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Swedish History Exhibits Attract Throngs

As the nation goes through an unsettling period of flux, people look to the past for understanding

INGE KINTBERG is a dancer by training, but on weekends for the past few months, she has donned 16th-century dress to help guide her countrymen through the flagship exhibit of Sweden's largest-ever historical project.

In Ms. Kintberg's eyes, she's doing her small part to help a disoriented people find their way - not just through a museum exhibit but also, in a larger sense, through the particularly difficult period Sweden is crossing in the 1990s.

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"When you're feeling lost and you don't know where to go, it helps to look backward to see how you got where you are," she says, giving her explanation for the extraordinary success of "Quest for a Swedish History," a huge two-museum exhibit that opened here in March. "Maybe this kind of reflection can help Sweden decide where it wants to go in the future."

It's fair to say that the last few years have thrown Sweden for a loop. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet military threat have rendered the country's nearly 200-year-old neutrality almost meaningless. At the same time, economic troubles at home and international economic developments - as well as deepening public dissatisfaction - have placed a question mark over a social-welfare system that has come to define this Scandinavian country.

"People coming here talk about the end of the road for the Swedish model," says Kintberg, smoothing the pleats in her Renaissance gown. "I think knowing we're heading for something new has encouraged this interest in history."

That interest was evident on a recent Sunday afternoon, when hundreds of Swedes - from seniors to young families with baby carriages to inquisitive teenagers - made their way through Stockholm's Nordic Museum. Here, 500 years of history are depicted, including peasant-life hardship, bloody hegemonic battles, royal splendor, industrial development, and the shame of the nation's "neutrality" during the Nazi era.

From casual conversations with some of the visitors, it was clear that a certain unease about the future is part of the motivation for Sweden's blooming interest in the past.

"I think people with a lot of questions about how things are changing around them take an interest in their roots," says Catarina Johansson, a nurse from Mariestad in southern Sweden.

"We came 300 kilometers [178 miles] to see this," she adds, referring to her husband and another couple. "That's an indication of something new going on in Sweden."

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Should Swedes "lose some of our independence" and join the European Community? Why has terrible violence broken out in the former Yugoslavia, a fellow European state? How should Sweden respond to the challenges to its post-war prosperity? "These are the questions everyone is asking," Mrs. Johansson says.

"I'm a fan of [historian] Barbara Tuchman," Gerard Rikken, a Stockholm postal worker, says, "and one thing I learned from her writing is that to be able to go forward, you have to know who you are and how things became the way they are."

In effect, "Quest for a Swedish History" is a national history class set to run through the year. The centerpieces of the project are the Stockholm museum exhibits, which start at the Museum of National Antiquities, covering the period from about AD 400 to 1520, and continue at the Nordic Museum up through the present. The two museums are only walking distance apart in the city's center, helping to give continuity to the exhibits.

The project also involves about 30 other museums around Sweden, presenting local or specific exhibits, plus occasional seminars, discussion groups, and television programming.

In a country known for a groundbreaking interest in promoting life-long education, the idea of helping a groping population find its way may seem to go with the territory.

Yet as Swedish as such a national teach-in may sound, it appears to have been serendipity that the history project opened just as the country confronted the full impact of what is referred to by Swedes simply as "the crisis."

"[The project] really began taking shape in the late '80s, when some people in the government thought Sweden needed a proper historical museum," says Hakan Stromberg, a historian and one of the exhibit's organizers.

"These two museums [in Stockholm] suddenly pictured their importance and budgets going down, so they decided to show the country they could do a big national exhibit. It's their luck," Mr. Stromberg adds, "that it opened at such a good time."

Yet it was also clear that many of the Swedes touring the exhibit have an interest in history that transcends a preoccupation with Sweden and its internal "crisis."

Many visitors seemed surprised at the reminder of what an imperialistic power Sweden had once been, controlling much of Scandinavia. Before 1814 the country seemed to be almost constantly at war.

On the tip of many visitors' tongues was concern about war in Europe and one question: how to preserve peace on a continent that through history may have seen more war and bloodshed than any other.

"When I saw all the wars Sweden fought, it made me feel depressed, and I know that [feeling] is related to what is happening today in Yugoslavia," Johansson says. "I'm not sure we can claim to have made much progress."

Christofer Lundblad, an electrician visiting the exhibit with his wife and three children, says "seeing all the horrible wars" had the deepest effect on him.

"You know you don't want it to be like that again," he says, "and you think we have probably done too little for places like Russia, to make sure the things that cause war don't happen there."

What also came through, however, is that many Swedes, critical of what neutrality meant in the past, no longer see it as a viable option.

"We weren't really neutral in World War II," says Anna Karin Christensen, a college student at the exhibit with two friends.

"It was terrible to see how we let the Germans pass through, and even supplied them, so they could go on to kill Norwegians," she says.

The "Quest for a Swedish History" exhibit has its critics: primarily those who say its message is too nationalist and that a focus on the Swedish royalty glorifies the upper classes in a way that is contrary to modern Sweden's egalitarian society.

"What comes through very strongly is a desire to orient people toward a feeling of progress, but it's a progress based on the nation, the king, a certain elite," says Goram Ryden, an economic historian at the University of Upsala.

But even some viewers who agreed with that criticism say the focus on "nation" ultimately left them looking elsewhere for a future solution.

"It is a nationalist exhibit, but the [irony] is that it ends up having quite a different effect," says Dag Boman, an economic development adviser with the Stockholm County Council.

"When you see all the wars, the impact is to turn you toward a closer cooperation in Europe based on people or regions, but not so strongly on the nation. After looking at that past," he adds, "you know you want something else for the future."

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