Stockholm: The Swedish History Museum (Historiska Museet)

After dropping an absolute fortune on museums on the first full day of our trip (we saw ABBA the Museum, the Vasa Museum, and Skansen all on the same day), we decided to save some money on the next day by visiting some free museums (so we could spend that money on ice cream, Daim, and cinnamon buns instead, of course). So that’s why we opted to check out Historiska, the Swedish History Museum, which is free, over the Nordic Museum, which is not.

  

It was not located on what I call “Museum Island,” but was on the same island that we were staying on, which appears to be the centre of Stockholm. I think this helped cut down on the crowds, because compared to Skansen and the Vasa Museum, it was almost empty.  We started our visit in the famed “Gold Room” in the basement, which held lots of prehistoric and Viking gold. Unfortunately, I’m not really that interested in prehistory or the Vikings (though I did read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, about the history of the North Sea, prior to this trip, and it wasn’t that bad (despite his irritating habit of beginning sentences with “More,” when he meant “moreover” or “additionally,” either of which would have sounded less awkward)), so I could take or leave the gold (I mean, I’ll take gold if anyone’s offering, but I’m not so keen on looking at it).

  

That said, there was a temporary exhibit in here that I did enjoy, even though it took me a little while to understand what was going on. There was a video in one room that featured refugees telling their stories, except there was a big gold square over their faces. In another room, I found a display of precious objects that the refugees had managed to bring with them; for example, one Syrian woman had brought her high school diploma, because her dream was to get a Ph.D, but her education was interrupted by the war, so she hoped that by holding on to her diploma, she’d be able to attend university someday. So then I realised that the video and objects were tied together, and I guess the gold square was the way of tying them into the Gold Room, but it was an odd artistic choice, and I think unnecessary, when they simply could have said something like: “these objects are as precious to them as gold was to the Vikings.”

  

We then headed up to the main galleries, where the sensible thing to do would probably have been to start with prehistory, and work our way up to more modern times, but due to my aforementioned lack of keenness on prehistory, we headed straight upstairs instead to walk through a series of 11 “scenes” representing the 11th-21st centuries. This ended up being my favourite part of the museum; I knew I would like it when they promised a “sensory experience,” which always means there’ll be stuff to smell (maybe even authentic smells), and sure enough, there was a row of spice jars to sniff in the 18th century room.

   

But that wasn’t the only fun to be had in here! You followed a timeline in the floor marking key dates in Swedish history through all the sections, and along the way there were neat artefacts, games, stuff to touch, short videos, and even a quiz to find out whether you were a witch or not (I definitely am, which was not at all a surprise)!  And I learned a lot about Swedish history, which was nice, because I knew next to nothing before visiting.

  

After getting to the 21st century, the gallery led into an art installation about the eugenics movement in Sweden at the start of the 20th century, and all the racist ways other cultures had been represented at museums and universities around the city. This included a huge word map on one wall showing all the people who were propagating these horrible ideas, and the institutions they worked for (this wasn’t a public shaming so much as historical record though, since they’re all dead now), as well as mannequins taken from various old anthropological displays (the kind that still exist in some old museums).

  

There was also a gallery about the Battle of Gotland in 1361, which I had never even heard of before, but it was basically a massacre where Swedish farmers tried to defend themselves against the Danish army, and were slaughtered mercilessly (or so the Swedes say anyway, I’d be interested to know if the Danes see it differently). Their bodies ended up in mass graves, which were excavated in the 1920s, and now many of their remains reside in the museum, which is probably not what they would have wanted (well, they probably would have preferred to not be killed in the first place, so it’s probably a little late to worry about that), but damned if it’s not really cool. They even had videos showing how exactly some of the people were killed or fatally injured (using animation and no blood, so not as gruesome as it sounds) based on the marks in their bones, which I thought was fascinating!

  

Following that, there was a large exhibit containing religious artefacts taken from medieval churches, which I would normally be pretty meh about, but the Swedes didn’t disappoint here either. Some of the altarpieces were amazingly intricate, and my absolute favourite scene is the one on the left, above, which shows people calmly waiting to enter the dragon’s mouth that leads to Hell, with a couple demons acting as bouncers (Hell is apparently the hottest (literally) nightclub in town). There was also a fabulous head of John the Baptist, and a really comfy couch where you could curl up and listen to recordings of medieval organs being played, which were delightfully melancholy sounding.

  

There was a room at the end of this floor explaining how the curators choose the objects that go into the museum, and how they arrange them. I was very interested to see that they had a Buddha that I had just been reading about in that North Sea book in there!  It was also interesting learning about how modern curators feel limited by the 19th century cataloguing system that is still in place at Historiska, and are thus trying to digitise and recategorise all the items so they can tell different kinds of stories.

  

We then headed downstairs to the Viking gallery. I did enjoy the quiz before we entered where we found out which Norse god we were (I’m Odin, the quiz is here if you want to take it too!), but the gallery was more or less what I was expecting. It was undoubtedly well-done, but didn’t really win me over to the Vikings (maybe if there was a pooping Viking, like the one at Jorvik Viking Centre…). It was also really the only crowded part of the museum (they had a range of Viking clothes to try on, but there were way too many kids for me to even get near it), so I moved through here pretty quickly.

  

And straight into prehistory, because we were doing the museum backwards. This actually surprised me by being better than I thought…unlike the usual approach of just having case after case of primitive tools, rocks, bones, or what have you, they made the first section (well, second section if I had walked through correctly) into something inspired by an airport departure lounge (not the one in Stockholm, which was godawful, but a nice one). You went to different “gates” to learn about different topics, and they tied prehistoric civilisations to the modern world by grouping things by themes, such as families, homes, travel, etc, and showing how ancient peoples mirrored the world today.

  

The second part was somewhat more traditional, but had some cool facial reconstructions based on ancient skeletons, and little doors hidden near the bottom of each room that made animal sounds (they were definitely meant for children, but I still bent down and opened every one) that were meant to show what kind of animals prehistoric Swedes would have kept. Most of this section (unlike the rest of the museum) did not offer English translations, except for a brief object guide in each room, so we went pretty quickly through here too.

  

On the whole though, I really liked this museum. It felt very interactive and modern, which they managed to achieve without dumbing anything down or getting rid of actual artefacts (take note NAM!), and I learned a lot!  It also helped that it was one of the least crowded museums we visited, which is surprising, given that it was free and pretty large (but it wasn’t near any other tourist attractions, so a lot of people probably didn’t know about it). I think this was actually my favourite museum out of all the ones we visited in Stockholm (and not just because it was free, though that certainly didn’t hurt). 4.5/5.

 

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15 comments

  1. It looks very imaginatively done. I would like the bit about how they felt constrained by old cataloguing methods – I could relate to that! At least I’ve heard of your Viking. I’m Heimdall, apparently – no idea. However, it does say he was a guardian of knowledge so that sounds a bit like a librarian so I’ll give them a mark for that.

    1. Yes, it was very interesting. I’d never really thought about how the methods of cataloguing affect displays before.
      I’ve never heard of Heimdall either, but I guess it’s kind of cool that they included the full pantheon of Norse gods in the quiz, and not just the well known ones. I just looked him up, and apparently he has golden teeth and his hearing is so good that he can hear the wool growing on a sheep. Impressive!

  2. This museum sounds really interesting! I love museums that have interactive exhibits, and an added bonus that it was free and less crowded. The piece showing people entering the mouth of hell was fascinating.

    1. I love the mouth of Hell piece so much. I’m not normally into religious art, but I really liked the style of these Swedish pieces. There were also some ornate wooden triptych altarpieces with incredibly detailed Biblical scenes carved on them, but the room they were in was kind of dark, so the photos didn’t come out so well.

  3. This sounds like such a great museum. I especially love the idea of the “11 scenes” to take you through the centuries – getting to smell and touch stuff wins me over every time too.
    And I’m so glad you included the link to that quiz, Odin! I ended up with Idun – as I apparently “never say no to a muddy kick-about.”
    I love that dragon altarpiece and your line about hell being the hottest nightclub in town. Too perfect – they really do have that studied-cool look of people who line up at (dumb) clubs.
    And I was excited to hear they had an exhibit on the Battle of Gotland. I actually just read about it a couple of months ago, but didn’t realize that some of the bodies were put on display. It always seems a bit weird/sad seeing bodies in museums – but never so much that I don’t take a good look.

    1. I’ve never heard of Idun! Apparently she also dispenses fruit that grants immortality. I’d like to think of that fruit as being lingonberries, because that’s like the most Scandinavian fruit (though I could not find a damn lingonberry soda anywhere in Stockholm, despite much searching. Maybe my ideas of Sweden have been overly influenced by IKEA, but I wanted all the lingonberry stuff, and all I found was jam).
      Ha, (dumb) clubs! I really do not understand the appeal of clubs, and never will. I think I would genuinely rather enter hell through the dragon’s mouth than spend an evening in a club.
      I feel a little bit bad about photographing dead bodies, but they’re usually too cool to not photograph. The best is when people actually want their bodies to be in a museum, like good old Jeremy Bentham and that Union general Daniel Sickles who donated his amputated leg to the National Army Medical Museum and then visited it every year until he died.

  4. I’d never heard of Idun either. But I’d definitely take that “immortality granting” bit and – because I, too, only understand Sweden via IKEA (before you started to educate me, anyway) – lingonberries would suit me just fine. What a shame you couldn’t find any while you were there. I’d love to have heard how else they use them.
    Yeah, I’ve never been one for clubs for myself. Especially heinous to me is the idea of lining up to get into one. Gah! So gross.
    I know what you mean about photographing bodies – but still, I’m glad you did. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that one helmeted head. And I still get good shivers thinking about Jeremy Bentham.

    1. Yeah, I also wanted lingonberry jam with my Swedish pancakes from the hotel breakfast buffet, because Original Pancake House (in the US) serves their Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jam, and it is amazing, but they only had strawberry jam in Sweden. Which is OK, but kind of boring really.
      It is gross. The club thing. Not just the lining up but also having to pass muster with the bouncer. Like, who is this guy to judge whether I’m attractive enough to come into his stupid club?! It’s actually incredibly degrading. I don’t get why some people love them.

  5. A case where jumping into the middle is a good place to start! Glad you enjoyed it, Jessica. I was also pleased to learn about the art installation. It’s important for museums, who often perpetuated the racist myths about other cultures, to bear some responsibility for reflection, balance and correction.

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