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Heritage, Innovation and Troubled Landscapes

The Museum’s collections and research expertise imply that interdisciplinary questions of heritage, innovation and landscape in crisis are natural target areas.

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Photo: Museum of Cultural History, UiO / Inger Kristine Vasstveit

Objects defined as belonging to a cultural heritage are given new mythical and ideological values as museum pieces. They form part of a larger political and economic picture with a variety of perspectives and interpretations.

Museum objects generally represent collective narratives, but also bear witness to individual actions that have violated norms and created new values contrary to established traditions.

Innovation is one of the main causes of social change, through the development of new technology and new meeting points between different cultures and religions. Fundamental changes in climate and life circumstances generate a collective need to develop new social and technical strategies in a long-term perspective.

New global societies demand free access to refined, interdisciplinary knowledge and the Museum of Cultural History participates in international networks where digital methods adapted to new needs are developed. These new methods enable the development of databases with map-based interfaces and the availability of entire collections on the Internet; this must take place according to the ethical principles for knowledge generation of the humanities and social sciences.

Strategy 1, Meaningful Materialities: Forgotten, Treasured and Reinvented Objects and Places

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Reconstruction of Madonna from Hedalen. Photo: Museum of Cultural History, UiO / Eirik Irgens Johnsen.

Our world of objects and our material surroundings are a unique gateway to an understanding of economic, technological and political structures as well as social mechanisms and relationships, but also attitudes and emotionality. A central concept of this priority area is the creation of meaning. The meaning of objects and places is not given; they become meaningful through their involvement in cultural practices and contexts. Objects and places are given value by being bearers of collective stories, and as representatives of status and narratives. They can also act as tools for building and communicating knowledge and for handing down identity and collective ideals. Yet objects and places can also be seen as superfluous and worthless.

Both valuable and worthless objects are circulated and recirculated in time and space, and their meaning often changes in the process. The creation of value - or a lack of value - takes place through a variety of large and small practices, such as storytelling, rituals and inscriptions, but also the opposite, avoidance or simply discarding. Objects and places are not merely categorised and used (or left unused), they also contribute to the contexts they are made a part of, by virtue of their material and sensory qualities, and contribute through the narratives they become part of, and which have become part of them.

Approaches to materiality include:

  • Production and consumption
  • Technology and knowledge transfer
  • Ritual and religious practices
  • Political and economic ideologies
  • Materiality, sensuality, aesthetics
  • Museology, world heritage and cultural heritage

The Museum of Cultural History’s extensive archaeological and ethnographic collections and its role in administrating our cultural heritage are essential aspects of the work of the Museum staff. A significant part of the Museum’s source material is what we today would characterise as waste, having been discarded by past communities. But the Museum also maintains artistic or particularly significant artefacts that have had great value for the communities that produced them and for the people who used them. Many of these objects increase in value when later defined as part of a cultural heritage, and are given new mythical and ideological content as exhibits in a present-day context. As museum and heritage objects they today pose an increasing economic and political challenge. Databases with map-based interfaces combined with digital archives, 3D visualisations and photogrammetry enable a form of virtual repatriation but also create new challenges. Such challenges can be linked to the stories we tell with what we collect and exhibit, and to how we give meaning to our heritage in the context of a changing society, with increasingly close interaction between media and audience.

Internet-based exhibitions, catalogues and databases are important elements of restitution to source communities and represent new ways of sharing collections, including links to other museums. 3D scanning and photogrammetry can be linked to reciprocal knowledge generating processes in the relationship between researchers, visitors and the inhabitants of the place of origin of the artefacts, but also to new versions of the role of the copy in museology. Other challenges can involve post-colonial processes of mutual knowledge generation and the inclusion of local knowledge and local actors as part of the knowledge a museum should pursue (intangible heritage).

Digitisation and publication of objects as open data and in customised Internet portals raises new questions as to what can be displayed, and how, and the relevant ethical guidelines must be clarified and renewed in line with developments.

Strategy 2,  The Entrepeneur – Between Tradition and Structure

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Section of 3D-scan of one of the animal head posts from Oseberg. Photo: Museum og Cultural History, UiO / Bjarte Einar Aarseth. 

Can the actions of one individual lead to changes in society? Or are such changes primarily driven by deep-rooted social and cultural structures? The answer is not clear-cut, but may be sought in the dynamic and intricate relationship between individual and society. This fundamental issue in social and humanistic research requires constant re-evaluation. It is relevant in connection with processes and themes of present-day society: What happens when people migrate into new societies? What happens when different religions and worldviews meet? How can new technologies or new meeting points bring about widespread economic and social change? Individuals are often key players in such changes, challenging established patterns and seeing new opportunities.

Exploring this theme means challenging stereotyped perceptions of people. Such stereotypes pale in the face of reality. For example, it turns out that homo economicus who always seeks profit has not been unearthed in studies of actual societies and cultures. Individuals who perform economic actions must perceive them as meaningful, and people find meaning in culture, not in ahistorical utility maximisation. For this reason, knowledge of cultural norms and values, mentalities and ideologies, as well as objects and technologies, is needed in economic analysis. Equally far removed from real life is homo societatis, who complies entirely with cultural norms and values. Many do not wholly comply, sometimes in secret, but in all societies there are also those who openly dare to do the unthinkable. Some challenge authority, others violate the norms of economic behaviour and some defame their family’s honour and put their lives at stake for the sake of love.

Actions that violate norms and establish new values are among the main causes of societal change. Studies of change must therefore be based on a broader view of mankind than one which is limited to existing norms, values and behaviour patterns. It must also accommodate people who chose to act in innovative and unconventional ways and thus moved the boundaries of socially and culturally acceptable behaviour - we call them entrepreneurs. Ignoring entrepreneurs in analyses of societal change is, in the words of the American economist William J. Baumol, as if “the Prince of Denmark [had] been expunged from the discussion of Hamlet”.

Researchers at the Museum of Cultural History regularly encounter the seeds and consequences of societal change, and need to consider the relationship between entrepreneur, tradition and structure. The long-term perspective of historical subjects and the encounter of social anthropology with globalisation processes place the issue of social change processes directly within the researchers’ field of vision. The Museum’s empirical data, produced through extensive fieldwork and maintained in unique archives and collections of artefacts, is expanded daily by the inclusion of new finds and scientific analysis, 3D scans, etc. of the artefacts. The Museum is strengthening its efforts to structure this amount of data and make it available to researchers and the public through innovative and user-friendly online solutions. Structured and accessible high quality data gives research at the Museum a distinctive profile particularly suited to challenging existing insights and theories and developing new ones.

Strategy 3, Landscapes – Rapid Changes. Habitation and Environments

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Stone Age site by Kolsfettangen, Hol, Buskerud. Photo: Museum of Cultural History, UiO / Elizabeth Skjelsvik

Our world experiences major changes in climate and landscape; this continuous process is now more dramatic than at any time since the Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. Archaeology and anthropological approaches to archaeology can together provide insight into short- and long-term consequences of climate change.

A long-term perspective can enable us to track how rapid ice melting and a swift rise in land levels in the Stone Age coastlines stimulated cultural creativity. Dramatic flood and avalanche situations may require reorganisation and adaptation. The settlement and climate crisis in the 6th century also necessitated change, and may have laid the foundation for the settlement structure in Scandinavia until the 19th century. From an archaeological perspective, it is interesting to trace the intentional and non-intentional consequences of major changes, such as the rise of agriculture and extensive land clearing.

The “deterministic” ecology and geohistory of the 1970s, where man was perceived as a passive mirror, “trapped” by the world around, have been replaced with perspectives of an actor in time and space performing actions to affect the environment; such perspectives also include dynamic, heterogeneous interaction between people, landscapes, animals and other non-human creatures.

Climate change today demands new knowledge about humanity in crisis situations. Both anthropological and archaeological knowledge can provide insight into how people cope with crises. The Museum of Cultural History already possesses extensive data that can be used to research known change processes, while new material collected from excavations and anthropological studies continually raises new questions. Such material can illuminate crises and cultural changes of direction but also stability and enduring patterns. Archaeological studies can provide insights into the social and technical strategies previously used in the face of fundamental changes in climate and life circumstances, and whether these can be considered successful in a long-term perspective.

Anthropologists at the Museum have considerable expertise in the interaction between people and their environment and the complex relational networks involved. How people understand nature and what makes it a constant or changing entity are key elements in anthropological research. Equally important are changes in the resource base and their consequences for economic, political, social and cultural relations.

In times of crisis, interdisciplinary approaches to adaptations to nature are of particular importance. Archaeology and anthropology complement each other as studies of the past and present. Meanwhile, natural science methodologies enhance our understanding of the evolution of vegetation and fauna, and can shed light on how the environment has been changed and shaped by human activity in the past.

From an archaeological point of view, knowledge originating from artefacts can be supplemented by visualisation tools such as GIS, photogrammetry and LiDAR. The Museum’s development of map-based interfaces will transform databases into virtual arenas showing landscape changes and how they have arisen and arise. Similarly, the digital field museum will be a forum where the collections will be available for research and dissemination in the field, and where field-based knowledge generation enters the museum directly, with feedback from research on related artefacts.

For anthropologists, digital tools are both a research focus and a tool for knowledge exchange. GIS comes at the end of a long series of mapping practices that have had major political and ecological consequences throughout history, and is today of great significance in modern management of nature and landscape. The database of ethnographic objects, like the archaeological databases, is a source of comparative studies of adaptations to nature in both time and space. Digital tools are used to exchange information between museums and with source communities.

Published Feb. 18, 2015 1:16 PM - Last modified Feb. 9, 2021 10:01 AM