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Umeå museum rewrites Swedish history

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The Women's History Museum is part of Umeå's new cultural centre (white building). Photo: Karl Jóhannesson/Flickr
03:54 CET+01:00
Sweden's first women's history museum opens in Umeå this weekend. Deviating from traditional history, it aims to raise questions about sex, power, and identity. But can the concept pull more female - and male - visitors to the region? The Local asked director Maria Perstedt.

How is the Women’s History Museum different from other museums?

The museum is unique because of the fact that we focus on more or less one topic, or one theme. It’s about gender, it’s about power, it’s about history, and it’s about identity – and we aim to discuss how these things are related to each other, both in the present and in the past. We aim to discuss the future by using history as a tool of analysis.

This is the first museum of its kind in Sweden – and first of its kind in the world – there’s no other museum that can compare to this. There are several museums like Museu Frida Kahlo in Mexico for instance, that discuss one person and their life. Then you have museums like Kvindemuseet in Aarhus in Denmark, also a women’s museum. But their perspectives are different from ours, we’re unique in the sense that we have a mission. 

Maria Perstedt
Maria Perstedt has worked nonstop for a year in preparing the opening of the museum. Photo: Private

So is this museum just for women?

It’s a museum for everyone. It has nothing do with your sex or gender. We’re for everyone, regardless of how you identify or express your sex. It’s not about “men” or “women” – you can’t divide a world into these categories, and you shouldn’t.

We want to create a museum that is relevant to all people and that means taking an interest in people’s needs and dreams – and developing a close dialogue with our audience.

What if I don’t take an interest in history. Is this museum still for me?

Oh, yes! We want to discuss the ideas and notions about history: What is it? Who writes it? Who produces it? Traditional history is not our point of departure, we want to discuss other ways of looking at the past.

Men constructed history and have selected which stories to elevate as historical events. War and politics make societies and change them, as well as philosophers, inventors, industrialists… all men. Women are barely visible, barely there in traditional history. There are many stories and surprising facts that you can expect when visiting the museum.

The museum is going to be filled with many, many voices and different ways of looking at the world and discussing our different scenes. We want to break the norm of what a museum is usually like.

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What are you doing to mark the museum's launch this weekend?

You can expect an entirely, brand-new museum that’s never been visited before. That's a very unique thing in itself. But what makes the museum special is the two extremely different exhibitions we’ll have.

One is constructed inside a 300 square metre black box, filled with sound and light. It’s a theatrical and scenographic environment that is breathtaking – I can promise you’ve never seen anything like it. You enter barefoot or in socks, you’re stripped off to surrender to the environment of sound. You’ll hear ideas about men and women and what constitutes us. You’ll leave, absolutely filled up with an emotional experience of history. It truly is indescribable – there’s no comparison anywhere.

The other exhibition is about women and ageing. It’s about the notion of women as they enter retirement, that phase of life when they’re still active but aging. It’s about notions of norms and stereotypes surrounding elderly women and controlling them: stating what they should do, how they should do it, who to see, what to wear… and the silence that surrounds women when they age. How many women can talk about their experiences of being almost silenced as people don’t listen to them anymore? It’s a huge democratic problem, we can’t have people living in our society who feel they aren’t being heard or seen. 

Mimmi Nilsson

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