I was only in Umeå because that was where the bus ended up and it was where I could pick up the night train back to Stockholm. I’d spent the summer walking northern Sweden’s Kungsleden trail and now I was on my way home.
Not knowing what to expect (and wondering if I’d be disappointed like I was with my stay in Luleå two years previously), but not wanting to miss out I’d allowed for a full day to explore.
First stop was the Västerbottens Museum. Västerbotten is the name of the coastal province and is known as West Bothnia in English. The museum is the official regional museum and consists of an open-air museum set in a rather nice park as well as a modern looking building (it was actually built in 1943) housing lots of changing exhibitions as well as a permanent collection.
There are plenty of paintings of the Västerbottens area and of Umeå itself.
Umeå suffered a devastating fire in 1888 and 2,300 of the 3,000 inhabitants were made homeless. Donations to aid the victims came from as far afield as California and New Zealand. The city was rebuilt, but this time with wide avenues lined with birch trees designed as fire breaks. This gained Umeå the moniker of Björkarnas Stad or ‘City of Birches’.
These paintings show Umeå as it looked before the fire. They can be contrasted with the modern day Umeå as can be seen in these pictures I took later from the art gallery.
Spot the difference?
There was a whole room dedicated to the work of one particular artist, Eigil Schwab. At the end of the 1920s Schwab suggested to his publisher the idea of producing a deluxe series of books containing text and pictures documenting each of the Swedish provinces. The publisher agreed so Schwab and his wife Runa set off on a long drive round Sweden in their car.
From 1927 to 1936 they spent summers and autumns touring and painting. As Schwab did all his painting outside, the weather caused some problems. In Abisko, he needed to store the water for his paint in a thermos flask to stop it from freezing. To prevent his brush from freezing he kept it in his mouth. Their car wasn’t always the warmest and there were times when they drove wearing wolf skin coats and leather hoods in an attempt to stay warm.
They covered 210,000km over the years, often bumping along roads that were no more than muddy animal tracks and staying in poor quality hotel rooms.
Schwab produced the pictures and the publisher appointed people to write the accompanying texts. Some of these texts were written by Prince Wilhelm.
The first book came out in 1936 and was well received. By 1939, four books had been published, each of which covered four provinces. The outbreak of WWII halted production and the series ended even though there were still eight provinces to be covered. By the end of the war, photography was becoming cheaper and more popular and although many of the paintings were already finished, along with some of the texts, the series was never resumed.
As well as art from more recent times, the museum also displays art from much longer ago.
There is a whole section on the rock art found in Sápmi (the areas covering northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and parts of Russia that are recognised as the home of the indigenous Sámi people). As the actual art is still in situ, this exhibition was made up of large photographs and explanatory panels.
Most of the rock art found in Sápmi was created 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. The recurring motifs are elk, boats and people and thousands of these images have been found. I saw some of the original rock art two years ago in Narvik, but I’ve never seen any in Sweden. I wonder how much I walked close to on the Kungsleden, but just didn’t know it was there?
Many of the more recent Sámi symbols don’t look all that different to the ones their ancient ancestors used.
This drum, for example, was in use into the twentieth century. Drums were used by Sámi shamans (noaidis) to make contact with the supernatural world. The beat would help the noaidi enter a trance enabling him (it was usually a ‘him’) to release his soul to the spirit world.
Many drums were seized and destroyed by the Church of Sweden from the 1700s onwards as part of the church’s mission to Christianize the Sámi. Because of this, there are only a few still in existence.
Art wasn’t the only thing the locals got up to 6,000 years ago. They also did a bit of skiing.
Travel was much easier in the snowy winters than in the boggy summers. As long as you had a pair of skis that is. The same is still true today, which is why most supplies for the huts and materials for maintenance are brought into the wilderness areas by snow mobile in the winter rather than walked in during the summer months.
What is thought to be the oldest known elk hunting image shows the elk being hunted by people on skis. And in 1924 two skis and a pole were dug out of a bog in Västerbotten. They have been dated to 3,400 BCE.
Here’s a picture of the world’s oldest ski. It doesn’t look that different to a modern day one does it?
And here’s a close-up
And here’s a wall of slightly more modern skis just for comparison.
And whilst I’m on the theme of getting about in the snow, here’s a wall of snowshoes.
The museum also had exhibits on local characters such as this man. He’d spent his life chopping wood up into tiny pieces to be sold as kindling. His house was full of it. Just look at that picture of his kitchen!
I liked this model someone had made of his house. It’s displayed with some packets of his kindling.
I also liked these lampshades.
Yep, they’re made from bits of old bone. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to picking things up on my walks and have lots of old bones lying around in my yard or sitting on my bookshelves. Finally I’ve found a use for them. I can turn them into chandeliers!
Or even make a wall-hanging out of them.
There were several other sections to the museum, but the final one to really catch my interest was this display of Swedish houses through the ages.
As well as pictures and information there were also cross-sections of walls and doors and so on so you could see how the houses had been constructed.
Leaving the indoor museum I went for a look round the open air part of the museum. As summer was now officially over, the exhibits were closed up and the animals had been moved to their winter homes. I was still able to wander round the outsides of the buildings though.
The museum is next to a forested area with lots of walks mapped out. Some are just a few kilometres, others are around ten kilometres. I was sorely tempted, but as my knees were still recovering from my Kungsleden trek, I wasn’t wearing my walking boots and because I wanted to explore the rest of Umeå, I resisted and headed back into town.
Västerbottens Museum is free and has a shop, cafe and some rather lovely sitting areas as well as all the wonderful exhibitions. I highly recommend a visit if you ever find yourself in Umeå.
Do you think you would like to visit this museum? Or have you already been? Share your thoughts in the comments below.