Tomas Johansson

Change of paradigm!

- about ancient villages, ancient technology and
traditional culture historical museums

Something remarkable is happening right now which touches
upon man’s relationship to history and the way traditional
culture historical museums act. People want to feel more
participation or identification with history than the traditional establishments can offer.

The change expresses itself for example by the construction during the
last 25 years of about 40 reconstructed living ancient villages in Sweden.
More than one hundred reconstructed old new houses can be found at
these sites. Every year 60,000 schoolchildren are involved in one or the
other way of living history in the ancient villages, i.e. half of a year’s draft
of Swedish pupils. The sites attract totally about 400,000 visitors. 
A few hundred people are employed there and the complete sector has a turn
over of a few hundred million Swedish crowns (40 million US$).  

The interest is also reflected by the eagerness of young archaeology
students to learn more about archaeology by experiment and ancient technology. Over a period of 20 years hundreds of young people from all
over Europe have found their way to
Bäckedals folk high school in Sveg, Sweden, to get a basic education in ancient technology. One could call
these students a kind of modern wandering apprentices. 60.000 people in
Sweden are playing so-called living role-play with historical themes, not
seldom from the medieval period or Viking age. There have been
established a lot of Viking groups in the last few years. A lot of work is
put into time-correct clothing, jewellery, weapons and re-enactment.

A good quantity of reconstructed ships has been built over the last 15
years in Sweden, above all Viking ships and medieval boats. They
represent an enormous input of effort equal to hundred thousands or even
a million hours of work. In many cases they have made long journeys, even to the Black Sea on the trail of the Vikings.

Internet has made communication and contact much easier and the
exchange of knowledge is
probably larger now than ever before. An
example can be that the homepage of the Institute for Ancient Technology in Sweden Internet in November 1999 delivered about 20,000 texts and
40,000 pictures to visitors, equal to about 2000 a day. 10% of the
visitors were sitting at computers abroad.

What has happened during the last few years around living history is
presumably the largest "people's" power outburst around history and
heritage since the homestead movement started in Sweden a hundred
years ago.  

What is the background?

That the winners are writing history is no original interpretation. Neither is
it, that history is often used for special purposes, which often concern
variants of nationalism or chauvinism. "Our parish is more interesting then
the neighbouring parish. Our city has nicer houses than your city. My
family has more reliable and finer persons than yours." (How many regular museums in the world say that in their region lived lazy, evil and muddle-
headed people?)

I think, chauvinism has played a large or determining role for most of the
writers of history up to the time before World War II (please read the
Swedish homestead books of the 20s and 30s to get the coherence in the
right light). To get the message more fit for the drawing room they liked to use positive abstractions like identity and creating of context.

There is also a respect for our ancestors, sometime to the degree that it
would be better to talk about being in debt to the forefathers. Thanks to
the sacrifices of our forefathers, their work and heroic courage we are
here today. Who does not have an older family member who can talk for
hours on how difficult it was during their childhood and they got rotten
crusts of bread to eat?  (Remember that we have not had war in Sweden
or no real hard times during the last 200 years). It attracts listeners but
one does not have to go further than to the Russian Karelia to find a
similar real situation today in an environment, which looks like the Poor
Sweden, but it does not work out to be likewise interesting.

During the last few decades a more sophisticated filter has been laid over
the traditional archaeology and history. In archaeology the academic
world has taken impressions from American trends and the
survival times
of the ideas are getting shorter and shorter. Traditional ethnology seems
almost to have died out.

Traditional history with its academic themes in Sweden has been lying in trenches for almost two generations but has now climbed up and came
into a Renaissance thanks to good writers like
Peter Englund, Herman
Lindqvist, Jan Guillou and Marja Hagerman. They have managed to
transform the rather statistic source material in a way which appeals to
us today and they have created readable literature. It all happened with
the ambition to entertain, to cast new light on subjects and not the least
to reach high selling rates. People in general are reading about history as
never before.

The entertainment aspect is also clear in the  computer games with more
or less historic ties, which has developed in the last few years. It is worth mentioning that many seem to be situated in a certain form of diffuse archetypical historical environment, if possible with a link to the middle
ages, like if one was at home at King Arthur in England.

In the nowadays popular fantasy literature, we find as well archetypical environments where the clockworks have stopped some time during the
middle ages. Tolkien's books are a good example of this and he has many epigones.

One can see TV-movies and serials dealing with archetypical historical
themes almost every week.  An adaptation to our time are the female
amazons and heroines, which have at least as good physical condition as
the classical male heroes.

Since the beginnings of the national states, the teaching of history has been a one-way communication, not the imprint of interaction and reciprocal respect. It has been a teacher/student situation, which also implied folk fostering and correcting elements.

"When young girls are learning to weave, they sin less and can as well
earn a little for their living." This thought was found in the old home craft movement of a hundred years ago in Sweden.

The society has seen advantages of spreading a unified, licensed form of history, eager to control, discipline, obstruct misinterpretations and choke
the embryo of revolutions and instability. One should admire how the
Swedish state apparatus got away with this over centuries. Modern
opinion builders and advertisement people have a lot to learn here on how
to manipulate a whole people during centuries.

But now we are facing a new situation. A completely new situation.

Other presumptions

There are well-paid American data-gurus that say: "Traditional museums
will be obsolete and closed before the year 2015 and replaced by digital alternatives". But museums have at least two qualities, which make them
able to survive. One is that you can go and see Napoleons ring in reality
and experience the special charisma it has, or for example an original
piece of rock from the moon, which seems to trigger complex feelings in
the human being. There is a social dimension as well; one can meet other
people there, who not seldom are more interesting than the exhibition
itself. There are emotional reasons to keep museums. Very important
indeed is their role as temples for the western European form of ancestor

Museums will in a few decades have played out their role as knowledge
banks. They can still have a function as storage place of artefacts, but
with this difference than one can reach objects and photos with digitally techniques.

The museums role as local or regional chauvinistic centre will soon become obsolete even if one still for years will talk about them in terms of places
which are exposing the sole of a region and shows its identity.

How many stone axes, roman vessels, medieval hammers do you offer me
in exchange of seeing 25 seconds original film from the French revolution
or why not watching Rembrandt paint? In two hundred years there will be
the same kind of demands about our times. But will the storage rooms of
the museums then be filled with old computers or cookery of the 1990s,
instead of well-filled archives with moving picture and sound of that age. Unfortunately, most of the information, which today is electronically stored, will be gone in a few decades if nobody does anything about their preservation.

Biological constants

One of the few non-abstract constants, which can be found in history, are human feelings. One can characterise them as biological constants. A
human from the Stone Age of 10,000 years ago experienced hunger,
sadness, happiness and love almost the same way we do today. The
biological and physiological functions of the human body have not
changed for a long time.

Our nervous system and disproportional large brain has probably
developed in the first place to solve practical problems. We can manage
to go to the moon, but we cannot successfully solve simple social
problems in our daily routine, for example in job or family life. A brain of
just a few grams could do it better. Take for example how a rat develops
its relations and social life. A society of ants or bees is superior to us in
function and perfection, and the question rises if dictators during all ages
did not glance at them to learn. 

Is not it so simple that if we can activate ourselves with practical things
and solve technical problems we do not get stressed and unhappy? The
brain is adapted to practical work and wants to do it.
Perhaps this it the
reason why computers have won territory so fast? Is it that programming involves the same technical "centre of creation" in the brain as old
fashioned handwork? The same that once was developed for manufacture
stone axes or cast bronze jewellery or to hunt elk?

Is it to experience the same feelings as our forefathers experienced that
we put ourselves to practical handwork in our ancient villages? That we
build Viking houses and stone age huts and live in them? That we play
historical role-plays? Quite simple feelings which the brain is used to over
millions of years.

When we go into a traditional museum or read a less inspiring history book
the risk is large that the nervous system gets only a small piece of the stimulation it wants to receive, but the stimulation can be given more by
for example an ancient village with practical activities. Sure, a traditional museum exhibition was exciting in 1925. There was no competition, but
the IT-society floods us with information and a 10-year old child of today
has seen and heard more than a stone age man did during his whole

If we go for traditionalism in implementation and preservation of our history, the public will turn their back to us. Then the museums will make themselves unnecessary. There are a few subjects which can meet man's demand for "historic stimulation". One is to offer living environments with possibilities
for own activities, with the focus on quality and skill, and with a none-chauvinistic approach.

To this century belong above all small scale establishments and activities
which increase the quality by co-operation and networking, and which
easily can adopt to the demands and presumptions. In the information
society people are not satisfied with an expensive ready packed
interpretation of history, which is foist on them, but are surfing around
the world both electronically and physically and gather facts to create
their own images of the past.

 Translation: Roeland Paardekooper and Tomas Johansson




Institutet för Forntida Teknik 2001-02-09