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Intercultural dialogue at Jamtli museum

Posted on Dec 18, 2017 by in issue #08 |

By Henrik Zipsane

CEO of the Jamtli Foundation


/Case Analysis

Somebody should make the first move! Intercultural dialogue at Jamtli museum




When the concept of “folk museums” evolved in Northern Europe in the later decades of the 19th century – partly in opposition to government-established national museums and galleries – the basic method in these museums can roughly be described as collecting, documenting and exhibiting traces of the rural society which was disappearing. The collected traces could be small objects, they could be houses with all the belongings and could be immaterial traces such as local dialects and living myths and superstition. These traces were put on display and something almost magical happened in places such as open air museums. These folk museums claimed that here the visitor could see and learn about the roots of themselves, of the people – of all people who visited the museum. It was very successful! When we look back on those days now, it seems obvious that the success was about claiming common (national) roots for people of all classes. That way these museums contributed to nationalism and thereby also to avoid class struggle in times where moderate democratic socialism was not yet the domina­ting force among the popular opposition to the powerful elite (Bohman, 1998).

Some hundred years later the developments in our society has many similar characteristics and we may see some parallel dynamics and challenges. After a century of growing popular consumerism with material class travel and global interdependency one of the challenges is integration of immigrants in to local communities as well as European society in broader sense. Immigration has of course always existed and just a century ago mass immigration to North America was the chosen path for life for millions of people in Europe. The current situation with mass numbers of refugees and labour immigrants crossing the Mediterranean for entering the European continent is a challenge. The last decades’ growth of right-wing xenophobia and extreme Islamism is a result of lacking European and Western world popular competence and political will in dealing with this challenge. I foresee a high risk for the popular folk museums in being trapped here. If we continue as before without any changes, we will actually be contributing to stigmatising the new dialectical antagonism between what is currently labelled “the establishment and the silent majority”.


Jamtli museum

Jamtli Foundation runs a relatively large museum in Östersund, in the Middle of Sweden in the region of Jämtland-Härjedalen. The region is located some 600 kilometres north of Stockholm and the largest business areas are the huge woods and tourism. Our museum, established in 1912, is part of the tradition with popular story telling of the common past and therefore also production and reproduction of regional and national identity. In our preconditions we find that we are so far to the north that, even when the percentage of people with immigrant background from outside Europe is now 22 percent in Sweden as a whole, the percentage is only 12 in our region as the immigrants even more than the other people in the country prefer to live in the southern landscapes. At the same time we, in the middle of Sweden, have other characteristics which have traditionally stimulated xenophobia. Our region is the southern border land in Scandinavia, together with our Norwegian sister region Trøndelag, of the indigenous Sami people and confrontations between settlers and Sami people has already a long troublesome history. The demographic structure of our region even mirrors general lowest level of education in Sweden with a high degree of lonesome low educated men and a relatively high number of “imported” wives from Eastern Europe and the Far East.

The board and the management of Jamtli foundation has concluded that, if our museum is to reach the people who lives here, and if we have the ambition to contribute to cohesion of all, then we need to think carefully about what we represent and how we present it in our museum.


The decision to have people living at the museum site

In late September 2015, the board of Jamtli Foundation decided to look into the possibility of building houses at the museum site which could offer relatively cheap but good quality housing especially for families in need.

In September 2015 Sweden experienced a very high number of refugees coming to the country as did many other European countries. Sweden and Germany waited until late 2015 before making it harder to enter these countries. The high number of refugees made a high pressure on housing in the whole of Sweden and this time even in the northern landscapes. In late September 2015, the board of Jamtli Foundation decided to look into the possibility of building houses at the museum site which could offer relatively cheap but good quality housing especially for families in need. In December 2015 the board was able to give a go ahead for creating a small village inside the museum site consisting of 9 houses which are 54 square metres each and 8 houses which are 26 square metres each. We call it Jamtli New Village initiative. Three of the larger houses were ready and families moved in during June and families or others – for example students – moved to four of the smaller houses during July and August. All houses will be ready and the whole area including smaller gardens and outdoor facilities will be ready in January or February 2018.

We have collaborated closely with colleagues in Östersund Municipality and the municipal housing company. They have shown great understanding for our aim and we expect that about 60-70 percent of the tenants will have refugee background. As the situation is for the moment, we should expect that the tenants coming from outside Sweden will have their roots in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and a lower number from North African countries. When everything will be ready there may be some 50-60 people living inside the museum. We help people here and now with housing and the next step for us is to supply safe and positive experiences to the tenants at the museum. The third step will be to stimulate the tenants to put their mark at the museum.

Jamtli Foundation has along the way given three reasons for the initiative. First of all, we want to help young families in need for housing in our region and we have realised that we can do just that. Secondly, we want to become more multicultural in our museum with regards to collections, documentation, exhibitions and programmes and this way we get an opportunity. Thirdly, we think and hope that this initiative in the long run will help us become attractive to the all people in our region so that we do not become a museum for people with traditional Swedish cultural background (Zipsane, 2015). We don’t today know exactly what it means that the tenants should put their mark on Jamtli museum. It is easier to explain what it does not mean. It doesn’t mean that tenants can do whatever they want with collections, exhibitions or the museum facilities. It does not mean that the tenants are invited to be irresponsible – of course not!


We hope to create an “intercultural contract”

Jamtli Foundation wants to do this the best way possible for the tenants and for ourselves. That means that we need to meet some challenges beforehand. Among these challenges, the two most alarming ones for our museum is how the initiative will be received by our guests and by our staff. Jamtli New Village initiative can be perceived as a learning process. If we use the perspective of lifelong learning as a way to shape, stimulate and sustain citizenship, it provides a framework for the initiative. In the ongoing discussions about revision of the concept of Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, our colleagues in the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) have presented the framework of Key Competences the following way:

“The framework provides the opportunity to define the competences that people will need in order to manage their lives and the challenges of increasingly complex societies and work places. We believe that the framework should be built on principles that define the European approach to competences:

  1. following a humanistic approach;
  2. setting social inclusion and cohesion as a priority;
  3. enabling democratic societies;
  4. promoting sustainable lives and societies and
  5. endorsing open-minded communities” (EAEA, 2017).

Jamtli New Village initiative is expected to work in the spirit of this European approach to learning. In order to achieve that, the Foundation is imagining how we can best conceptualise the main new relations created by the initiative. Our ambition is to establish an intercultural contract between the tenants, the staff and our guests. By an “intercultural contract” we mean an agreement between the partners to follow a number of relatively simple principles for building and sustaining good and productive relations. The principles are as follows:

  • The staff grows as individuals, as a group and with the whole museum when we engage with our tenants.
  • The tenants grow as individuals and as a group when they engage with the museum.
  • The staff and the tenants grow together as they support each other in realising how collaboration between the two helps museum’s guests feel welcome and therefore contributing financially to further development for the benefit of all.

These principles may seem rather simple and self-evident but we have decided not to take their realisation for granted. First of all, these principles have been put forward by the management of the Foundation – not by any of the partners involved in the realisation of the principles. Therefore, the principles have to be seen as part of an image of the aim from the management perspective and during the process may be slightly altered or developed to get acceptance from the tenants, staff and visitors.

We have since winter 2015-2016 worked with preparations. First of all we have allocated resources for our volunteer staff manager to engage with the new tenants. Our volunteering manager usually works with coordinating and helping volunteers at our museum and we have, on the basis of advice from UK and Scandinavian colleagues, decided that our approach to the tenants will be the same as when we welcome volunteers. Our volunteering manager is part of the management group in Jamtli Foundation and knows quite well all parts of the museum’s work, and all the staff and current volunteers. This is expected to provide a background for introducing and advising the tenants in the museum. Our head of the department for technical and administrative affairs is responsible for all practical matters with the new houses and, together with the volunteering manager, they form the task force related to the New Village. This also means that they have the task of communicating with the municipality about who will be coming to live in the museum and all possible questions from our staff will be coordinated by them. They will report directly to the director of the Foundation and it is planned that the board will have quarterly reports during at least the first three years from the moment the first tenants move in. The work with the tenants and their activities will be monitored by ourselves for the reports mentioned but we also plan to buy some external support for this.

The staff at the Jamtli Foundation consists of about 120 permanent staff and some 200 extra staff during high season. We also have about 70 active volunteers who are mostly organised in two organisations of museum friends. If the group of people engaged with work and volunteering at Jamtli museum are representative of the population as such, we should expect that a little more than 100 people will be more or less inclined to be anything from afraid and reluctant to being critical and even xenophobic towards immigrants. That is about a quarter of the people involved in working and volunteering activities at the museum, and just a little more than the number of sympathisers the far right party the Swedish Democrats attracts in the polls month after month. If Jamtli Foundation is to make the New Village initiative a success, it is important to meet this critical atmosphere as it does not disappear by itself. As managing director I have to work with this without interfering with the right of my employees or anybody to have their views and political conviction. It is part of the precondition to understand that among our volunteers – who are predominantly retired older adults – we will most probably meet a reluctant or critical view. We know from daily work that is the case and that reflects many surveys and studies showing a greater opposition to change in groups of older people.

With this background, it has been important that the management team has been giving the same message to all staff and volunteers all along the way. We simply say that this is important for the museum to survive in a future with a greater proportion of the people in Europe and our region having diverse backgrounds. We need all people to feel at home in the museum if we shall survive financially. Secondly, we have been clear that we – all staff and volunteers as a group – are in the same boat and we do not know exactly what will happen along the way but we will secure support and training as we foresee the needs. So far this has been received in a positive atmosphere. The same message is given to our guests and our partners in private enterprises and public authorities and has been well received even there. We have seen many examples on partners being very interested in participating in the New Village initiative as the values manifested here are popular beyond what we could imagine.

We expect that there will be interesting positive, and probably also critical, experiences as we move forward.

Questions for further discussion

  • Jamtli Foundation is of course free to do what they want with the premises of the museum, but we still do not know how visitors will react. What do you foresee could happen?
  • By establishing Jamtli New Village the museum is very much acting as a social activist and takes a stance in debates of immigration. Taking the value of the museum brand – is it right for a museum to do that?
  • Why do you think social activism seems to be more common among museums in Northern Europe than in the South?
  • Why do you think open air museums with full scale three dimension environments with houses, gardens, fields and animals are so common in non-Roman Europe but almost not existing in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy?



BOHMAN, S. (1998) Skansen som nationell arena. In: Medelius, H.; Nyström, B.; Stavenow-Hidemark, E. (eds.). Nordiska museet under 125 år (pp. 365-373). Stockholm: Nordiska museet.

EAEA (2017) EAEA Proposal on Key Competences. Response to the European Commission’s consultation. Available online at:

ZIPSANE, H (2015) Investing in intercultural dialogue at Jamtli. ENCATCmag, 104, November 2015, 31-34.


Henrik Zipsane is CEO of the Jamtli Foundation – a heritage organization in central Sweden which runs one large and three smaller museums. He is also co-founder and senior researcher at The Nordic Centre of Heritage Learning & Creativity – a R&D organization for learning through heritage engagement. Henrik is also a guest professor in heritage learning and regional development at Linköping University and associate expert of Pascal Observatory and Glasgow University, as well as associate of European Expert Network on Culture and the European Museum Academy. He has been contracted as expert on culture and adult education by the European Commission and the Swedish Government. Henrik Zipsane has been board member of Culture Action Europe and the European Commission Dialogue Platform on Access to Culture. He holds a PhD degree in education and history from the School Education of Aarhus University. In recent years his research has primarily been centred on issues related to the use of heritage in regional development and lifelong learning.


Header image: Jamtli is open all year round. Autumn colours by the entrance by Bengt Weilert on Jamtli museum.