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Patterns of Cultural Valuation (completed)

The project investigated how different ethnic groups and minorities have been presented and represented in Norwegian museums of cultural history during the last 150 years.

About the project

In today’s plural societies most museums of cultural history, also in Norway, have to face new challenges. They are continuously redefining their roles in society and adapting new ideas and methods to their museological endeavours.

The research field of museums of cultural history in Norway and their representations of ethnic groups and minorities opens for a broad range of perspectives and issues. Norway has a long history of being a plural society. Today, it includes an indigenous population, five national minorities and a growing population of foreign origin from both Western and non-Western countries.

The project investigated the role of museums of cultural history in shaping representations of the nation, the region and the locality during a span of time going from the 19th century to today.

The situation of Norwegian museums of cultural history reflects that of other museums around the world and our project took Norwegian museums as case studies of wider international trends. We were interested in the ways various cultures that make up the social fabric of Norway have been integrated in the national Grand Narrative. This implied among others analyzing similarities and differences, cross-cultural contacts and hybridity within the framework of the nation-state.


The development of museums of cultural history is linked to the history of the nation-state, to the elaboration of a national identity and to ‘rituals of citizenship’ in the sense of prompting a sense of belongingness. It also relates to what has been called the "exhibitionary complex", which in its actual form consists of sites where knowledge is produced, institutionalized and disseminated by resorting to different methods of representation.

A number of museums of cultural history partake in enterprises where culture, politics and economics are interlinked, and where programs of sustainable development mainly through service sectors that promote tourism, the production and consumption of cultural local goods and crafts are important assets. In the case of museums of cultural history this has led them to reconsider their role in society, their relationships with the collections they are responsible for and their exhibition policies. It has made them acknowledge among others that the idea of a monolithic, undifferentiated national identity is becoming an anachronism.

One of the main issues museums of cultural history have had to address in the past thirty years or so concerns the representations of cultural diversity and how to harmonize between multivocal cultural memories embodied in their collections and exhibitions. How to manage the transition from being authoritative institutions of established knowledge and learning to becoming ‘authorities of recognition’ and play an increasingly active role in promoting social cohesion in plural societies?


The aim of the project was to analyze representations of diversity in museums of cultural history and to explore the dialectics between historical narratives and perceptions of culture and belongingness and the ways these narratives are conveyed visually in exhibitions. In our use the notion of diversity encompasses a great number of complex issues pertaining to ethnicity, religion, social class, education, economy, gender, age and lifestyle.

We examined how exhibitions draw upon and reproduce older models and stereotypes about the nation and Norwegianess, how new visions and paradigms are introduced, and which visual and aesthetic schemes are applied in exhibitions. In addition, the project was concerned with the ways ethnic groups and minorities represent themselves in their own museums. To do this we chose two main analytical perspectives: Self and the Other and Aesthetics and Visuality.

Self and the Other

We introduced the notion of concerted action and analyzed how different groups influence each other, cooperate or choose different paths to represent themselves. Thus, we investigated the tension between frontiers and walls. In our analyses frontiers are spaces where exchanges may take place. They are pliable, do not hinder circulation and may be changed. Walls are solid constructions and are of a more permanent nature. To find a way out one has either to climb over them, go round them, dig tunnels under them or to pull them down. These perspectives place our project within a wider international context which entails a reflection on the interplay between the autochthonous and the allochtonous and how the notion of foreignness is relational and contingent to various political, social, religious, economical, gender and generational factors.

Aesthetics and Visuality 

We examined the ways the national narrative and the history of a minority are conveyed visually and aestheticized in exhibitions and the kind of museological approaches that are applied. Expanding the concept of intervisuality we studied polyphonic narratives and how exhibitions build on each other and relate to other exhibitions. This perspective provides a basis for the classification of different genres of narratives and for recognizing the aesthetic approaches that are being used to communicate them. We investigated the use of multimedia devices, art installations and the production of experiences for audiences.


Arne Bugge Amundsen: Inscribing the Urban at the Norwegian Folk Museum

How are the phenomena city and urbanity, civil servants and elite culture, workers and industrial culture integrated and aestheticzed in Norwegian museums? Traditionally one has understood the older Norwegian museums as limited national. A widespread criticism has been that the museums have been unilaterally focused on rural, peasant culture and the pre-modern Norway. This project questioned whether this is a too one-sided assessment.

The project looked at one of the really important Norwegian museums dating back to the formation period of national identity, namely the Norwegian Folk Museum. From its inception in 1894, this museum is characterized by its founder, Hans Aall.

  • Which were his thoughts on the relationship between classes and between rural and urban strata in the Norwegian nation?
  • In which ways did he want to portray and stage these strata in his museum?
  • What kind of museum practices did the Norwegian Folk Museum establish in relation to these questions?

In the interwar period and especially after World War II the new political elite demanded representation in the national pantheon. How did the Norwegian Folk Museum respond to this challenge?

An important actor in this process was Reidar Kjellberg, who succeeded Hans Aall as director of the Norwegian Folk Museum. Kjellberg linked the socialist historian Edward Bull to the museum, and he established an institute for worker’s memories at the museum. The project looked at the functions and importance of this initiative.

Silje Opdahl Mathisen: The Sámi: a People without a Pre-History?

This project was a comparative analysis of exhibitions of Sámi pre-history in Scandinavia, with an emphasis on Sámi museums in Northern Scandinavia.

This project examined how Sámi pre-history is presented in museum settings. The project was based on approximately the last twenty-five years of research on Sámi archaeology and explored to what degree and in what way this knowledge is presented in the Sámi museums within Sápmi.

The project also explored how Sámi pre-history is presented in the various national archaeological museums in Scandinavia in order to examine to what degree the national museums are able to present the fact that these different nations neither are nor ever have been composed of one single ethnically homogenous group.

Saphinaz-Amal Naguib: Representations of the City

The purpose of the project was to explore various modes of representation of urban life and cultural diversity in metropolitan museums since the 1970s. These museums are often housed in converted historical buildings that are well integrated emblematic "sites of memory" in the topography of a city. Their collections and exhibitions are closely related to the history of the city and its inhabitants.

The project studied how women's activities, work and contributions to the cultural and economic life of cities are shown. Further, it investigated how changes in the social fabric of cities are explicated and displayed, and how international trends and foreign influences are reflected in exhibitions. Furthermore, Representations of the City assessed the extent to which metropolitan museums are establishing themselves as "authorities of recognition" and are influential actors in the public sphere in plural societies. How they promote social cohesion and provide for different types of public.

Line Esborg: The Aesthetics of National History

The intention of this sub-project was to analyze the aesthetics of Norwegian national history at the turn of the 21st century and how national images of self are visualized in today's displays of cultural history. Ideologically charged versions of Norwegian history have previously been included as structural conditions for aestheticized national self-representations.

The point of departure of the project was a close examination of two relatively newly-established exhibitions.

The first one is hosted by the regional museum Maihaugen. This exhibition, We Won the Land, presented a story about a nation with a pre-history dating back to the first stone-age people who settled down 10 000 years ago.

In comparison, the intention behind the Post War Reconstruction Museum for Finnmark and Nord-Troms (1998) is primarily to enhance regional identity. In spite of the fact that the main emphasis here is on the period from 1930 to 1960, the narrative in this museum also starts with the first traces of humans in the region, here formulated as Arctic Stone Age. Thus, history is also here told from when the first humans made their mark on the national landscape.

The chosen objects of analysis are interesting because in spite of their different focuses, they may be read as contemporary assessments of the ways images of national history were shaped. 

Pål Christensen: National Archetypes: From Isolated to Interconnected

This sub-project addressed the selection issues relating to defining national heritage. One of the reasons that appreciation of Norwegian ethnical elements was so strongly linked to inland mountain districts was that in these remote locations time was considered to have stood (almost) still, and therefore the purest and most undiluted descendants of the "old" Norwegians could be found there. The problem with the coast, on the other hand, was that there had been too great an influence from abroad (Europe).

A change in historical sensibility has been taking place over the last generation, developing partly as a grass-roots movement against the express interests of the professional state apparatus from the ministerial level on down (Berkaak 1991). The changes occur gradually, but from the 1980s the trend is clear. The many contact points of the coastal regions with other countries have become a strength in the emergent multi-culturally oriented society. A number of coastal-oriented museums have been established in the last 20 years.

This project examined how newly established coastal culture museums in Trøndelag and Nordland stand in relation to other national, regional or local communities. To which extent are characteristics that were previously applied on coastal culture utilized in the exhibitions? How are the maritime elements in the exhibitions aestheticized, and with which references? Which representation of coastal Norway is shown at the exhibitions?

Olav Christensen: Between Images of Strangers and Self: Norwegian as an Ethnographic Exhibition Object and Ethnic Self-Representation

The establishment of the so-called folk museums – museums of cultural history – was initially characterized as the staging of Norwegian ethnicity. This sub-project examined the conventions for aestheticization of the national heritage in addition to examining what is the narrative and visual script supporting it.  

The first systematic and expensive attempts at creating representations of what is typically "Norwegian" came in the second half of the 1700s. The first aim for the sub-project was to clarify which central narrative and visual motives dominated the aestheticization of this early picture of what was Norwegian.

Then the question arises as to the extent to which these European representations are ethnic "recipes" that have influenced the representations produced by Norwegians themselves. In the middle of the 1800s the "typical Norwegian" is found in particularly two different public spheres: In connection with (world) exhibitions (see Brenna 2002), and as staging and props in theatres. Separately and in other contexts these visual traditions are well documented. The purpose of the historical detailed study is that it opens for comparison between the European portraits from the 1700s of what is "typically Norwegian" and the representations of themselves by Norwegians. If we take this thought a step further the question arises as to the importance of relational issues for the creation of identity, the relation between having the role of object and the role of subject.

The third empirical input is an examination of how the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History and the Sandvig Collection (Maihaugen) presented what was typically Norwegian when they opened their doors to the general public in respectively 1894 and 1904. A concluding analysis discussed the aestheticization of Norwegian ethnicity in view of various factors that have contributed to shaping the representation


The project received financial support from the The Research Council of Norway 2008-2011.


International project network:

  • Professor Peter Aronsson, Tema Q, Linköpings Universitet
  • Professor Simon Knell, University of Leicester
Published Apr. 8, 2021 1:44 PM - Last modified Apr. 13, 2021 9:15 PM


Project manager:
Saphinaz-Amal Naguib  


Detailed list of participants