Museum #3: Ethnografiska

One of many boats and boat models in the collections at the ethnographic museum

I got sick in December after visiting the History museum, so it slowed down my museum going for a few weeks, and disrupted my plan for 4 museums in advent. I was feeling better after Christmas, so between Christmas and New Year’s we visited the Ethnographic museum (Ethnografiska) while it was still free!

The lighting and glass cases are not very conducive to good photos, so the ‘best of’ collection of pro shots on Google image search might be better. It was a great collection, though naturally I have a few notes. Swedish museums have been pretty progressive in acknowledging the impact of historically colonial/imperial acquisitions. For example, the Gʼpsgolox totem “acquired” from Haisla territory in 1929 was repatriated in 2006, and a replica was commissioned to stand in the yard outside Ethnografiska. The new millennium was looming before the Haisla tracked down the totem and started negotiating to bring it home. This was slowed down by a big mismatch in values: the Euro ideals of keeping artifacts in stasis forever, and the Haisla notion of ephemeral circularity in nature giving rise to the traditional practice of letting totems melt back into the forest. It is a bit incongruous for a museum studying culture to place so little value on living cultural and spiritual practice, and instead focus just on the material items in the collection. If you are keen on this story, you can watch the NFB documentary below. At some point I recall seeing some documentary footage where some representatives of the Sami people attended a Totem repatriation from Sweden to the West Coast, and there seemed to be a shared eye roll and a sense of ‘these fucking guys’. This documentary ends before the trip home (that took another 3 years!), so I will have to keep looking for that one.

There was substantial representation from North America and some acknowledgement that Indigenous people represent current, present-day nations. However, a lot of the colonial history seemed very settler-oriented and did not explain why Indigenous languages and cultural practices are in danger of being lost. Not explaining that reinforces the hegemony of Euro/Western/settler culture: that it is ‘naturally’ better and once exposed to it folks will automatically abandon their old ways and adopt Euro religion, cutlure, language, etc. One of the newer (and better) exhibits contrasted ways of life in Australia, the Amazon, and the Arctic, and this one started out with a historical summary of international efforts to protect the rights of Indigenous people: the ILO Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1989) and the UN Declaration on the Rights or Indigenous Peoples (2007). Ethnografiska points out that 143 member nations voted in favour of this more recent one and 4 voted against: New Zealand, Australia, Canada, USA. This is a non-legally binding declaration and still these former British colonies couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge the rights of Indigenous people. How shameful.

While the Pacific High Coast exhibit in particular is very large and beautiful, most of the North American exhibits have clearly not been updated since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, and while US and Canada residential schools are mentioned in places, it is less with a lens of cultural genocide and more with a lens of ‘everyone got training and modern jobs’. As a counter-example, the Smithsonian has done a good job of explaining and describing the trail of tears, as well as the ongoing impact of ‘clearing the plains’. Hopefully these updates are on the way at Ethnografiska as well.

One of the highlights of the museum visit is the award-winning museum cafe, Matmekka (‘food Mecca’). It is one of several restaurants owned by celebrity chef Carola, who has also written several books. The concept for all the restaurants is local, sustainable, and organic. Matmekka has the additional goal of bringing international flavours. The restaurant had a lot more meat on it than I would have expected from a sustainable/international restaurant, but I was very happy with my Carrot-ginger soup with 3 kinds of fresh baked bread (from the Carola bakery) and su choy salad. As always, the place is very kid-friendly with 15 highchairs and plenty of stroller parking. Even with the critiques, I enjoyed the day at Ethnografiska and I would give it a qualified recommendation.