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Posts tagged ‘Historiska Museet’

finding my inner viking

We are soon to depart from my ancestral homeland so the final posts will be a little introspective…

As noted, these are my people.  And I also have Icelandic, Scottish and Irish genes… so the Vikings loom large in my genetic composition.  What that means is hard to determine.  The Vikings aren’t quite as mysterious as the lost city of Atlantis but they were some of the first people to try and conquer others (and explore the world), long before foursquare.  If only they had taken photos during a marauding venture on their iphones and posted them to their facebook friends we might know what had been going on…

I have now had two ventures into Scandinavia and the take on being a Viking is interesting.  The rest of us don’t know much – and generally I would say the rep doesn’t seem that appealing.  But apparently Vikings had some cool, modern traits as well – and, like any culture, came with attributes.  They were not just vicious plunderers.

I will need to learn more – and it will take time.  The Historiska Museet gave me a starting point.  And some interesting facts.  And some intriguing stuff to see.

The most spectacular part is the Guldrummet (Gold Room), which displays more than 3,000 artefacts in gold and silver, from the Bronze to the Middle Ages.  It was a wild time in history so hording metal seemed to be a common hobby.  Definitely makes for some great exhibits for us modern visitors.

There are also some exceptional rune stones and excellent exhibits on Viking history.  It’s the same as the other Swedish museums with lots of questions posed to make visitors think, not just read and accept.

As I’ve already noted in a previous post, there was a special exhibit trying to provide a Wikipedia entry version of 1,000 years of Swedish history.  It started with clans, who are not the best way to build an inclusive society.  They were replaced by kings, also not a great model for universal anything.

The power of the kings was gradually replaced by the nobility and the church, often working in conjunction with each other to oppress and suppress most of the population.  The exhibit also explored the role of chivalry and the aristocracy in shaping society (not so positive…).

What was most fascinating is that the 21st century Sweden with its strong sense of identity is a new entity, barely 100 years old.  What is most impressive is how they took an old-fashioned, not so great nation state model, and used logic and planning to create a nation state that is an enviable place.  The US thinks that is their mojo – but they missed the part about engaging your brain to develop a nation state model that will benefit the majority of its citizens, not just the rich guys.  Nation states benefiting the rich guys are a dime a dozen.  Africa does THAT – in spades!  But a nation state that really seems to be working on behalf of the entire population.  That really gives one food for thought…

The museum definitely gave me an interesting sense of what it might mean to be a Swede.  Or even a Viking 🙂

The Swedes do seem to be part of Europe, while also maintaining some distance where they feel it might be wise.  They are shrewd.

And smart I think.

After all, they have declined to participate in the crazy Euro experiment.  The EU leaders must have got bored in Brussels and popped over to Amsterdam.  After enough pot brownies, the Euro likely seemed like a great idea 😉 Like a David Lynch film, it only makes sense if you’re high 🙂

The French dude who wrote Delicacy seemed to be dissing the Swedes.  They weren’t interesting enough.  Not enough of the adolescent drama queen ridiculousness that the Latin parts of Europe hold so dear.

They dismiss the Nordic elements as boring and lacking in imagination… but when they have run up the gambling debts that come with such irresponsible behavior they don’t take it on the chin and face the loan sharks… they hide under the skirts of their responsible neighbors.

It is a lot of fun hanging out in southern Europe.  But the Norse are my people… and someone has to bail you out of jail… Greece, Italy, Spain, France – you might want to keep that in mind 😉

building a national identity

The Nordic people are noted for being a bit frosty.  Especially by their southern neighbours.  They are my people.  Apparently in high school I intimidated people.  It wasn’t intentional.  I just didn’t have much sense of play.  So I am grateful to my country’s celebrated multiculturalism that I met people from other ethnic backgrounds who taught me how to lighten up 😉  For any of you reading this regularly, you will already know my love for the Dutch who somehow seem to manage to combine warmth, efficiency and dry wit.  And, while I still love Paris and New York, I have the most fun in Amsterdam so it may have beat them out as my favourite city.

But today we are talking about the Swedes.  Since my grandfather died when my dad was ten, the first Swedish man I met was some random Björn or Mattias.  He was cute and blond, sure, but that is not why he was memorable.  At the time I was about 20 and back in those days, people didn’t talk about sex in public in North America.  They didn’t have ads for tampons on TV.  We were repressed and uptight about all that stuff.  And lots of young women were very conservative in their social mores.

But we were also brought up well so people could say whatever and we just smiled politely and didn’t express any shock outwardly.  Hey, we started as a British colony 😉  So I was chatting with random Swedish guy and another girl in the lounge at the university residence where we were staying during our summer jobs.  And random Swedish guy casually mentioned how his grandmother had been cool with him bringing his girlfriend to her house and having sleepovers with the girlfriend when he was 15.  And not just sleeping 🙂

(According to my guidebook, at 15 you become byxmyndig, loosely translated as “in charge of your pants” – the things you learn from travel :))

Random Swedish guy seemed very comfortable with the concept of sex.  Apparently in Sweden it wasn’t the big deal it was in North America (and in many quarters, still is).  It was likely the first time I heard anyone talk about sex without twittering.  Talking about it as though it was the same as talking about the weather.  It was definitely a revelation.  And obviously random Swedish guy had an impact on my perceptions of the world.

But what I remember most was talking to the other girl later when random Swedish guy wasn’t around.  She had been shocked!  I hadn’t even realized because we had been taught to not act shocked so you would never know from the way the person acted in the situation.  I believe that’s called “good manners.”  It was fun to giggle about it since we didn’t have to act cool in front of the Swedish dude right then.  But I was less shocked.  And thought the Swedes might be on to something.  WHY WERE North Americans SO uptight about sex – but so casual about violence…

I met a couple more Swedish guys over the years.  That was part of the reason for my trip to Stockholm.  To see if they were representative.  My conclusion…  I think so…  It was only a short visit so not exactly a scientific study…

I went to at least one historical or cultural spot every day to learn more about the Swedes.  I had only had a few minutes to leaf through my guidebook before I arrived but I had read enough to be intrigued.  Another reason for the choice of Stockholm was a conversation I had recently at a networking event with a banker who had worked in Stockholm for a number of years.  He was the one that alerted me to the impressive nature of Sweden.

And it is an impressive place.  It’s clean.  It’s green.  It’s pretty equal by world standards.  There is a strong social safety net.  There is very little crime.  People are articulate.  For a small country, they really make their mark on the world via business, sport, design…

There are flags everywhere.  And people seem to have a strong sense of identity.  As a Canadian, I was fascinated.  We are famous – at least within our own borders – for being on an eternal quest for our sense of identity.  Something a little more than, “we are not Americans.” 🙂

My father was one of the few Canadians I’ve known who really believed in the country and had the kind of patriotic attitude I saw in Sweden.  Could it have come from his Swedish father?

Now that I know a little Swedish history, I would think likely not.  But maybe…  There is no question the Swedes have an identity.  But the museums and my conversations with Swedes suggested that it is a fairly new thing.

And – like everything in history, especially in Europe – it’s complicated.  Apparently Sweden was pretty poor and agrarian until the Second World War.  Most Swedes didn’t seem to want to acknowledge the role Germany – and their “neutral” position during the war – played in their prosperity.  But without the Nazis, there might not have been IKEA…

I was more interested in the sociology of Sweden than in ancient politics.  What was fascinating is that there were some famous Swedes who decided they needed a national identity and strove to define and promote it.  Part of this was establishing the Nordiska Museet – a place to showcase Swedish culture and identity.  For tourists.  But, more interestingly, for locals.

Apparently part of its mandate was to provide people with information about what it meant to be Swedish – to build a national identity.  Because, as I learned in the fabulous 1,000 years of Swedish history in under an hour at the Historiska Museet, the Sweden of today is a really recent invention.  There were the Vikings, some evil (and more benevolent) kings, a pampered nobility, alliances with the other Nordic countries (why Nordiska, not Swedish), invasions and bloody fights with neighboring countries, an interesting positioning during the Second World War…

What I loved the most about the Swedish museums is that they didn’t just toss random facts at you.  They clearly stated that culture and history are complicated and perspective is key.  They actually asked questions in the exhibits and encouraged you to think about any “facts” presented.

That was the thing that I liked the most about Sweden.  The culture encouraged thinking and planning (very Nordic of them ;).  Once the dust settled and prosperity kicked in, they decided to define who they were – and wanted to be.  And communicate that message to the nation.  I think all the recent immigration has made that message more complicated to reconcile but what impressed me the most about my visit to Sweden was the sense that intelligent thought and debate was encouraged – and part of the national identity.

I think that’s why Sweden has likely been so successful in the complicated modern world.  So, save your pennies and go check it out.  And chat up some Swedes.  They like to talk about ice hockey.  Vikings.  Or sex 😉

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