Spotlighting libations

Stockholm’s Spritmuseum was a major inspiration for me from the first time I visited in 2013; among other things, the artifacts and ideas there greatly informed my 2014 TEDx Talk. I was eager to know more about the institution’s history and mission, and was thrilled when curator Eva Lenneman invited me there for lunch this fall. Though we both passed on afternoon martinis, the museum restaurant’s rhubarb shrub was the perfect accompaniment to a stimulating conversation.

SpritMuseum - 6
Lenneman with some of her artifacts

Founded in 1967 to exhibit artifacts for the government-run alcohol monopoly Vin & Sprit (V&S), the museum gradually expanded through the 70’s and 80’s in the company’s Stockholm warehouse. Lenneman was a freshly minted art history graduate in 1989, looking for museum work, and her thesis on European temperance movement propaganda helped land her a curator position. V&S Group lost its monopoly status five years later when Sweden joined the European Union, but the company and its museum remained prominent for nearly two decades, thanks in large part to distribution rights for Absolut Vodka and the brand’s extensive art collection.

Big changes came in 2008, when French spirits company Pernod-Ricard acquired the V&S portfolio from the Swedish government. The art and artifacts collection became an independent operation under former auctioneer Ingrid Leffler, and reopened as Sweden’s Spritmuseum in a pair of former naval sheds on Djurgården in 2012.

Leffler and Lenneman led the museum through a thorough conceptual renovation, shifting its focus from archival artifacts to the human experience of drinking. As an art historian, and by then a 20-year veteran curator, Lenneman admits to wondering where are all the objects? when the museum first reopened with less than 10% of its collection on display. But she soon warmed to exploring how alcohol influences various aspects of identity, including its intersections with gender, location, and nationality. Elements of the core exhibit now access a range of sensory experiences, including light, sound, and smell. On the upper floor, one entire room uses fluid illumination, audio distortion, and a ceiling-mounted film sequence to simulate alcohol intoxication; a room next door recreating hangover is just as effective, if less appealing.

In my experience, the Spritmuseum’s approach feels unique: neither marketing alcohol nor vilifying it, the featured objects provoke deep reflection alongside historical and experiential data. I’m curious to see how comparable endeavors in the States—like the National Archive’s new Spirited Republic exhibit—may manifest similar ideas back home.

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