Museums of National History

Sweden, Israel, and why national history museums fear history

Posted by dianamuir on September 04, 2013
Museums of National History, Sixteenth century nationhood, Uncategorized / Comments Off on Sweden, Israel, and why national history museums fear history

The curators of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm are embarrassed.   So are the curators of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.   People visit these museums of history not merely because they want to see artifacts, but because they want to see the narrative that the artifacts illustrate.      But some topics are so fraught with meaning that curators in Sweden and in Israel are afraid to approach them.


To some extent, these curators may be responding to the contemporary preference for displaying objects unencumbered by context.   The core of Historiska (the Swedish History Museum) is an enormous basement vault filled with gold.   Case after case of gold baubles, bangles, and beads, mostly displayed in no particular order and with a label but not a context.  Looking at objects that total 114 lbs (52kg.) of gold and 200 kg. of silver turns out to be boring.   We humans need narrative to make sense of things.   If the curators told us where the various glittering objects came from,  how the various styles of objects evolved, or how they contributed to the evolution of Sweden we might care.

Upstairs, the stories are all too specific.   The museum begins with the oldest prehistoric objects – presented as dramatic stories about human sacrifice and the dire possibility that slashes in an ancient cloak indicate murder – while larger questions go unaddressed.

We want to know  how did the first people returning after the Ice Age make a living, what happened to them when peoples with a knowledge of farming moved in, and what made the people of this region go a-viking?

Visitors to this museum especially want to know what made them go a-vikig=ng.  After all,  the coasts of Europe were ringed with farmers and fisherfolk, but it didnot not occur to the Breton, Basque, or Briton farmers to get into open boats, sail to Gotland or Öland, and carry home gold.   the museum could present the leading  theories about what made the Vikings set sail as heavily armed traders capable of seizing an opportunity to raid and loot, or were they better described as armed raiders willing also to trade, whatever worked?  You wont find out in the Swedish History Museum.

In this museum the Vikings hardly go viking at all.

All that Viking Age gold, how did it get to  Sweden?    “During late Viking times we find a great deal of wealth entering the country in the form of Western European coins.”   As though the gold entered the north lands of its own free will.

It may seem puzzling that so much gold could make its way to a country that exported some fur and a bit of amber.  But, according to the Historika, so it was.  “The Vikings were mostly peaceful traders.

But if so, who trashed Lindesfarne Abbey in 793?

It was the biggest news story of its day.  Alcuin of York, whose account we have,  was not at Lindesfarne, he was comfortably seated at his writing desk in Charlemagne’s court  when he wrote that memorable bit about blood gushing as  Norsemen stepped on Christian monks as though they were pieces of shit lying in the street.   He may have exaggerated; the Vikings have come in for more than their share of exaggeration.    But the curators of the Historika  grossly exaggerate the peaceful nature of these armed boatloads of warrior/trader/conqueror/colonizers.

Also, they succeed brilliantly in making the Vikings boring.   On a Sunday  in a city packed with tourists and families, the museum was virtually empty.

Vikings are so central to the Swedish imagination that modern curators are apparently only capable of describing them with absurdity, exaggeration, and denial.  Swedish curators are capable of better, it is visible upstairs in the same museum where Swedish history from the middle ages  forward is presented as  a  fairly straightforward explication of how competing medieval fiefdoms were eventually joined under a monarchy that, by the reign of Gustav Vasa, is recognizably Swedish.

The other topic (in addition to the Vikings) that the curators cannot discuss rationally is the role of religion in shaping Sweden, a nation created less by Vasa’s sword than by his savvy decision to create a Swedish written language, have the Bible, catechism and prayers translated into it, and  break with Rome.   When a Swedish archbishop answerable to the king presides over a church where in each parish the world suddenly changes from a place where incomprehensible prayers are chanted in Latin to a place where the congregation hears the Bible, sings the psalms and prays for the King in their native tongue, a national identity is created.*

Curators at the recently renovated Israel Museum would probably be capable of describing Vikings objectively, what they fear is a straightforward presentation of the history of the  Israelite kingdoms  in the 10th to 7th centuries BCE.

The archaeology wing of the Israel Museum does not begin with  the earliest human artifacts.    Instead, the curator makes an arbitrary choice to start  with a dramatic set of large 13th 14th century humanoid sarcophagi showing clear Egyptian influence.   This, the curators are saying, may be called the Israel Museum, but we will not follow, or even endeavor to present, a narrative history of the Israelites.  Rather, we intend to depict this land as a space occupied by a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of   cultures.

The sarcophagi fill the first room of the archaeology wing.   Only a visitor who chances to turn around  will see a large, horned altar tucked behind the entrance panel.     Horned altars are a distinctive form described in the Biblical text.  Several have been found.    This one comes from a temple in Beersheva that was destroyed in the 8th century BCE, thereby corroborating the Biblical story of King Hezekiah’s suppression of altars in other towns as part of his campaign to centralize worship in Jerusalem.

The archaeology wing is filled with inscriptions and objects that could be used to trace the development and history of the Israelites.   The museum could have been arranged so that such a narrative could stand alongside narratives about the rise and fall of Canaanite culture, the arrival and history of the Philistines, the periods of Egyptian influence, conquest and rule, and so forth.

Separating these braided cultural threads into narratives of cultural development and interaction that the visitor could follow through time would help make sense of the complex history of this land.   Instead, there is an endless, confusing, and ultimately numbing procession of objects, here a figurine of a bull, there an inscription mentioning the royal “House of David”.    The museum rarely attempts to draw the visitor’s attention to objects that have excited major scholarly controversies, or overturned widely accepted understandings of the history of the region.

Instead of telling us what Persian, or Phoenician, or Israelite culture was, the curators focus on the way that artifacts produced by these cultures show that they influenced one another.     It is as though exhibit after exhibit in a  sports museum  showed us  the similarities between baseballs and soccer balls, without explaining  what makes soccer and baseball two different games.

The Israel Museum is large.  In another part of the campus there is a large-scale and very popular model of Jerusalem in the first century.   And, of course, the Shrine of the Book, housing the Dead Sea Scrolls.  But, like the history of the Vikings, and the history of Christianity in Sweden, the history of the Israelites is too hot for the curators of the Israel Museum to handle.

*Appelbaum, Diana Muir, “Biblical Nationalism and the Sixteenth-Century States”, National Identities, in press.





Israel Museum

Posted by dianamuir on July 18, 2012
Museums of National History / Comments Off on Israel Museum

Edward Rothstein  reviews  the recent renovation of the Israel Museum and, as usual, hits the nail on the head.   The Museum is spacious, elegant, replete with beautiful and remarkable objects – it even has great restaurants, but the idea of a national museum is to enable everyone from schoolchildren to tourists to  walk through the exhibits and get some idea of what forces shaped the creation of this nation and how it sees itself.   Telling the story of the nation is job 1 and the new Israel Museum fails.

A visitor can carefully examine the magnificent archaeological galleries, minutely examine the Jewish Arts and Life wing and enjoy some of the world’s great art without being told how the Jewish people came to be.   This need not be a simplistic  narrative, it is perfectly possible to present confusing evidence fairly and admit that debate and uncertainty exist.   It is possible to tell parallel stories.   It is possible to tell the stories of the many peoples and empires that have passed through and lived in this land without forgetting that Israel was always connected to  the rest of the world.    But there is little point in calling this the Israel museum when the archaeological wing tells no story about Israel at all.   As Rothstein puts it, “we never really grasp the evolution of the Israelite religion or its transformations after exile”.  True, and  neither are we given any idea of how an Israelite kingdom rose, fell, and rose again, or of why the people of Israel yearned to return from exile.   Explanation without jingoism or triumphalism is possible.   In failing to explain where the Jewish nation came form, how it emerged, how it survived and what it represents, the Israel Museum fails dismally.

The Jewish Arts and Life wing is, if possible,  less enlightening than the archaeology wing.   Replete with diversity and artifacts to the point where it overwhelms the viewer – I challenge anyone to focus on that towering wall of menorahs – the wing gives us detail without insight,  like a dazzling pointillist display that fails to resolve into an image no matter how close up or far away you stand from the canvas.   The curator seems to be saying: there was art! there was life! there were Jews! without telling us how any of these things relates to the others.

Rothstein is a gentleman, he phrases his critique almost as praise, “There are not many other nations that so readily submerge self-celebration in homage to the universal or are so wary of the particular; it is difficult to imagine the Louvre or the British Museum taking on a comparably self-questioning perspective.”

On the upside, the building is magnificent and the collection is magnificent;  perhaps  someday it will have a curator who is capable of narrating the complex stories of Jewish life and history.


Hong Kong, Singapore, building which nation?

Posted by dianamuir on June 29, 2012
Museums of National History, Uncategorized / Comments Off on Hong Kong, Singapore, building which nation?

The Hong Kong Museum of History opened in 1998 – the year after the handover – and it shows.    This is a museum intended to persuade visitors that Hong Kong has always been Chinese.   The Museum strikes an interesting claim to indigeneity  by beginning in the beginning (of the world) and devoting one of its two exhibit floors to Hong Kong before the British arrived.    That’s quite a lot of floor space considering that Hong Kong didn’t exist until the British grabbed the island, (while it is true that farmers, fisherfolk and traders lived on the Kowloon Peninsula, it was an insignificant place).    And yet the exhibits begin with Hong Kong’s geology and natural setting, and a lengthy exploration of the unremarkable Paleolithic and Neolithic prehistory of this place (news flash: Neolithic residents used stone tools).   After the Neolithic they walk you though a potted history of the Chinese dynasties.

But most of the of the first floor is dedicated to colorful, full-scale replicas of the  life of four groups of villagers who lived on the peninsula before the British grabbed the island.  The British don’t arrive until the second floor.

The British land grab is treated with stunning even-handedness.    Those who have never toured one may not be aware that  the category of most outrageously inventive origin story presented in a museum of national history is a highly competitive one.   Only consider the national museum in Ottawa, capital of   the former British colony of Canada.   The Canadian Museum of Civilization  opened in 1989.   I visited in the early 90’s and worked my way through Canada Hall.  I had passed the  explorers, Acadians and  voyageurs, and was somewhere in the late eighteenth century when I realized that the British hadn’t conquered Canada.  Bemused, I walked back throughout the galleries just to make certain that I hadn’t somehow overlooked a gallery showing Wolfe dying heroically  on the  Plains of Abraham after conquering half of a continent for the British Empire.   But Wolfe was not there; no conquest, no war, no French surrender.   When you consider the fact that in  1989 the British conquest of Canada was far too hot a topic for a Canadian national museum to tackle, the Hong Kong museum’s treatment of the British is admirable.

Hong Kong does a fine job with the Opium War and the 1841 British seizure and occupation of the island.   There’s even a pretty evenhanded description of why this foreign colony became the great entrepôt of the Chinese Empire  (The short answer is political stability; merchants – including Chinese merchants – enjoyed security of life and property courtesy of the British Empire while China had a very rocky century and a half.  Political stability and the rule of law built a great city.)

This is all in the text at the museum, at least, if you read between the lines, and assuming that you actually read the text.     But, who reads museum texts?   Only people who read blog posts like this.

The centerpiece of the Hong Kong museum is a full scale replica of a shop street in old Hong Kong, complete with family quarters over the shop houses.   The hordes of schoolchildren who troop through can be forgiven if they come away believing that British Hong Kong was a Chinese city.   It is what they are meant to believe.   The individual displays are not inaccurate; the overall impression is.    After the drama of the Opium Wars, the British are pushed to the side – literally into a few little rooms off the main street,  to make room for the story of Chinese Hong Kong.  The Brits reappear to surrender to the Japanese whose behavior as an occupying power gets an almost uniformly  negative – and therefore thoroughly fair – treatment.     But the spotlight is on  the Chinese.   And the argument is that Hong Kong belongs to the Chinese nation.

The National Museum of Singapore  is is intriguingly different because rather than claiming that Siingapore is a Chinese city, this museum makes the claim that Singapore is a nation.    If the names of the two museums don’t signal that sufficiently, the exhibits do.

Like Hong Kong, Singapore was a British invention and the curators in Singapore handle this awkward fact much as the curators in Hong Kong do: they accurately portray the 1818 creation of the British colony, but they arrive at the story only after beginning with the big bang theory of creation presented as a dazzling multi-media show in a dramatic round chamber.   And impressing us with an archaeological gallery boasting of an improbable level of grander for long-vanished settlements on the peninsula.

But the heart of the museum is dedicated to telling the story of Singapore as a multi-cultural city, a place where Chinese, Brits, Malay and Tamil (Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus) – Singaporeans all! –  work together to build a better Singapore.

The curators have the space to take us to little-known corners of the past, for example, British colonial policy that provided only primary education for Malays, but offered  secondary education for Chinese.   The  British administrators explained that the colony needed only so many clerks and,  since educating the the Chinese could supply them, it would be wasteful to educate the Malay.   The post-World War II galleries are more problematic, but, then, so is Singapore.

Singpore simply fails to fit into any of our conventional paradigms.   Wealthy despite the fact that it has no natural resources, Singapore is clean, law-abiding, safe, and doing better than almost any other country in the world when it comes to providing a good education and good jobs for all of its citizens.   Not to mention first-rank galleries and concert halls.   The authoritarian downside to Singapore is well known, but a great many Malaysians, Indonesians and other Asians would ignore all that if they could get landed status.   Which brings us to Singapore’s ethnic policy.

Not the official ethnic policy, of course.  That is as multi-cultural as the National Museum.   Unofficially, however, the policy is to insure that Singapore continues to be Chinese.   This is difficult in a state that is, after all, a tiny spur on the Malaysian peninsula and a short ferry ride from Indonesia.   Immigration policy has long unofficially favored immigration by Straits Chinese, the ethnically Chinese minorities in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia who have lived in the region as distinctive, culturally  Chinese communities since long before the birth of Islam.   They continue to immigrate to Singapore, but not in sufficient numbers to supply  Singapore’s  voracious demand of labor.

The government of Singapore seeks out and admits growing numbers of mainland Chinese in what most observers see as a deliberate effort to insure that the Chinese continue to be the majority ethnicity.   Discrimination in favor of Chinese (ergo, against Malay and Tamil)  is said to be endemic in hiring, and visible in job listings that specify “Mandarin-speaker”.

This is at odds with the narrative of the National Museum, but it is also at odds with Lee Hsien Loong’s goal of building a Singaporean nation.    To do that , Lee will have to persuade Singapore’s Malay, Tamil and Chinese  not only that they are Singaporeans, but that Singaporean  is a real identity.    But as long as Singapore’s  Tamil and Malay citizens are treated as less than the equals of their Chinese fell0w citizens, there is no reason for any citizen, Tamil, malay or Shinese, to believe in a Singaporean nation.

Building a National Museum is a lot easier than building a nation.




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