Shaping the Nordic Past

2021.03.30 | Mikael Frausing; Wulf Kansteiner

Upside down photo of a hand holding a glass ball. Through the glass ball, a green landscape and some houses are displayed, turned 180 degrees.

Picture: Maiken Ingvordsen, Unsplash.

Our ideas of a Nordic past – or the past in general - are shaped by many things. We come across historical stories on the news or in a museum, a book or a TV programme. In fact, we are showered in history every day in our homes, on the streets where we live, and through advertising and political messaging. Even our very identities are bound up with history, seeing as they are informed by our historical consciousness and our relationship to our own heritage - whether this is local, national or transnational.

But, with all these historical images being fired at us all the time, how do we make sense of them all? Do we ever stop to ask who is projecting them at us and for what purpose?

These sorts of questions led the team to explore the politics and practicalities of memory culture and the uses of history in two podcasts. We asked two academics from Aarhus University’s history department to help us, namely, Wulf Kansteiner, Professor of History and researcher in the field of memory studies, and Mikael Frausing PhD, also from the Danish Centre for Urban History, a researcher on country houses and tourism, as well as editor at They were recorded in December 2020

Warning: These podcasts may challenge your view of history as a whole! (You will not find historical accounts of the Kalmar Union or pillaging Vikings here!)

Shaping the Nordic Past I: Fact, Fiction or Simply Politics?

This podcast is about the politics and power relations of memory culture. In all the historical images being fired at us all the time, this podcast poses the question: Do we have a responsibility to look at historical narratives that challenge our assumptions, at alternative points of view?

Many people talk about how history is fact; it either did or did not occur. But, in reality it reflects very many different narratives and what is ‘fact’ rather depends on your perspective. Nordic institutions and companies, as well as the Nordic countries individually and together, shape the Nordic past by telling us about a particular historical version of themselves.

Our guests in this podcast offer a broad overview of how history is used by different types of people and institutions, giving many different examples from within Scandinavia, compared to those outside the region, including the challenges of transnational identity and historical power relations being expressed through our choice of words in political debates.


Shaping the Nordic Past II: History-makers or money-makers?

This podcast is about the practicalities of history-making and how commercial and non-commercial organisations use history to sell tickets or a particular version of the past.

History is often communicated to us through museums and commercial enterprises. People consider that preserving cultural heritage is a worthy aim and is educational. But many people prefer some narratives over others; they prefer to imagine themselves as the count or countness, rather than the servant or the stable boy. And how should professional communicators of history combine making money by attracting visitors and at the same time challenge their audiences?

Our guests in this podcast offer many different examples where these sorts of issues come up, including how some histories are preferred over others; elite lifestyles at country houses and how these were influenced by the Nordic social democrat thinking of the 20th century; the tradition for folk and outdoor museums in the Nordics; the thirst for historical knowledge that drives tourism and the experience economy; and the commercial importance of constructing a history for companies.


Things and people mentioned in the two podcasts:

Further reading:

  • Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).
  • Janne Holmen, ’Mapping Historical Consciousness: Mental Maps of Time and Space among Secondary School Students from Ten Locations around the Baltic ad Mediterranean Seas'. Journal of Autonomy and Security Studies 1, 1 (2017), pp. 46-75.
  • Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).
  • Wulf Kansteiner, 'Migration, Racism and Memory'. Memory Studies, 12,6 (2019), pp. 611-616 .