becomes the product which is accessed and consumed by the public, all expressing the process of touristification of cultural history (Johanson and Olsen 2010:13). It is also no surprise to also note again that this museum is placed, physically and figuratively, within a specific space in the city centre as an offshoot of the main street, and tourist center, of Oslo.

Despite this overwhelming representation of the global discourse within the Museum of Cultural History, there is still a strong influence of Norwegian nationalism present in the representation of cultural history in this museum, as can be seen first in the layout. The first floor of the museum as of July 2016 comprises Norwegian cultural history that focuses upon the Middle Ages and the Viking Age in Norway, consisting of artifacts from stave churches, door frames, tapestries, swords, and other material goods from this time period. This representation of material culture reflects a national narrative and the need for unbroken historical nationalism that connects Norway’s cultural history to its medieval past, projecting an identity that induces a continuity of cultural heritage from the Viking Age to the present for Norwegian cultural identity (Bø 2011:174, Eriksen 2010 [1994], Smith 2009). The fact that this particular time period and choice of material culture takes up such a large portion of the museum’s space suggests that this topic of cultural history occupies a specialized or particular stature within Norwegian national identity. It’s prominence in the museum reflects an aspect of identity that all Norwegians reflect as part of their cultural heritage and finds significant distinction in their cultural history, on a national scale (Anderson 2006 [1983], Gellner 1983). Another piece of Norway’s cultural history, displaying the history of the removal of gold from German-occupied Norway in 1940, is within Norges Bank Room on the second floor. So not only do we see Norwegian cultural history as the dominant narrative of representation on the first floor, but it is also present on the second floor, albeit juxtaposed somewhat awkwardly and out of place with the history of the Americas and Ancient Egypt. So as we can see, the discourses which govern the representations in this museum intersect to create a unique space for this museum to create narratives which reflect both national and international identities.

There is one more narrative of representation to consider for both museums I have examined for this discussion. That narrative concerns the representation of the indigenous population of Norway, the Sami people, and how their cultural history is narrated in these two museums. For this last section, I will focus upon how these representations that I’ve discussed, as influenced by discourses of nationalism in particular, are creating narratives of marginalization and silences of Sami cultural history, with particular regard to the Sami as part of the Norwegian national identity and their material culture presence in these museums.

Sami material culture and representation is found in both museums, but to a different degree as I observed during the summers of 2015 and 2016. Much of the Sami collection originally in the possession of the Museum of Cultural History was transferred to the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in 1951. Therefore, much of Sami material culture and material heritage is found in the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in their exhibition rooms, in the museum’s archival collection, and accessible online or in-person by request. I will discuss how the Norwegian national narrative was problematized by the silences of cultural history found in the museums, particularly with respect to the presentation of Sami material culture. Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995) presents an understanding of this almost procedural method of producing such silences in museums. As in archives, there are systems of ranking, inclusion, and exclusion that determine what materials are presented and those materials that are archived, silenced from narratives that wish to produce a specific elicitation of, in this case, cultural history (Trouillot 1995:52-53).

My first experience with Sami cultural history as presented in these museums was the exhibition of Ti samiske tidsbilder (which literally translates to "Ten Sami time-pictures" but it is better translated as "Ten Sami Images" or "Ten Sami Visual Stories") in the Museum of Cultural History in the city centre. This exhibit presents personalized stories and pictures from ten people who identify as Sami, and tells their stories of their views and definitions of Sami cultural history, language learning, assimilation, identity issues, and cultural revitalization. This exhibit, as well as a few nearby exhibits of Sami traditional dress and reindeer herding gear, represented the whole of representation of the Sami in this museum, despite this group being very much a part of Norwegian cultural and political history. Even though an entire floor and a section of another floor were dedicated to Norwegian cultural history, those exhibits and their narratives focused upon the Viking Age and Norway’s gold bullion history during the German occupation of World War II. So the presence of this Sami exhibit outside of these spaces defined as Norwegian cultural history speaks loudly of the national identity narrative that is being produced for visitors. A visitor with little or no prior knowledge of Norwegian history might not even associate this Sami exhibition as part of Norwegian identity, even more so since this exhibition was housed in the corner of the Arctic exhibition on the second floor. This presents a degree of marginalization for Sami identity, relegating their cultural history narrative to the corner of group of exhibitions labeled, quite broadly, the Arctic. Is this out of place? Not entirely, as most Sami have historically occupied territory in northern Norway in the Arctic Circle. But it certainly does not exemplify their place within Norwegian cultural history, of which they definitely a part; rather it suggests a sense of "Other" with respect to their place in relation to Norwegian national identity (Chatterjee 1993:5, 216; Levy 2006:136; McIntosh 2015:310). It is also worth noting that on the map of the museum layout, there is no indication that the Sami exhibit exists, as it is just labeled as part of the aforementioned "Arctic" space. Of course, it is this such labeling that again shows a problem with the acknowledgement of their cultural history and produces a sense of erasure or silencing in relation to Norwegian cultural history, as they are labeled as "Arctic" rather than as "Norwegian" or even as they would identify themselves, "Sami".

Another problematic experience regarding the representation of Sami cultural history occurred in my personal ventures to the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. I mistakenly did not even know there was any Sami material culture during my many visits to this museum (at least six visits in total over the course of two summers), as I do not possess pictures nor do I recall seeing any material culture present at this museum, despite the museum being labeled as a space of Norwegian cultural history. My only understanding of the presence of the Sami material culture and cultural history narrative even existing at this museum is through their online exhibitions. By happenstance I was exploring their website and found, through a series of embedded links, a small box containing a link to the whole of their Sami material cultural collection. While they do have a permanent exhibit within the museum’s collection halls (I am still puzzled as to how I missed it), most of the collection is in the archives and in storage, thus only accessible to view via their online database or through a personal request for the materials for research. I see two narratives put forth by the situation of the Sami material in this museum. The first harkens back to my earlier discussion regarding marginalization and silences, in that certain narratives of Sami cultural history are being silenced by being placed in archives and out of public sight. This then places very specific representations of Sami cultural history within the larger narrative of this museum’s dominant Norwegian cultural history (Levy 2006:144). It also implies that this museum’s dominant national narrative of the rural possibly determines what material culture is represented as cultural history in this museum, and anything outside of that narrative or anything that does not quite fit into that narrative is marginalized, regulated to storage, and found without a voice, becoming the internal Other Chatterjee (1993a, 1993b) describes. The second, and possibly more favorable, representation of Sami cultural history at this museum is that through the online presence of their material culture as part of this online museum space, this is a cultural history that is more accessible to an international audience through the power of a globalized media. Though this does not discount the narrative created by the representations of Sami cultural history in the physical space of the museum, it does present an avenue through which Sami cultural history can find representation and at a global scale.


In this section, I considered how several aspects of nationalist ideologies are defined and embodied within the material culture of museums to create and reflect the consequential narratives of the nation and identities of inclusion, exclusion, marginalization, and valorization that occur within the museum space. Throughout my examination of the examples I found of nationalist ideology influencing museum space in the two museums of cultural history in Oslo, Norway, I explained the role of Norwegian national identity governing the museum of space and how that constructed ideology of the nation also plays a key role in issues of representation, interpretation, marginalization, and internal Othering of the Sami in Norway. These museums in Norway espouse nationalist identities that are both rooted in wanting to connect to a rural past while maintaining the accolade as a distinctive nation in a globalized world, particularly in the museum spaces situated in the city. This perceived emphasis upon the “rural identity” of the countryside of Norway that features prominently within Norwegian national identity undoubtedly affects representation in these two museums, contributing the internal Otherness of the Sami peoples of Norway, whose projected identity of belongingness places them outside of these internal boundaries of Norwegian national identity. One important consideration, especially with respect to Norway, is the role of nationalism in the construction of these museums and how this principle plays a key role in the regime of power within this museum system, pertaining to how they define cultural history and govern the spaces and material culture within their museums. For this we need to consider how ideologies of nationalism are defined and constructed, and use these frameworks to understand how meaning-making and identity construction occur in a space such as a museum. It is through these discourses of nationalism that material culture, tangible and intangible heritage, and cultural history can derive meaning, whether through relationships of inclusion and representation, or through associations of exclusion and silence.