The theme of this issue of Nordic Museology – Museums and the cultural dynamics of differences – is the same as for a session at the 32nd Nordic Conference of Ethnology and Folkloristics, which was held in Bergen, Norway, in June 2012. The aim was to focus on cultural history museums as places where knowledge is both produced and disseminated, but also as arenas for the presentation and production of cultural difference. A starting point was the role of these museums in modern nation-building, and how they have an obvious position in the western world’s image of itself as well as its self-understanding. The museums are closely associated with concepts such as cultural heritage, history and tradition, but we wanted to highlight the dynamics that can occur if we question the obvious and instead direct our attention towards diversity and differences. Is it possible to see how cultural distinction is created, strengthened and changed in museums? Has cultural variation been allowed to feature, and if so, on what terms? From this, we also wanted to problematise museums as arenas for historical representations and to examine how the time frame may affect the understanding of cultural differences in the present.
The session proved to be the largest of the conference. The role of museums in terms of nation-building, citizenship, diaspora, diversity, experiences, repatriation, materiality, photography, exhibition design, contemporary documentation, Sámi heritage and polar history was presented and discussed in a total of nineteen papers. Both the scope and the number bear witness to a growing interest in museological issues within ethnology and folklore. The session’s theme, the cultural dynamics of differences, probably also helped. Investigating how similarity and inequality, norm and diversity are dealt with by museums and other cultural heritage institutions is now an attractive field of research for more than merely those who consider themselves museologists. A long time has passed since museums were normally associated with being uniform, normative, stagnant and frozen. Today there are good opportunities for exposing friction corresponding to a broad interest in how social institutions help to maintain, prevent and portray cultural diversity.
A selection of papers from the conference are now presented as the main articles in this issue, providing different responses to the theme – in time, space, within and between social and ethnic groups, or in the interface between the museum and the outside world. Interest in the museum exhibits is a shared thread in museology, which also appears here. Anne Folke Henningsen analyses the 1937 display of the Danish National Museum’s ethnographic collection, Nika Potinkara compares a couple of current exhibitions at two Sámi museums (Ájtte in Sweden and Siida in Finland), while Eva Reme and Olaug Norun Økland explore the agricultural displays in Dalane Museum, Norway, from 1952. However, all three articles have different purposes – to illustrate the racial hierarchy perspective, ethnic stereotypes and the possible dynamics in the interpretation of seemingly locked material typologies.
A recent and frequently used concept in the field of museology is the museum as a “contact zone”, taken from Mary Louise Pratt and James Clifford. In its use, it has been interpreted in different ways in different contexts and here, too, are examples of this. Eva D. Johansen regards the concept as a possibility of democratic cooperation, in this case with a school class in an educational project. In her article on diversity as national identity in migrant nations Tine Damsholt, on the other hand, explores criticism of the concept, based on the museums as neo-colonial institutions being superior in a structural hierarchy, where a “contact zone” cannot be excluded from this domination.
A sixth article deals with the musealisation of a particular place in order to promote local development – in this case in memory of the Norwegian naval hero Peter Tordenskjold. The author, Sarah Holst Kjær, did not attend the congress in Bergen, but the article highlights our theme yet again – how history is a dynamic process with different actors involved, each with their own specific agenda.
In addition to the main articles, there are three further contributions to the overall theme – Cathrine Baglo’s treatise entitled “Getting off track? Living exhibitions of Sámi in Europe and America”, the research programme entitled “The socio-material dynamics of museum collections” and a report from the inaugural conference of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies, held in Gothenburg, Sweden, in June 2012. All are examples of new museological initiatives in which Nordic researchers are involved, both in terms of research questions and international networks and projects.
As a field of research, museology is in a strong period of exciting development. Time’s up for the view of museums as given quantities that simply reflect their surrounding communities. With a renewed interest in museums as the object for scientific and analytical study, they can be rediscovered and their activities be subject to creative reflection, at a time when their role is under discussion. We hope that readers of these articles will be inspired to consider these issues still further, as we ourselves have done.
Brita Brenna, Eva Silvén and Marit Anne Hauan