Museums and Colonialism in Norway

While the museum’s close relation to colonial history has been a central theme in the international literature on museums, it is absent as a perspective in the literature on Norwegian museums. This absence must be understood in relation to the well- established understanding of Norway as an exception in the larger history of European colonialism: a small and innocent country that itself was the victim of several hundred years of Danish and Swedish colonialism. Recent studies have however contributed to establishing the contours of an alternative version of this story. In the exhibition Colonial Times (Kolonitid), which presents the results of a multidisciplinary Bergen-based research project, it is stated that Norwegians “ … in addition to having considerable economic interests in the colonies – in many ways, also mentally, was just as colonial as people in other European colonial powers.” (Kjerland and Rio 2009: 6).

Installation photograph from the exhibition Colonial Times

Many of the Norwegian Museums and their collections can, in the same way as other European museums, be connected to colonial and colonial related activities.  A considerable part of their objects originate from sailors and merchants who were involved in colonial trade as well as from missionaries, adventurers and explorers. In addition to this, the museums in themselves can be considered a product of an international museum culture that, to a large extent, was formed by and during the colonial era.

But at the same time, the museums have played an important role in the Norwegian national project - in the processes whereby a young nation was striving to establish an identity.  However, nationalism is also a transnational phenomenon. One of the main pillars of the Norwegian part of the PhotoCLEC project is the understanding of the strongly interrelated character of the national and transnational processes. Norwegian museums not only focus on Norwegian national culture, but also on other peoples’ culture seen in relation to their own.

The selection of exhibitions/ institutions that form the basis of our study is made with a consideration of how they represent different versions of Norwegian colonial – and colonial-related past. If the museums are to redefine their role in the present, it is necessary to reflect critically not only on the stories that are told in the museum, but also on the issues that are left out:  How are the museum stories established? What is told? And what is kept in silence?

Norwegian missionaries and colonialism’s culture

Northing has been as important for the formation of Norwegians’ image of non-European peoples as the Christian mission movement. Through the mission propaganda, the mission movement became the most significant channel of colonialism’s culture to the Norwegian society. The missionaries not only supplied museums of ethnographic artefact, they established their own collections, both ethnographic and photographic collections. In addition, the mission movement also established their own museums and organised exhibitions that toured  the whole country. In more recent times, this material has been made use of in new ways, as subject of research and museum exhibitions

Ethnographic exhibitions

As elsewhere in Europe, Norwegian museum employees also increasingly take part of the larger discussions connected to the problems of representation, in particular in connection to ethnographic exhibition. However, most ethnographic exhibitions still reproduce an exhibition language largely formed by earlier times, showing traces of various phases of museological and anthropological development. The exhibition languages show traces of shifts in paradigms and scholarly differences, ranging from the classical gallery of typologically and geographically arranged objects, to exhibitions turned into scenes modelled as an anthropological monograph – to the presentation of ethnographic artefacts as fine art. There is a growing unease among museum staff in Norway related to the current status of ethnographic exhibitions, and a beginning awareness of the need to search for new ways and new modes of articulations.

The neglected dark side of Norwegian emigration

The foundation of the Norwegian Emigration Museum can be traced back to the centenary celebration of the Norwegian constitution in 1914, shortly after the Norwegian independence in 1905. An important part of the celebration was a large exhibition modelled by the large world fairs. A separate pavilion was set up to visualise the significance of the Norwegian diaspora for the building of a new nation. Nowegians abroad represented a resource, since they represented important cultural, political and, not least, economical networks. But Norwegian emigration also has its shadow sides.  Norwegians were well represented among the European groups responsible for the displacement of the local population on the big plains in the Midwest in the US. This is the forgotten colonial history, a history that is also neglected in museums, who tend to present this past in heroic terms. 

Internal colonialism and the rise of Sámi museums

Another colonial history may be found within the Norwegian borders. From a Sámi perspective, the relationship to the majority society is seen as a persisting  and persistent colonial relation.  As part of the process of ethnic mobilisation and struggle to strengthen the position of the Sámi people and the status of Sámi culture, the Sámi people began to establish their own museums in the early 1970s. While the Sámi people for long have been represented in the showcases in ethnographic exhibitions in the southern part of the country, the establishment of the Sámi museums in Northern Norway was part of the Sámi people’s struggle to take their own history back, and decide for themselves how Sámi history and identity, and culture and society should be represented.