In June, I participated in the triennial conference, Conceptions in Library and Information Science (CoLIS) in Uppsala, Sweden. I arrived in Stockholm a couple of days ahead of time so, of course, I went to museums! Whenever I go to new places, I purposefully don’t look up sites ahead of time; I wait until I arrive and look from the place itself. I was surprised by how many museal things originated in Sweden, especially in Stockholm and Uppsala. I began to notice, as I went through museums and sites, that I kept seeing “the first…this n’ that” over and over. One of the things you’ll notice quickly in any study of museum history is that there are multiple firsts of everything. For instance, it is not clear what is the “first” museum. Is it the first publicly shared collection? Or is it the first institution intended to be a collection to show objects? Was it private or publicly owned? And on. For that reason, I am skeptical with “first” claims. However, whether these were actual firsts or not, there is no doubt that the history of museums and collections runs deep in Sweden. Some of the “firsts,” seconds, and onlys (not all are technically museums, but they are museal) are below.
First Diorama—The Biological Museum, Stockholm
“The pioneering educational aspect of the museum was the use of the diorama for the first time on the grand scale in order to present the natural habitat.” www.biologiskamuseet.com/
This was probably my favorite find of the trip. Hidden in plain sight (because it is mixed into a whole island of museums, Djurgården), this beautiful building (12th century Norwegian-inspired) was built in 1893 and is claimed to be the first diorama of its kind. The woman who sold us our tickets told us it was a “museum museum” as the whole structure and contents themselves are untouched since it was first built. The diorama is 360° and lit only by skylights. While many things are faded due to this set up (the albino beaver is NOT albino, she warned us!), the feel of being in the center of the created environment from all sides is spectacular.
First Open Air Museum in the World—The Skansen, Stockholm
Skansen is the world's first open-air museum, founded in 1891. I happened to be there on Midsummer’s Eve so things were a bit crazy in the village. Because of the holiday, I didn’t really get to experience the site as it normally would be, but I should note that it is HUGE and very popular. It is also situated on the top of a large hill on the island, Djurgården, so it has great views of the rest of Stockholm (across the water).
First Botanical Garden in Sweden: Linnaeus’ Home and Garden, Uppsala, Sweden
It’s a first because the garden was founded in 1655 by Olof Rudbeck the elder in the same location. Linnaeus came a bit later and created what is now interpreted as his home and garden. Linnaeus, in case you don’t know, is the man who first invented the binomial system of nomenclature that we still use today (mostly). For me, someone who studied systematics and taxonomy for many years, seeing this garden every morning I woke up in Uppsala (my hotel room window looked out on it) was like a dream. There’s just so much to say about this site (and Linnaeus himself) that I can’t do justice to it here. Take some time; it’s worth looking up.
Unique: A museum dedicated to a single object, The Vasa Museum
“Today Vasa is the world's only preserved 17th century ship and the most visited museum in Scandinavia.” http://www.vasamuseet.se/en
Opened in 1990, after decades of recovery and preservation, this museum is built around the warship Vasa which sank in its launching harbor on its 1628 maiden voyage. As a result of the discovery, an immense amount of work and preservation has been done around the waterlogged vessel. It is a VERY popular place!
Third Oldest University with Second Oldest Anatomical Theatre- Gustavanium at University of Uppsala, Uppsala, Sweden.
While it’s not a first, it is pretty darn close and therefore worth mentioning. The University of Uppsala is the third oldest university (behind Bologna and Padua), opening in 1477! I visited the oldest building on campus, The Gustavanium, which is now used as a museum. Not only does this museum house the second ever anatomical theater (built by Olof Rudbeck the elder), but to my surprise (remember, I don’t look beforehand on purpose) it holds the only “curiosity” cabinet I have ever seen that contains its original contents! Wow! The Augsberg Cabinet, produced between 1625 and 1631 in Germany, is something to behold. Situated in the very center of the large space, surrounded by glass, but visible all around, the cabinet was roughly three feet taller than me (I’m 5’6”), topped with a spectacular arrangement of past sea life, so-called naturalia mountain. Stunning. Surrounding the cabinet on all sides of the room were cases full of the contents from the cabinet. The way everything is lit adds to the majesty of it.
And the list goes on.
Before I end, a couple of other things are worth mentioning. Just outside of modern day Uppsala is Gamla (Old) Uppsala, an incredible mass of ancient burial mounds from as early as 2000 years ago; the Old Uppsala church, mid 12th century; and an Odinsborg, a restaurant opened in 1899 (where I had mead). And, my blog wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that the Uppsala hotel I stayed in is said to be the first dorm with bathrooms at the university.
[Blog post originally appeared on the MuseLab blog April 1, 2016.]
In March, I was fortunate to be a part of a new conference, organized by the Liebniz Research Alliance, “Historical Authenticity,” on exploring authenticity in museums. Called “Museums- Places of Authenticity?” The conference drew more than 150 people from around the world to come talk authenticity-turkey. I myself presented a paper, “Visitor perceptions of 'The Real Thing' in museums,” about my ongoing research on ‘The Real Thing’ in museums. It was a lot of fun commiserating with so many experts focused solely on a specific concept. I’ve never been to a conference where the use of Benjamin’s “aura” is just a given and no one needs to explain it.
While I was there—as in any of my conference adventures—I took it as my duty to explore local museums. I visited seven museums and heritage sites in Frankfurt and Mainz, as well as other heritage sites along the Rhine river valley.
I stayed fairly local to southwest Germany, mostly Frankfurt and Mainz. The museums I went to were:
Natural History Museum Senckenberg
Museum für Kommunikation Frankfort
Städel Museum (art)
Museum für Antike Schiffahrt (Ancient Shipping)
Below I will share with you just a few memorable tidbits from my exploration.
The Museum für Kommunikation Frankfurt was a fantastic museum. It was modern, yet housed everything you could imagine on the development of communication methods over time— from the telegraph to the computer. Interestingly enough, this museum about a very slippery not-so-physical concept—communication—was loaded with physical objects. This image above is among my favorite of their exhibits. It was one of two interactives where you use one of the telephones to call someone on one of the other three phones and watch the machine in the background do all of the work—the dialing, the ringing, the answering—fascinating! The one pictured was manufactured in or around the 1970s, but the other, similar, interactive nearby utilized technologies from much earlier, but following the same concept. The two interactives were set right next to each other so that visitors could quickly compare the change in technology over time. It was a little hard to do alone because I had no one to pick up the receiver on the other end, but I still found it to be very effective and engaging.
The temporary gallery (which was a whole floor!) of the Museum für Kommunikation was about the advertising industry and how it communicates to the public. As part of this, museum visitors were invited to make requests to the advertising industry. The museum asked the question: “What requests would you like to put to the ad-makers who help influence our buying choices now and in the future?” They then made a “wall” of the responses—a beautiful yet simple design. It was a nice example of infusing participation and design.
Continuing the theme about advertising, the exhibit also had this interactive using marketing technology that was supposed to “read” features about you at the moment you reacted to the exhibit. This entire museum only offered German language so I am not entirely sure what it was about, but a good test that an exhibit is communicating it’s main message is that if I still understand their point(s) without any comprehensible labels, they must be doing something right. I had fun with this one. Now I have to figure out why I’m so high on Erstaunt (which I later found out means, “astonished”).
At the Senckenberg, an eclectic mix of a very modern approach alongside some very traditional methods, I came upon this tiny little corner of an exhibit. Hidden away (but not as hidden as I think it would be if found in the U.S., where it would likely not even be shown), this exhibit showed the stages of human development from conception to birth. The reason I was surprised by it is because all the boxes you see here contained real fetuses (be warned that there is a photograph of this below). It was beautiful to see the process so lovingly put together in this very effective (information-wise) exhibit. In this natural history museum, I can imagine it might be a stop for (older?) school kids; this is in a university museum and I could hear all the school groups in the halls while I was there. It made me question some assumptions I have (and didn’t realize I had until I saw this) about U.S. museums and particularly: would we even do an exhibit like this? It was concise, yet powerfully effective.
More at the Senckenberg—I think this was a travelling exhibit but it had all the earmarks of the participatory process. Visitors left comments (above photo) about multiple topics and there was a green screen where you could insert yourself into pictures with “wild” things, like this beetle. Scary! I only just escaped his pincers. In a safer zone, I also got to be the stamen (or maybe I was a pistil?) of a flower.
I am a lover of all things medical history as well as giving visitors behind-the-scenes exposure in museums. This exhibit at the Senckenberg hit both of those; it was a recreation of natural history storage in a museum from the “old days” (again, all in German, so I’m not certain on the time period). All of the specimens were real and interesting but (to some) gross, wonderfully “gross”.
The Städel is a lovely art museum, but very classic in its approach to being an art museum. While walking through the large, colorful galleries, I suddenly found myself in a hallway (or a room afterthought) where there was an entire batch of paintings flipped around. Love! The idea was to show that there can be equally fascinating things on the backs of paintings (not unlike the “Inside Out: Revealing Clothing’s Hidden Secrets” exhibit currently in Kent State University Museum). This was doubled with a lesson on how the objects have been tracked and cataloged over their lives and how museums have cared for them over time. I stayed a long time in this hallway and probably took several pictures of every single one of these paintings.
Mentioning the Städel would not be complete without a peek at Warhol’s version of Goethe, Frankfurt’s most famous historical character. The fun part of this is that the original painting, from which Warhol drew his image, stands on the opposite wall from this painting. Cool.
There are so many other photos I could share with you about my experience from this corner of Germany’s museums. It was a delightful experience to see them all and I was impressed with much of what I encountered. I look forward to visiting another region of Germany’s museums someday. From what I heard at the conference, it looks like Berlin is the next place to explore museums. (Hint. Hint. Someone have a conference there please!)