Skansen, The Swedish Original

Just fifteen minutes by boat from Stockholm's old town traffic, on a green island in the archipelago, one can wander through the 18th and 19th centuries.  When we asked one young volunteer how they had decided on the "year" of the house we were in (meaning the time portrayed, not the date built) he nodded to a wooden-faced, centuries-old clock.  "Because of that," he said.  "It's the newest thing in here.  We don't want a clock expert to come in and tell us that it hadn't been built yet."  He was dressed in garters and a tri-cornered hat, and had just put a few more logs on the open fire.  Because of the warmth and the dusty light filtering through wavy glass, we were ready to believe that this was some version of the 1700's, some parallel existence of rural Sweden.
Skansen is the oldest and largest outdoor museum in Sweden.  A cluster of buildings, objects and traditions rescued from the brink of extinction, the collection is a pan-temporal glimpse of the country's past.
We've been to many "skansens" in different places - the name has become a noun, and we use it pretty broadly to mean open-air house-museum.  Notably, there was a terrific one in the Czech Republic and a half-abandoned example in the hills above Tbilisi.  Our favorite, probably, was the first of the trip - we actually spent the night at the rambling, rainy skansen in Ciechanowiec, Poland.
Several years ago, on a trip with my mother and aunt, I'd taken the ferry from winter-darkened Gamla Stan to the island of Djurgården.  From my memory, I was able to call up a kind of endless landscape on a hill outside Stockholm proper, where the buildings were all of old wood and we watched wolverines and a grey owl.
I found Skansen about how I remembered it, if less dreamy.  The trees were more fully leafed when Rebecca and I got off the boat, and there were more visitors.  Like so many public green spaces, the hill that the museum is built on has a specific grayness in the offseason.  The sky was overcast, but the gray was more emotional response than true color - shuttered buildings, leaves being raked, the smell of woodsmoke trickling from the chimneys, a melancholy that comes before bare branches. The ferry docked at the entrance to Gröna Lund amusement park, where autumn-quieted rides loom over the boat and the walk uphill to the museum.  We shared Skansen with a few other young couples and American tourists, but schoolchildren made up the largest demographic - and the most energetic.
Above, potato starch set on a windowsill to dry.
As the afternoon got close to evening, the air was cold.  We were drawn to the various hearths and kitchen stoves, where costumed men and women told us about their imaginary lives.  One man in large-buckled shoes showed us a collection of rocks and told us about copper and iron mining.  A pregnant woman lit an oil lamp and talked about the portrait she was painting of a farmer and his wife - she was usually the wife, but the dress in the picture didn't fit her at the moment.  A schoolteacher worked at knitting something (a mitten?) and laughed when we asked about the wallpaper.  The performances were casual, and broke between eras and characters.  In general, the people seemed happy to talk to someone - most visitors ducked in and out without saying hello.
Peasant architecture, handcrafts and artwork weren't appreciated much before they began to die out. Because they weren't considered high art, the beautiful objects of every day life - painted walls, carved tools, woven clothing - weren't preserved outside of the home.  The idea of needlepoint being worthy of a museum is a rather new concept.  As modernity began changing lives, it also changed the value people gave to their old things, and much was discarded.
At ethnographic museums, those objects aren't the entire point.  They're important, but their effect is more so - like a theater set's is to a play.  We are supposed to enter living dioramas, where fires crackle, chickens cluck around the doorways and the smell of yeast hangs in the air.  It's a kind of theater in perpetuity.
Of course, the buildings themselves are as fascinating as anything inside them.  Collected from all over Sweden, they range from churches and chapels to government-built soldier's homes and windmills.  There are several complete farmsteads, a faux mine, a Sami camp, a schoolhouse, post office, countless barns and the tallest steeple in Sweden.  All of the buildings were carefully taken apart, moved and reassembled.  Walking around the seventy five acre collection is surreal, especially when one catches a glimpse of modern Stockholm in the distance.  The juxtaposition of old, new, rural and urban is a little comical.
The idea behind Skansen was actually Norwegian - King Oscar II had created a similar museum a decade before the Swedish one opened.  Industrialization was rapidly shifting the way people lived their lives, and things that had once been taken for granted were suddenly disappearing.  Artur Hazelius, a professor and folklorist, founded the museum after traveling in the Swedish countryside and noticing how much the peasant communities were changing.  Today, it's one of the most popular attractions in Stockholm, even among the Swedish.  We talked to one woman from the capital about it - "Everybody goes at least once a year," she said, only half joking.
Skansen's collection extends even to live animals.  Moose lumber around on spindly legs, brown bears sleep in furry piles, wolves hide in the trees.  The scandinavian wildlife collection is interesting but - as with all zoos - a little lifeless.  The owls are maybe the best feature.  One, the great grey owl, is housed in a walk-in aviary.  It's possible to get quite close to the huge thing, which is unnervingly still most of the time.
Less depressing are the domesticated livestock, who are much more content than the fat seals and pacing lynx.  Goats and cows dutifully graze and look placid.  Horses swish their tails and stare into the distance.  Peacocks preen and give grating cries.  Here, bloody fish wait to be thrown to a pair of otters.
Of course, Skansen isn't really magical.  Walk around and you'll run into tractors and golf-carts, women shoveling sawdust with earphones on, cotton candy and (even) the tinny music of amusement rides.  There are buckets of lollipops and bad coffee.  But the boat ride really does something for the visit.  Leaving the city pier and arriving at the island, then getting back on the boat as the sun gets low, the museum gets set apart from everyday life - cut off by gray water and some minutes of voiceless wind. By the time the division has been made - hotel room and tourist bars cut away from windmills and hair kerchiefs - Skansen is impossible not to find fun and interesting. These sort of things are inevitably hokey, but they're important too.
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