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  • IntroductionMuseums and the Performance of Heritage in Nordic Contexts
  • Lizette Gradén and Tom O’Dell

This issue of Scandinavian Studies brings together scholars from the disciplines of ethnology, Scandinavian studies, and folklore studies to examine the creation of heritage within museums large and small in the Nordic countries and Nordic America. The late Barbro Klein, influential in the fields of folklore and ethnology on both sides of the Atlantic, defines heritage as “phenomena in a group’s past that are given high symbolic value and therefore, must be protected for the future” (Klein 2000, 25). Cultural heritage is a process created in the present, but drawing on the past in order to shape strategies and attitudes toward the times to come (Lowenthal 1985; 1996; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998; 2006; Klein 2000; Anttonen et al. 2000). As such, cultural heritage is self-conscious and deliberate, a practice that inevitably also changes the self-perceptions of cultural practitioners, as they respond to each new form or performance of heritage that they and others create.

The manner in which the past is legitimized and reframed in the present, in part through museums, has been discussed for decades but has received added impetus since the 1990s. Configurations of “cultural heritage” have been used to legitimize and support varying forms of collective identity and to forge or assert allegiances to nations, locales, families, ethnic and religious groups, artifacts, rituals, and traditions. Scholars have grown progressively more aware of the constructedness of notions of heritage and its entanglement with broader systems of political, social, and cultural power, aptly described in recent scholarship [End Page 311] as “heritage regimes” (Bendix, Eggert, and Peselmann 2013; Bendix 2009). The questions of how heritage becomes constructed, by whom, and for what purposes have become the focus of a burgeoning field of interdisciplinary research.

While scholarship in this area has brought valuable critical perspectives to the study of heritage, much of the work to date adopts a top-down perspective on the subject, examining processes of heritage making as elite-driven and programmatic. The articles of this special issue seek to supplement, and in some ways complicate, such valuable theoretical formulations through fine-grained ethnographic accounts of heritage making as it occurs here and now and bottom-up, that is, in the concrete practices and perceptions of heritage workers on the ground. The articles assembled here build on ethnographic scholarship that critically approaches the concept of heritage as a “cultural practice about cultural practices”—that is, as performative productions that involve selecting certain cultural aspects on behalf of others, and then packaging and displaying them for an audience that contains, among others, the original producers themselves, who are invited to view and contemplate the resulting representations in institutional or vernacular settings (Aronsson and Gradén 2013, 12; Gradén 2013; Larsen 2013; Gradén and O’Dell 2018). Institutional heritage making becomes in this way a tradition of its own, and a set of phenomena that can be studied ethnographically and interpreted through the lenses of cultural studies. The present authors’ approach to museums is critical and compassionate as they examine the effects of various allegiances, priorities, and perspectives on the roles museums play in the Nordic region and Nordic America and call for a stronger sensitivity to and acknowledgment of the diversity of institutions that call themselves museums.

Re-conceptualizing Heritage in Nordic Contexts

In the following, we call attention to some of the challenges facing museums in the West today, providing a brief discussion of competing heritage regimes and legacies of selection. This introduction provides a framework for understanding the changing intellectual, political, and professional landscapes in which museum leadership and staff operate today and the case studies that are presented in the articles of this issue. How do such challenges shape cultural heritage, delimit identities, and draw boundaries via museum practices of selection and recognition of difference? [End Page 312]

To be sure, throughout history, Nordic museums have functioned for and in differing contexts. In the seventeenth century, countries like Denmark and Sweden sought to bolster and legitimize their military conquests of neighboring lands in the Nordic-Baltic region through employing the...


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