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Arland O. Fiske: Skansen – Sweden in miniature

If you could visit just one place in Sweden, where would you go? I’d suggest Skansen, an open-air museum that covers 75 acres.

Two million people a year visit Stockholm’s greatest tourist attraction, twice as many people as live in Sweden’s capital city.

Back in 1891 when Skansen was founded, it was on the outskirts of the city, but today it’s a green and car-free oasis in the middle of the city. You get a magnificent view on all sides. Copper roofs, church steeples, Sergels Tower and modern skyscraper, plus the hills and canals mark the skyline.

Skansen has a little bit of every part of Sweden. It is arranged with a feeling for geography. For example, the Sami village is placed in the northwest. The far northern part is ringed with natural habitat for the larger wild animals. Moose, bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and even European Bison, now extinct except in captivity, live peacefully in the heart of this beautiful metropolitan area. Most of the animals are native to Sweden, but since this is Stockholm’s only zoo, there are some tropical exhibits.

Skansen was the dream of Arthur Hazelius who began collecting Swedish cultural exhibits in 1872. A practical man with an eye for education, he wanted to preserve some of the everyday life from Sweden’s past. He seemed to sense that the 20th century would bring sweeping changes to his country.

With meticulous effort, Hazelius brought buildings and furnishings to Stockholm. His work has served as a model for other open-air museums throughout the world. Of special interest are the farmsteads transplanted into Skansen. In the earlier days when people could not drive to town for all their needs, the blacksmithing, baking, cloth making and sewing had to be done on the farm. It took many buildings. The farm owners lived in the main house and the workers in others, called “out houses.” Cattle were housed in buildings that joined the living quarters of people.

Of special interest is the summer farmstead, the “faabod” or “seter” in Norwegian. These were usually found in northern Sweden and were places where cattle, goats and sheep were kept in the summer. Sometimes there was a nearby summer farm and was up to 50 miles away from home. Usually these summer farms were jointly owned by eight to ten owners with about 25 cows. Older women with the help of children tended them for about nine weeks in the summer. They also put up hay, and made cheese and butter.

I found one building in Skansen that was imported. It was a “stabbur” from Telemark in Norway. The Swedes also used these houses to store dairy products and food. There is also a “Dala Hest” (a figure of a horse carved from wood in Dalarna) about five feet high with steps for people to climb up and have their picture taken. To have your picture taken on it is the equivalent of being photographed on a camel near the pyramids at Giza by Cairo, Egypt. The largest Dala Hest in North America is in the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot, North Dakota. It stands 30 feet tall.

Skansen is both an historical museum and a recreational center. There are restaurants, theaters, art exhibits and concerts. Skansen is ten times as large as it was in 1891. The exhibits and animal habitats are constantly being improved. My wife, Gerda, and I spent several hours walking through it with a guidebook. If you go to Stockholm, insist on visiting Skansen. It’s Sweden in miniature.

Next week: Knut Haukelid, resistance hero

— Arland Fiske, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.