Society is opening back up, albeit cautiously. As an essential part of the community, museums take pride and pleasure in making sure their doors stay open, so that visitors have the opportunity to explore and enjoy art, cultural heritage, design, architecture and so much more. As a visitor, I greatly appreciate having the chance to view collections and exhibitions. As a museum director, I’m equally pleased to welcome everyone who visits us at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm or our regional exhibition venues. However, as we’ve learned, access to art and culture is not something that can be taken for granted. We realise the value of culture when normal life as we know it is suspended.
This June, I attended the opening of Moderna Museet’s latest exhibition, In Lady Barclay’s Salon. My feelings of collegial pride, hope and relief mixed with joy and curiosity as I walked through the galleries and enjoyed this fine exhibition, ably curated by Anna Tellgren. When was the last time I was able to do something like this? Something that I had obviously taken for granted before the pandemic.
The exhibition at Moderna Museet focuses on art and photography around 1900, a period described as a golden age of culture in Sweden. Society was taking great strides forward, technical advances were becoming reality, and telephone and railway networks were making faster communication possible. Art was being created, presented and collected. New impressionistic and expressionistic painting styles left audiences astounded. The clean palette, coarse brushstrokes and new motifs reflected the spirit of the times. Photography saw the emergence of pictorialism, a style that drew inspiration from impressionism, symbolism and naturalism. Creating artistic photographs was the name of the game.
The exhibition presents more than 300 works from the Moderna Museet and Nationalmuseum collections. Some of them are familiar, others have never been seen before. But this combination is what makes the exhibition so exciting: viewing photographs and paintings in the same context. Pictorialism is presented in an ingenious way through fascinating photographs – portraits, urban scenes and landscapes. Take Vilhelm Hammershøi’s painting Interior with the Artist’s Mother (1889), for instance, and we can immediately see its affinity with the pictorialist style of photography. Blur, soft focus and a brown colour palette are evident here too.
We realise the value of culture when normal life as we know it is suspended.
In Lady Barclay’s Salon at Moderna Museet is a brilliant example of how collections from different museums can be exhibited together. Nationalmuseum loans works to and collaborates with other museums, and we also produce exhibitions that can be shown at other venues in Sweden and abroad. We’re keen for our museum’s collections and exhibitions to be familiar and accessible to everyone. Venues such as Läckö Castle, Ulriksdal Palace and Nynäs Manor, to name but three, provide us with an opportunity to display pieces from our collections in different settings. The National Portrait Gallery, the oldest in the world, is on show at Gripsholm Castle, and Nationalmuseum Jamtli in Östersund takes our exhibitions beyond the Stockholm region to audiences further north. The Gustavsberg Porcelain Museum, reopened a year ago, is another member of the Nationalmuseum family. In 2020 we welcomed 379,599 visitors across all our sites, but the previous year’s total was almost a million more. We must now hope that people soon get back into the habit of visiting cultural institutions.
To be more specific about what’s on right now, I’d like to mention three very different exhibitions that have just opened. Migrants, Nationalmuseum’s summer exhibition at Gripsholm Castle, Mariefred, tells the stories of 22 migrants to Sweden from the mid 17th century to the present day. What they all have in common is that they played a key role in Swedish history and an active part in our development as a country. Among the people portrayed in the exhibition we find changing life stories, a wide social span and great cultural diversity. These migrants reflect Swedish history from the great power era to the democratic society of the 20th century. They include three Swedish queens and a royal valet. The majority are cultural figures: opera singers, songwriters and artists. The exhibition Close to Nature at Läckö Castle is all about the natural world and how it has inspired artists and designers since the 17th century. The Nordic Myths exhibition at Nationalmuseum Jamtli is about visual storytelling in Nordic art of the 19th and early 20th century, a period when artists frequently used motifs drawn from myths, sagas and history.
Even though we all have to take the current situation into account when making our summer holiday plans this year, a staycation here in Scandinavia can be every bit as enjoyable as a more exotic trip. The good news is that there are hundreds of interesting museums to visit throughout the Nordic countries. Working life museums, ecomuseums, local history museums, sports museums, railway museums, maritime museums, medical history museums, technical museums, art museums and more. To keep the sector alive, we need investment and forward-looking plans for growth. There’s great potential out there. Now is the time to tap into it.
In conclusion, for anyone interested in the history of museum visiting, and who can read Swedish, I can recommend some summer reading in the form of Eva-Lena Bergström’s recently published book Om Söndagarne. 1800-talets museibesökare och konsten att betrakta konst (‘On Sundays. 19th-Century Museum Visitors and the Art of Looking at Art’, Appel Förlag, 2021). The book takes us back to the 19th century and describes how museums became public spaces, open to all of us.
Dr Susanna Pettersson, Director General, Nationalmuseum