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.