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 ;-)


Review: Rising Tide – The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines That Fought the Cold War, by Walter J Boyne

First I want to thank Hakkikt, down on Tasmania, for his mention of this book, on the Recently Reads thread over at Shejidan. Without that mention I never ever would had found it.

Second I want to buy this book. I thought this would be a prime candidate for a library loan, but as soon as I got it in my hand I knew I wanted it on MY shelf. Having actually finished the book I still plan to get it.

This suggests it was a good book, and that it was. It is based on interviews made with Russian submarine officers, many of them commanders, and through these stories the history of Soviet submarine corps is sketched – triumphs and disasters alike, and always with a look at the policies and politics that motivated the decisions. We get behind the scenes in covert actions against the US but we also get to hear how politics killed people through means of defective materiel forced through the production process in too much haste, and we get to hear it from the people who were affected by it.

Rising Tide can be read by anyone; no need to know much about submarines or munitions, thankfully, but a knowledge of the Cold War and about recent history makes for a better reading experience.

My main complaint is a small one. Every now and again the repressive culture of the Soviet Union, firmly based in a lack of respect for human life, is alluded to, as it was specific to Soviet. In reality this has a much longer history and has taken different faces as time has passed. Also I think the story would had gained if the passionate tone of the last third of the book had been more present during the previous two thirds. These are minor points, though.

A readable book, for anyone with an interest in the subject matters – politics, history, and, to a lesser degree – management and psychology. And of course for all those of us who think submarines, much like space ships, are fascinating ;-)

Review: Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore Jr.

During the past eight (!) weeks I have wondered what conclusion the author will reach and present at the end of Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. I might be intellectually challenged (I think not but it is a possible explanation) but as I close the last page I can detect none. Absolutely none.

The book explores how different societies have reached what might be described as a “modern” stage, starting off with England, France and the US, discussing different features of the Puritan revolution (Cromwell), the French revolution and the US Civil War.

This part was interesting and made me wonder at the gaps in my knowledge about the socio-political history of Sweden. (As a side it made me ask my parents, who specialise in modern political history, for advice on literature… which made me realise that the reason for my lack of knowledge is caused by the lack of systematic knowledge in this area – instead they pointed me to lots of different sources from which I might piece together a theory. This indicates it is a valid research topic. If I had been a researcher, that is ;-) )

The second part tried to make the same kind of analysis regarding the Chinese, Japanese and Indian examples. This too was interesting and made me aware of certain aspects of their histories of which I had not been aware before.

The third part tried to sketch different routes to modern society, based on the six examples, and in that tried to find patterns. This too was interesting, but I started to think that the author needed to present some conclusions, fast, and that they be more extensive than “there are different ways to modernity and perhaps it’s possible to categorise them based on how a society was composed at the beginning of the process”.

Lastly, the work is dated. Especially when he draws on the Indian example, but also when he discusses Russia, Germany and Italy, as he frequently does, the age of the book is obvious – my edition is dated 1966 and no data the author refers to are later than 1963. In a stagnant society this wouldn’t matter, but I don’t think anyone can argue for the world being in 2010 what it was in the early/mid-60’s.

The really REALLY relevant part is the epilogue, named “Reactionary and Revolutionary Imagery”. Here the author discusses, based on the previously presented material, how the people who have the political power in any system at a time of change behaves, to stay in power; typical symptoms such as specific ideological content, behaviours, values and arguments used, feelings they try to speak to. Here it is relevant to note that he had no idea whatsoever what the early 21st century would bring as he speaks of devaluation of science, an appeal to “feeling”, moral virtues and a return to past ways of doing things, including a return to “nature”.

I would be very interested to hear him discuss our present times. This will not happen, as he died in 2005.

Review: The search for the perfect language, by Umberto Eco

I enjoyed this book. There’s only one problem with it – I’m not erudite enough to make it the fast read it should be; it’s so stuffed with information I had to stop every fourth page or so to digest what I’ve read.

Eco states in the preface that it is written with the layperson in mind, but his idea of a layperson knows way much more about linguistics and the history thereof than I do. Apparently. Even if he also states that this is not a book on linguistics but on the history of ideas, which it is, in part – he sketches a history of European thought during the most recent 1000 of the years that led us to be where we are today, using the search for the perfect language and how the idea changed and evolved throughout that millennia as a method for dissemination. This gets especially interesting when he links it with the industrial revolution, the evolution from alchemy to science, and the formation of the nation states and colonisation.

In the conclusion he tells the reader that the discussion could had been even more interesting if he’d included extra-European though and efforts on the topic. I cannot but agree and I’m sure I’m going to seek out some book elaborating on this.

As for now I’m glad I pressed through and actually read the book through, but I’m also glad it’s over. Recommended reading for everyone with an interest in linguistics and European history of ideas. Everyone else is allowed to spend their time on something else.

Greece – a reflection

So, most of the western world thinks Greece is something amazing. The cradle of democracy and whatnot. And did I mention philosophy? Or the Olympics? Or…

The first time I went to Greece, back in the late 80’s, I had read up on ancient history and was ready to get filled with awe. My most vivid memory is however one of dissapointment. The archeological museum in Athens was a horror. Stacks of pottery chards, old coins and other finds but no story. Just cabinet upon cabinet with historically disjointed finds, organised perhaps to make sense to a scholar but not to me. Then in the markets and shops you could buy cheap imitations of whatever style of Greek pottery you’d like, and miniatures of famous statues or ruins/temples, or cheap touristy stuff.

Somewhere along the road I decided Greece was a country firmly grounded in it’s history, and with as little to do with the now or the future as was conceivably possible.

Repeat visits have only made to confirm this view, with this recent week spent on Crete no exception. If your plot of land looks gorgeous, just look away when you pass your neighbour’s garbage dump and you won’t need see it. Oh, wait, garbage is a natural by-product of civilisation, important for future archeologists, so let’s make their work easier and just leave it out in the open, OK?

On the outskirts of a village I several times passed by a ‘pasture’ for sheep, only the ‘pasture’ mainly consisted of litter, rusty old litter. One part was fenced off and there, on on the worst dump in the whole plot, there lived a dog.

In the beautiful if touristified old harbour of Chania there floated so much garbage I didn’t even want to snap a picture.

The beach west of Platanias, which is west of Chania, was so dirty it wasn’t even a pleasure to walk there, and by the turnabout outside an up-scale beach hotel that we walked past there was so many used condoms and condom wraps it was impossible to ignore them.

And of course the olives or the lemons don’t get toxic by the rusty old cars leaking oil into the soil, or the rusty paint tins, and perhaps the small animals dying in the discarded bottles was vermin anyway. But in my view a civilised country can afford efficient handling of it’s waste.

The tourist industry is a huge source of income in Greece. And perhaps this is the market talking – it simply doesn’t matter if the place is clean – people go there either to see the ruins or to relax completely and the ruin people are so awed with the ruins they don’t care for the rest while the relaxation people only care for cheap food and booze and a decent amount of sun. Don’t make for a high demand on general development.

It’s a sad situation.

Artefacts from the day before yesterday

I grew up thinking of artefacts as something as humans left behind them, remnants of our activities. Then I got involved in the software, or computer, business, as a consultant, where artefact means something else – a by-product of our activities, but in another not so archaeological, way. Mainly they’re documents, of different kinds. Anyway, the other day I sorted out some old stuff, among other things an old bowl which has stood on my desk at home for a looong time. How long I realised when I found this item, at the bottom –

Remember? If you had an Apple computer you had one of these, preferably on the lid, to be handy when the mechanism for ejecting the floppy disc clicked.

This, for me, is a true artefact, and not from very long ago.

The retelling of history – a window on our own time

One of the interesting aspects of reading texts that deal with human history is what these texts tells us about our own time (or the time when they were originally written). Currently I’m reading Gender in the Early Medieval World. It consists of a number of essays written during the early 2000’s by different scholars, and they cover different aspects and themes.

The ‘world’ means, in this context, Europe proper and the Middle East. As the term ‘medieval’ generally is applied to the nations and cultures that succeeded the Roman empire this is an accurate term but to me the ‘world’ is rather larger than that, so that I think the editors show their Eurocentric world view.

Our present values also show through in the implicitly – maybe even unconsciously – made judgements on gender roles during the times discussed. Not that I disagree. But a value judgement is a value judgement, no more no less, and just as we perceive times past our time will in turn be looked down upon – there are no moral absolutes, just as there is no fixed path to civilisation, or an apex of said.

So, halfway through the book I feel like I’m watching a meta-philosophical argument trying to repair damages done by previous generations; putting salve and plasters on an academic agenda which has previously excluded the impact of the hidden society – e.g. those not male and politically and economically empowered – on the evolving cultures, societies and nations.

This willingness to see history as something more than an enumeration of years and important kings, masters and wars is interesting. When this approach was discussed in the 1970’s it was perceived as a Marxist agenda, and thus suspect. Or – this is at least what I remember from my years in compulsory school (from ages 7-15, at the time).

Just let’s hope that academia in general is ready for a more, let’s say, holistic approach to their topics. It is certainly long overdue.
If they manage academia might at last be of some relevance to the civil society.
(Not that this is what some of them remotely wants, but that is a whole another discussion.)