This summer, all those interested in topical subjects such as climate change, identity politics and the situation in Afghanistan should pay a visit to Världskulturmuseet, The Museum of World Culture, in Gothenburg. The same goes for all those who never really thought or cared about such matters. The latter category may very well make up the most important visitors because they, and in turn society at large, are the ones who can benefit the most from what Världskulturmuseet currently has to offer.
Världskulturmuseet is one of four museums run by the Swedish government dedicated to displaying and bringing to life the various cultures of the world. Etnografiska museet (The Museum of Ethnography), Medelhavsmuseet (The Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities) and Östasiatiska museet (The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities) are the others. The specific aim of Världskulturmuseet is to function as a platform for dialogue and reflection on contemporary topics – topics not seldom deemed controversial and contentious – through the provision of knowledge and multiple perspectives, and, by doing so, contribute to the embracement of diversity and, by extension, sustainable global development.
In other words, there is clear and, if you ask me, praiseworthy ambition at Världskulturmuseet to work toward critical thinking, open-mindedness and social commitment. This is readily apparent when looking at the names and taglines of their current exhibitions. Take for example Afghan Tales – contemporary Afghan photography, Crossroads – on sustainability and climate change, Playground – an exhibition about norms, and State of Mind – queer lives in Russia. This commitment is also markedly evident in the make up of their exhibitions, at least those I had time to see at my visit: Afghan Tales, Crossroads and Playground.
In Afghan Tales, 22 Afghan photographers present a complex image of contemporary Afghanistan. The exhibition is utterly interesting for several interconnected reasons. First of all, it provides an opportunity to learn more about a country many of us know of, but few of us know much about. Second of all, it offers a more multifaceted picture of Afghanistan than the average news report does. Last but not least, it presents a unique insider’s view of Afghanistan. It was not until 2011 that the Taliban’s total ban on photography was lifted, and still today being a photographer in Afghanistan is difficult and associated with danger, especially if you are a woman.
Among my favourite photographs of Afghan Tales are Winter in the Bamyan Region (2013) by Mohammad Dawood Wassl and the series The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan by Barat Ali Batoor. The former is a visually striking image of a single woman, wearing a black abaya and niqāb, on the move through a snowy landscape. According to the accompanying sign she is a teacher, heading to a capacity building course. The latter tells the gripping story of bacha bazi, a longstanding practice where boys and young men are bought and sold to dance at social functions for men and then often get sexually abused.
Visiting Afghan Tales triggers an instant hunger to get to know more about Afghanistan. As a response to this, Världskulturmuseet provides a lot of reading on the subject in a semi-secluded area adjoining the exhibition area. Those not fluent in Swedish won’t get much out of it, though; all the reading is unfortunately in Swedish only. Things do however fare better with the information about the actual exhibition and its pieces. Besides everything being written in Swedish and English – a standard in Swedish museums, I would say – an Arabic version is available. That’s good because the more people that are able to fully enjoy this fine exhibition, the better.
Crossroads is a small but substantial exhibition on climate change and its consequences. The name alludes to the expression “being at a crossroads”. As such it indicates that we, humanity, are at the point where we have to make a fundamental decision regarding our way of life in relation to the earth and the people inhabiting it.
The first object you encounter in Crossroads is a ramshackle fishing boat used by 25 refugees or migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea to arrive in Almeria, Spain. Next to it is a glass case containing three substandard life jackets worn by refugees or migrants who came to shore in Lesbos, Greece. That immediately set the tone of this quite bleak and at times heart wrenching exhibition that not only tells stories of migration and human trafficking, but of untenable exploitation of the earth’s recourses, which, this exhibition underscores, often go hand in hand.
Most of the objects making up Crossroads appear to be items taken from the museum’s already existing collection, recontextualised in simple but clever ways. A case in point is the shelves harbouring water-storing jars. Among your typical clay vessels, wood buckets and woven baskets, plastic bottles have been placed. The accompanying signs inform about the widespread shortage of freshwater due to climate change, irresponsible water policies and a growing population, and the need for a large portion of mankind to collect and ration water in order to get by. Thus I am both reminded that littering plastic bottles will be what our modern day civilization will be remembered by instead of biodegradable jars, and that we are a part of the problem. Think for example of bottling companies like Nestlé, pumping huge amounts of water from the ground to use in their products, leaving the environment and local communities with water shortages, besides contributing to plastic waste.
Crossroads does however offer some glimpses of hope. One such glimpse is Solvatten, a device that uses solar energy to purify and heat water, thus giving access to safe and warm water in off grid areas without having to burn coal or wood. A special mention should also be made about the stylish denim cushions and throw pillows on the seating areas of this exhibition. Made by what appears to be discarded jeans, they are a silent reminder of the many possibilities of repurposing and upcycling.
Last year’s big endeavour at Världskulturmuseet was Playground, a playful exhibition about social norms. It was supposed to have ended in February, but due to popular demand it will continue to run all through the summer. I’m glad this decision was made. Playground may very well be one of the most important exhibitions made in Sweden in recent years.
Playground is as wide in scope as it is in style and address. The explicit aim is to make visible and call into question social norms and taken-for-granted values regarding entities such as gender, race, sexuality and bodily constitution, to underscore the equal value of all human beings, and to promote everybody’s right to be who they are. This involves showcasing photographs, displaying objects and accompanying stories shared by people in Sweden and Vietnam who in one way or another defy a norm, and offering interactive stations on themes such as family, language and status. The latter includes, among other things, a towering pyramid with progressively steeper steps and the question whether or not you can climb the social ladder. The target audience is both school children and adults. Some features are clearly aimed at the younger and/or the not very knowledgeable visitors. Other features are decidedly geared towards the older and/or those better versed in identity politics. Much works for all levels of knowledge.
Apart from really enjoying being in a milieu where diversity is so expressly embraced, what gives me the most in Playground is reading the stories shared by norm-defying people. Most of these texts are admirably pithy and powerful, and many of them strike a cord of recognition and affinity in me. I do however miss someone giving voice to an impaired person’s experience. In fact, throughout Playground, (dis)ability is never more than touched upon in a few subordinate clauses. That’s both surprising and deplorable given Playground‘s clear and otherwise highly successful intent to challenge norms and support diversity of a multitude of types.
Afghan Tales, Crossroads and Playground are all important exhibitions. Furthermore, they are all highly political and gripping in their own way. After attending them you leave with greater knowledge and a stronger desire to get involved than ever before. Add to that the fact that admission is free at Världskulturmuseet, and I can see no reason why anyone within a day’s distance from Gothenburg shouldn’t give Världskulturmuseet a visit this summer.