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19.11.11 Liepe, A Case for the Middle Ages

19.11.11 Liepe, A Case for the Middle Ages

In A Case for the Middle Ages: The Public Display of Medieval Church Art in Sweden 1847-1943, Lena Liepe, Professor of Art History at Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden, presents a fascinating glimpse into the history of collecting and displaying medieval Swedish art. Using the collection of medieval artworks today in the Museum of National Antiquities (Historiska museet) as her main point of inquiry, the book is "an account of how medieval church art was presented in public settings in Sweden from 1847, when the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm opened to the public, to 1943, when the last major reshaping of the display of the museum's church collection was realized in connection with the move to its present premises" (13). Liepe, however, eschews writing a straightforward biography of a single institution. Instead, she unpacks the logic or rationale--what she calls the "guiding principles" (14) and "paradigms behind the displays" (18) used by antiquarians, curators, and art historians--to determine how and why medieval art was displayed in the manner it was across Sweden over the course of a century. A Case for the Middle Ages thus strives to be both a work of museology and intellectual history, and succeeds overall on both counts.

The book is divided into a thorough introduction (11-23), seven chapters, and a bibliography. Chapter 1 (25-42) details the beginnings of the medieval collection in the Museum of National Antiquities at its first home of Ridderstolpe Palace in Stockholm between 1847 and 1864. Liepe orients much of the chapter on the work of antiquarian Bror Emil Hildebrand, the museum's founder. She focuses on Hildebrand's attempts to grow and organize the fledgling collection into a manner suitable for his ultimate goal of public edification, as well as on his correspondence with the Danish museum director Christian Jürgen Thomsen, who had introduced a then-novel method of displaying prehistoric artifacts in an evolutionary-like tripartite chronological schema. Hildebrand took to Thomsen's idea because, in contrast to previous haphazard methods of display, he wanted to order museum exhibits "according to new, scientifically based ideas [on] the evolution of culture and civilization in general..." (37).

In chapter 2 (43-77), Liepe examines the history of the medieval collection and its modes of display in its second home: two rooms on the ground floor of the National Museum (today the National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm). The collection expanded greatly under the leadership of the museum's second director, the archaeologist Hans Hildebrand (son of Bror Emil). As Liepe demonstrates, new acquisitions, limitations of space, and questions about how to present the collection to an ever-growing public audience presented strong theoretical and practical challenges. Liepe focuses in particular on Hildebrand's dilemma regarding whether to display the collection chronologically or typologically, and the tensions between organizing the works in ways that satisfied both scholarly and lay audiences.

Chapter 3 (79-128) turns towards a series of regional exhibitions of church art held across Sweden during the early twentieth century. The exhibition of "older church art" held in the town of Strängnäs in 1910, and curated by the art historians Johnny Roosval and Sigurd Curman, initiated a wave of similar exhibitions held in small towns throughout the 1910s and 1920s. Liepe examines the Strängnäs exhibition within the general problem of how the curators sought to present medieval objects not as historical artifacts, as the Hildebrands had done, but as artworks in their own right. Fundamental to this problem was whether to display objects in scenographic or reconstructed environments. Liepe contextualizes these issues in relation to earlier and contemporary national and international museum practices.

In chapter 4 (129-148), Liepe returns to Stockholm and examines the changes in the organization and installation of the medieval collection in the Museum of National Antiquities during the 1910s and 1920s. A new installation of the medieval collection opened to the public in 1916. But debates about its proper setting, the tension between atmospheric and authentic modes of display, similar to the issues explored in the preceding chapter, would vex museum curators for the duration of the collection's stay in the National Museum.

Chapters 5 (149-170) and 6 (171-200) explore the ideas behind the installations and displays of medieval art in provincial museums during the first decades of the twentieth century. The former chapter focuses on the University Historical Museum and the Cathedral Museum in Lund. The latter chapter examines the Småland Hall of Antiquity in Växjö. While each museum faced the same problems regarding modes of display to those encountered at the National Museum in the capital and the regional exhibitions, Liepe uses these two chapters to highlight how provincial institutions sought to present their medieval collections as instances of local and cultural history rather than as part of a romantic nationalist project, which, she argues, was never as strong an impulse in Sweden as it was in other European countries.

Chapter 7 (201-237) concludes the book and returns to Stockholm and the installation of the medieval collection in its new and permanent home: the Museum of National Antiquities. Construction of the museum began in 1936 and was completed by 1939, but due to the Second World War the installation of the collection did not occur until 1943. Under the direction of Sigurd Curman, the medieval objects selected for public display were chosen for their aesthetic qualities and public engagement; the same rational Curman used for the Strängnäs exhibition thirty years earlier. Liepe contends that Curman's selections were rooted in his view that the museum should serve as a popular education institution, one unburdened by stagey flourishes.

While each chapter is quite self-contained, the connecting themes of display and its experienced context flow throughout the book. Liepe engages with these two themes in relation to the broader idea of the museum as a place of public knowledge. She balances her examination of the intellectual concerns of figures like the Hildebrands with rich details culled from plans, correspondence, and gallery guides about the practical implementation of display, such as decoration, lighting, heating, admission charges, and opening hours. She uses this material to open chapters two through five with hypothetical reconstructions of what a contemporary visitor might have seen when visiting the exhibition under discussion.

Liepe presents her arguments with rigor and nuance. Her prose is well-written and refreshingly direct. The book is also abundantly illustrated with black and white photographs showing many of the exhibitions described in the text. Some minor changes might have helped better clarify some points for the reader. For example, a map marking the many locations mentioned, both in Stockholm and throughout Sweden, would have situated an unfamiliar reader with the places Liepe describes. Similarly, a timeline outlining the major dates of exhibitions, openings, and the transfer of the collection from one site to the next might have provided a useful reference point, for the precise chronology of events is occasionally hard to decipher from the text itself. And the reconstructions that begin chapters two through five, while generally convincing, could have been more clearly demarcated. But these are very small criticisms of an excellent study.

A Case for the Middle Ages is very welcome contribution to medieval studies, and should be of particular interest to scholars working on the history of collecting as well as in museum studies. Its central premise and approach is a fruitful one, and its arguments are supported by plentiful historical evidence. But perhaps its greatest feature is how it brings much-needed attention to the work that was being undertaken in Scandinavia to grapple with its medieval past and artistic heritage. By doing so, A Case for the Middle Ages makes a valuable addition not only to our understanding of the post-medieval history of medieval art in Sweden, but also brings a new perspective to how European and North American museums contributed to the making of the Middle Ages.