Visiting a museum of history, a lesson in historiography

Yesterday, after much nagging from son, we went to the Swedish Museum for Natural History, or Riksmuseet, as we call it locally.

To me that museum has always epitomized the dusty staid museum archetype. Best remembered from my childhood for it’s endless rows of weird yucky things in glass jars, a large room entered on a gantry to better view the evil-smelling sea life skeletons hung from the ceiling, and perhaps some display cases with stuffed animals (which could just as well be a visual memory from some other museum).
I also remember some mushroom exhibition, from when I was a bit older.
Anyway, on the general scale of museum experiences Riksmuseet rated somewhere among the bottom feeders, in company with my 80’s experience of the archaeological museum of Athens – talk about NOT being able to tell a story!

Nowadays it’s the Monster Museum, to son. Not because of some bleached artefacts in jars but because of the dinosaurs, which is but a small part of an exhibition telling the story of how life evolved on this planet, from the chemical stew to humans sawing off their own branch – most of which doesn’t interest a 7 year old boy.

The museum could get much better at their signage, so it was possible to get some hang of where to start, but all in all the main exhibitions are well made, and the building is in itself a museum artefact – a monumental Jugend (the strict Northern cousin of the flowery Art Nouveau) colossus, excelling in craftsmanship and detail, in a style reminiscent of the baroque ethos. In this, too, it could be labelled a Monster Museum, because it must be one of the grandest buildings in all of Stockholm, making a miniature of the Royal Palace, and it’s acreage in itself a monument to another time.

What they could do more of, considering their wast collections, dating from the mid-18th century and onwards, is a more thorough historiographical reflection. They do, in part, but it is shallow and sparsely commented – more a display of some objects, with notes added, than storytelling. To me the changing story of the explanation of ourselves and our surroundings is of an importance on par with the Story of Evolution because it tells us the tale of how human perception and customs – common sense – changes throughout time, and that these changing perceptions affect the interpretations of what we see around us; the story about ourselves and our place.

Perhaps that is too bold a demand, though, because it forces self-reflection. But it would be most interesting and an important lesson in the evolution of knowledge that should not be restricted to the few; it has a popular interest in that it adds an oft-neglected dimension to our knowledge-space, a dimension furthering understanding – scientific method displayed, as opposed to rote learning.

And that is, of course, what a Museum of Natural History should aim at. In my not so humble opinion.
And they definitely have the space and means needed to do it ;-)


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