Curating Stockholm

In Sweden masks are a rare sight. Bars are full but, with few foreign visitors, are the museums? A tour of Stockholm’s cultural attractions reveals the challenges of curating during a pandemic…

Xander Brett

Stockholm, June 2021. Almost 24-hour sunlight and not a mask in sight (around one in twenty on public transport, voluntarily). None in shops. The museums are open, the theatres full. Signs tell you to keep a distance, but hand sanitiser is a rarity. Sweden is a bubble. Though German voices are back, English is still rarely heard. Travel from the US and UK remains off limits. This, says the Vasa Museum’s Martina Siegrist Larsson, is damaging. When I arrive for a tour before opening time, she’s clearly very happy to see me. The raising of the Vasa warship was an enormous national and international event. The Vasa Museum is Scandinavia’s most popular attraction. In a usual year, it welcomes 1.5 million visitors from around the world. Today, I was the only tourist. Cleaners scrub, the ticket office fully staffed. But for who? Walking up the hill on Djurgården, to the Skansen open air museum (perfectly suited to social distancing), I see the importance of keeping national attractions open. Skansen has returned to what it should be: a museum of Sweden for Swedes. It’s a reminder that public museums are there to serve their public, not those of other nations.

“The raising of the Vasa warship was an enormous national and international event”

Photo: Vasa Museum Archives / SMTM

Back down the hill, though, at internationally marketed ABBA Museum, is the situation different? It seems not even here. The small, mirrored rooms are still packed. The staff address me in English, but the voices around me are all Swedish. The screams from the Gröna Lund theme park filter in. The music plays on. I link up with Susanna Pettersson, director of the Nationalmuseum. She makes clear that while Sweden avoided lockdowns, museums didn’t avoid shutdowns. “The state-run museums closed last March,” she tells me. “We reopened before Midsummer, closed again in October, and reopened after Easter.” The Nationalmuseum was forced to move its exhibitions forward, some open for just a few weeks at a time. There are seven thousand works, put on a timeline, representing Sweden but taking in art from abroad. “We have a lot of French art,” Pettersson says, “and we put it alongside Swedish art to contextualise it.” With artworks crossing in and out of Sweden, the museum had to work differently. But that, Pettersson tells me, was no bad thing. Like everywhere, Sweden has adapted… just in a very limited way.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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