By discussing three recent displays of domestic interiors, this paper raises the question whether we are actually witnessing a revival of the period room, although with a different agenda than the traditional one. These examples do not primarily aim at illustrating period style, even if the furnishings as well as the architectural backdrops are still essential parts of the staging. Instead of the art historical discourse that was fundamental to earlier displays of period milieus, recent installations seem to focus on other aspects of full-scale historical representation.
The first example is an installation at Nordiska museet in Stockholm, an institution whose tradition of displaying historic environments goes back to Artur Hazelius’s early exhibitions in the 1870s. In 2013 the museum opened ‘Folkhemslägenheten’, a small apartment representing the housing program of the Swedish welfare state, thus connecting to a current discussion on modern heritage. The second example is Sven-Harry’s collection in central Stockholm, built in 2011. To house a collection of art and furniture, Sven-Harry Karlsson choose to include a full-scale replica of his former home in the new museum. The setting represents one of the most canonical epochs in Swedish art and architecture – the late 18th century. Despite this, the whole installation rests heavily on the narrative about Karlsson himself. The third example is an installation at The Victoria and Albert museum in London in 2013, designed by the artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. The fact that a full-scale domestic interior plays a key role makes it relevant to discuss the exhibit in this context. A synopsis for a film, set in the milieu, is a central part of the interaction with the audience.
Even if these new installations are housed within museums and rely on traditional displays of period rooms, they transcend the ordinary concept. Rather than isolated rooms they present coherent environments, which makes them related to house museums. Instead of illustrating an art historical canon, they highlight real or fictive human residents, and thus they depend on life stories and other narratives to communicate with the public. By being openly non-authentic replicas, at least regarding their physical frame, these installations avoid the critique that affected the period rooms in the course of the 20th century.
The Period Room: Museum, Material, Experience. University of Leeds & The Bowes Museum, 18-20 September 2014