Observation #1: On Doing Public History Well:
Over the last four months, I have visited an incredible number of museums, castles, house museums, historic churches, and historic sites here in Gothenburg, as well as throughout Sweden and Scandinavia. The worst museums were merely collection of objects and facts, the best showed history as a process of discovery and change. Great museums posed interesting questions, and showed the ways that historians might help the public to consider possible answers. Whether it was learning about the challenge of raising and preserving the warship Vasa from Stockholm harbor, the process of creating public art at Lund's Skissernas museum, the unanswered questions raised by prehistoric artifacts found in the lands that would become Gothenburg, or archaeologists' competing interpretation of Ales Stenar--history was portrayed as a messy, interesting, ongoing project. Size did not really matter--I visited huge, tedious museums, and small fascinating ones that held few artifacts. What mattered most was that the museums engaged visitors in a meaningful conversation about the past, and connected visitors to the process of historical research and inquiry. And in an age of touch-screens and cell-phone tours, I still found myself most enthralled with tours given by living human beings. There is something powerful about walking through a site that sparks your imagination accompanied by a skilled, live guide who can answer questions and engage you in thoughtful discussions about the past.
|Swedish Democrat sticker: "Keep Sweden Swedish" featuring a Swedish Viking (from Wikipedia)|
Observation #2. Nationalism, Fascism, Intolerance, and Public History:
A few days ago, a group of residents of the Stockholm suburb of Kärrtorp organized a public demonstration opposing the rise of Nazi activity, growing anti-immigrant sentiments, and painted swastikas in their neighborhood. The vigil was disrupted by a group of about fifty members of the neo-Nazi Swedish Resistance Movement (many of whom were young men under the age of 20) who threw firecrackers, sticks, and bottles at the families in attendance and the police who tried to protect them (for more on the events in Kärrtorp, click here). This event is clearly troubling, but you may be wondering it has to do with public history. Well, quite a bit.
In Sweden and other parts of Europe, there is some anxiety right now regarding questions of national identity. Factors such as the rise of the European Union, the growth of the Eurozone, unemployment and economic austerity, and rising immigration from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East that are causing concerns for some people over the future of national identity and culture in a globalizing world. Across Europe, governments are promoting their nations' histories and cultures as an important way to safeguard their unique national identity. For nationalist, anti-immigrant, and neo-Nazi groups, traditional history and culture become a weapon to undermine the place of "outsiders" who threaten national unity. In Sweden, the far-right nationalist political party, the Sweden Democrats (who embraced the slogan: "Keep Sweden Swedish" accompanied by a Swedish Viking), have made increased funding for traditional Swedish culture and heritage an element of their political platform (along with defunding multicultural programs). In 2010, the Sweden Democrats won 5.7% of the national vote and 20 seats in parliament.
For academic and public historians, cultural heritage is clearly a battlefield in the struggle against hatred and intolerance. This becomes a real challenge for historians who strive to preserve and share a nation's past according to professional standards, but who find themselves in the midst of a fierce battle over the political meaning of history. We certainly face similar issues about the use and abuse of history in American politics, but my time in Europe has heightened my awareness to these issues. History at a very basic level tells us who we are. As the Swedish case illustrates, historians need to be sensitive and critical in understanding how the history they produce may be used (or misused), and be ready to challenge those who may manipulate the past to bolster their agenda of hatred, violence, or intolerance.
Sweden's Engelsberg Ironworks UNESCO World Heritage Site
Observation #3: Public History as Global Resources:
During my four months in Sweden, I've heard a great deal about Sweden's fifteen (15) United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) designated World Heritage Sites. These range from the Royal Palace of Drottningholm, to decorated farmhouses of Hälsingland, to the bronze-age rock carvings at Tanum, to the Engelsberg Ironworks. Although the United States has twenty-one (21) UNESCO designated World Heritage Sites, these are seldom discussed by Americans (For my American friends: How many American UNESCO sites can you name off the top of your head? For a list of UNESCO sites, click here). While these are certainly a source of Swedish pride, they also reflect a larger tendency by Swedes to see themselves as part of world history. At many American historic sites, we are less likely to think that way. Few Civil War battlefields ask about the significance of the war in a global context, and even fewer local historical societies ask how they fit into global trends and events (other than at moments such as during the world wars). Yet if you think about it, every history site is a world history site; every event part of global history. As Americans rethink our place in a global society, it is important for us to expand the boundaries of our history, and consider more fully how our nation's history and historic sites fit into the large human story.
|A NOBEL MOMENT: About to enter the Stockholm Concert Hall for the Nobel Prize Ceremony 2013 (with Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Alternative Energy, Dr. Chuck Coronella). Note the paparazzi are not trying to photograph us.|
And Now...A Few Words of GratitudeSomewhere along the way, I was told that a sense of gratitude is a Swedish sensibility. Now that my time in Sweden is ending, I have an enormous feeling of gratitude for all the people and organizations that made my visit to Sweden possible. I would not have been able to live in Sweden for four months without the generous support of a Fulbright Scholar's grant. I am deeply grateful to the Swedish Fulbright Commission and the taxpayers of the United States and the Kingdom of Sweden who so generously fund this program for the international exchange of scholars.
I am also grateful to Shippensburg University for allowing me the opportunity for a sabbatical leave. Over the last four months, I have been fully immersed in building new relationships, studying new practices, and learning new skills that will have a profound impact on my future research and classroom teaching. I also hope that my time in Sweden may be the beginning of an ongoing relationship between Shippensburg University and Gothenburg University. Perhaps someday soon, Shippensburg students will have the opportunity to live and study in Gothenburg, and Swedish students will be a part of the Shippensburg University community.
I was very fortunate to be able to have Gothenburg University's Department of Historical Studies as my home away from home. The generous and inspiring faculty, students and staff welcomed me warmly and assisted me in countless ways. I am grateful for the ways they expanded my thinking about, as well as the many new friendships I developed.
Last but not least, I would like to thank the people of Sweden who shared their wonderful country with me and my family this fall. To all who made this experience possible--let me just say most sincerely: "Tusen Tack!" (a thousand thanks).
POSTSCRIPT: Five Things I will miss most about Sweden:
1. Talking history with Swedish history professionals and Gothenburg University's kind and thoughtful students and faculty.
2. Old Gothenburg's charming architecture, canals, public art and cobblestone streets
3. "Fika"--periodic coffee breaks of strong Swedish coffee and interesting conversation with colleagues.
4. Discovering the remarkable museum, historic sites, and archives of Sweden and Scandinavia.
5. Living and traveling in a different country where every day is filled with new questions, new ideas, and new discoveries.