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  • Dr. Kiersten F. Latham

An Adventure Through Sweden's Museal Origins

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.” http://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.