The only thing I knew about Swedish culture when arriving in Malmö was the concept of the smorgasbord: that lavish feast of all manner of food conceivable and available from the savoury to the very, very sweet. We gained access to a version of it every morning at the breakfast buffet included in our hotel stay. What made it remarkable and difficult to navigate at the same time was neither its size nor its richness (and it was both big and rich) but its presentation. The deli meats sat beside the cheese, butter, and jam, removed from the bread and below the orange salad. The cereal, yogurt, and sour milk came in a trio, but you had to look toward the coffee machines if you wanted any milk. Breakfast danish were by the toaster, but little pre-made cups of pancake batter were carefully placed by the waffle irons just opposite the Nespresso machine across the room. It’s not that there was no logic to this display. It’s that it had a logic entirely its own.
We noticed it again at the grand Malmohüs – a historical fortress now home to a tropicarium (think aquarium, but with tropical fish and animals), museum of natural history, royal apartments, portrait gallery, and costume and design gallery, while retaining its canon-observation rooms and original jail cell replicas. Everywhere you turned, this particular method of presentation followed you: mink fur adjacent to a taxidermy mink in a glass case filled mostly with birds of every size and shape. Spiders and scorpions in mini ecosystems between frogs and lizards. Dresses spanning decades hanging from the ceiling with armchairs and seats running the gamut of Swedish interior design sitting on the ground below them. And the next room over? Tablecloths, runners, and banners.
It’s a legitimate style of display – conceptual exhibition – used throughout the world and in a variety of places, from fine art museums to zoos. Objects, animals, or artwork are ordered by imagining the larger picture to which they belong, rather than by category. So that, as we would later see at the Technology and Maritime museum across the street, a display about social housing units built in the 1960s and 70s would feature in equal measure apartment layout, furnishings and household effects, shoe and costume artifacts, and neighbourhood animals (mostly birds and mice).
Conceptual exhibition is used in Italy, too, of course. It’s just that the concept doesn’t often stretch as far here as it might in other places in the world. You might find an exhibition on the art of three painters from the same time and place to illustrate the zeitgeit informing their works. Or you might have a room of rare books or manuscripts from the 13th to 16th centuries incorporated into a larger display on Renaissance art. But by and large, things in Italy are categorical. It is a country, after all, where certain things should or absolutely should not be eaten – or even seen – together; where there is a precise order to meals; where even accessorizing comes down to a science of day jewels versus night jewels.
It was a refreshing switch from the quotidian. In Copenhagen, later on our trip, we enjoyed the same smorgasbord of visual information in the royal apartments of Amalienborg – where regal studios showed heap on heap of photos, books, and royal memorabilia that almost certainly would not have been ordered as such when in use, but was most likely all in use contemporaneously. And more of the same at the zoo, where giraffes, zebras, rhinoceroses and small birds all ran freely together in one large enclosure resembling their natural habitat.
Getting back to the smorgasbord itself as an organizational concept helps illustrate the absence of this kind of contextual exhibition in Italy. Here, the very concept of a buffet is limited and rather new: apericena has become a popular pre-dinner activity only in the last 5-10 years. Both systems have their merits. Thinking categorically encourages externally harmonious curations. Thinking contextually opens the mind to possibilities beyond the obvious. In Scandinavia, we were treated to both, in different moments, and enjoyed every second of it!