Comment on the social history of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm

Magnus Fiskesjö's picture

I thank Uta Lauer for the obituary yesterday, for Jan Wirgin (1932-2020) (

Having once succeeded JW on his post, I regret not being able to travel to the funeral. During my time, I had some contact with the retired JW, and he and I both attended the funeral of his predecessor, Bo Gyllensvärd (for whom I also wrote an obituary).

Here, out of respect, separate from the thread of the obituary, I'd like to make a comment, again with all due respect, to correct an error in the description of the history of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities -- I think the point is of considerable scholarly interest: The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm was not established in 1963, it was founded in Stockholm in 1926, after a decision of Sweden's Parliament, and with the archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson as founding director, under this name, MFEA. Its public exhibits opened in Stockholm in 1929, which was also the year when the Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, its still-running annual scientific journal (which I too edited for a time), was launched by Andersson.

What happened in 1963 was that the museum reopened in a new location, and the collections of Asian sculptures and scrolls of the Nationalmuseum, the national art gallery, were added to it. In addition, the formal Swedish name of the MFEA was altered from Östasiatiska samlingarna, to Östasiatiska museet.

The "1963" error regarding the museum's history has been frequently repeated. In my own analysis, this is for "sociological" reasons related to the social life of the museum, which was originally envisioned as an East Asian archaeological research centre (based in the pioneer discovery of China's prehistory that had resulted in large archaeological collections which Andersson received Chinese permission to take to Stockholm, in order to found the museum). Yet it was later transformed into the fine-arts mode of Asia-related museums much more commonly seen in Europe and the West: Wealthy art collectors buying things from looters and dealers, then donating them to the museum as prestige objects, isolated from their context of discovery, and use.

This process of capture and transformation started early, obviously fueled by the economics involved, but after Andersson died in 1960, the post-1963 museum became officially anchored in the fine-arts concept, and values, instead of the original vision and its associated methodology of persistent contextualization and openness to scientific replicability and access.

We see unmistakeable signs of this shift in how the later directors (not least JW, may he rest in peace), persistently spoke of Andersson as "the geologist" (which was meant as a reference to his original, "dirty" profession); generally shunned the museum's prehistory beginnings, or treated them as art history only; focused on the later-period fine arts; -- and, notably began to claim that the museum started in 1963.  

I have written about the history of the MFEA and its collections on numerous occasions, but, on this aspect of the sociological-anthropological analysis of what was effectively a shift in the leading values of the museum, see my chapter:
"Art and Science as competing values in the formation of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities." In Guolong Lai and Jason Steuber, eds. Collectors, Collections, and Collecting the Arts of China: Histories and Challenges. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014, pp. 67-98. ISBN: 9780813049144.
(I too touch on the Crown Prince, as a most curious and interesting figure who actually in his person embodied both competing modes of the museum: the fine arts collector, and the modern field archaeologist which he also really was — despite a certain amount of ridicule from various local mandarins.)

Some other time I'll write about the museum's later history, including its World-Culture phase, and what it was like to arrive as the new director in 2000, at a museum where, for example, the collections registry had come to an end in 1959 ... and only existed as one large multi-volume set of dusty volumes covering acquisitions from the 1920s to 1959 (we later digitized the entire set ...).

Magnus Fiskesjö (MFEA director 2000-2005)