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The return of the Smeerenburg collection to Svalbard museum

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of the Environment

Speech in connection with the return of the Smeerenburg collection to Svalbard museum, November 29th 2005, by Henriette Westrin.

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Your Excellency, Governor, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am very pleased to be here on behalf of the minister of the environment. This is a very special and happy occasion and being at Svalbard is always something special, as Svalbard is a fascinating mixture of paradoxes: Continual light and continual darkness; tiny colourful flowers on harsh stone tundra; one of the furthest outposts of Europe, and yet a centre for education and research.

Svalbard draws people. They come in steadily increasing numbers to experience something unique – barren wilderness with swarming birdlife, white ice and midnight sun, northern lights and silence. Not least among the attractions is the evidence of previous visits and activities – the international cultural heritage of Svalbard.

Recognising the need both to inform about and protect the fascinating, yet vulnerable, nature and cultural heritage of the archipelago, the Norwegian authorities decided to establish a centre for information in Longyearbyen; a natural doorway to the wonders of the archipelago and at the same time a stimulation to participate in the protection of the unique high arctic environment in all its facets. It was hoped that by learning about the fragile nature of the Svalbard environment and its often indistinct and modest historical remains, all the various types of visitors to the archipelago would be encouraged to understand the conservation principles.

This idea was first committed to paper as a project report in 1992-93 and defined under the name Svalbardporten, “The Gateway to Svalbard”, at the end of 1993. Just over a year later a Government White Paper on environmental protection in Svalbard confirmed the need for such a centre.

In 1988 a technical conservator position for Svalbard objects was established. At first it was placed at the Museum of Science (Vitenskapsmuset) in Trondheim. Later it was moved to Tromsø Museum. In December 1996 the Ministry of the Environment asked the Directorate for Cultural Heritage to produce a note about the establishment of a depot in Longyearbyen for cultural heritage artefacts. The need to store and conserve Svalbard’s own artefacts in Svalbard instead of allowing them to be spread both within Norway and abroad had become an acute challenge.

It is not necessary for me to go into all the details which finally led to today’s momentous occasion for cultural heritage management in Svalbard. Suffice it to say that you can see for yourselves how the visions for nature and cultural heritage information, together with the need for an adequate and secure storage facility for cultural heritage artefacts are being combined in this one new building in Longyearbyen with an ultra-modern research park and, not least, a new Svalbard Museum, to create a unique coexistence. With the opening of this storage facility, together with its own conservation laboratories, we are now able not only to take good care of the shared cultural heritage of Svalbard, but also to present it to scientists for research under optimum conditions, and to exhibit suitable parts of the material in close cooperation with the adjacent Svalbard Museum – which we will be visiting shortly.

One of the most thorough and successful archaeological projects to be carried out in Svalbard was the Smeerenburg project led by professor Hacquebord. He will be telling us more about this in a moment. I shall just say briefly that the project uncovered both a new factual and detailed history of the mythical “Blubber Town”, and also a wealth of finds that include some of the amazingly well-preserved objects we can see here today. The project was allowed to export the collection to the Netherlands, where exemplary conservation, analysis and publication work was done. The results have been a new understanding of Svalbard’s whaling history, and a wonderful collection of objects, many of which have been exhibited already both in the Netherlands and in Norway.

Some authors and relaters of Svalbard’s history have, however, not been entirely satisfied with the results of the Smeerenburg project. How relatively low-key it is to speak of a couple of hundred hard-working sailors and whalers on Smeerenburg during the short summer months, when we earlier could hear of thousands of people and a noisy, bustling town life! I am almost ashamed to say that it appears to be our most-famous hero Fridtjof Nansen who deserves much of the blame. A Dutch description of the abandoned remains of Smeerenburg in 1727 mentioned that it looked like half of a small town, with huts and stores where men sold alcohol and tobacco, etc, and where fresh bread and rolls were baked every morning. An English description in 1906 could relate that sailors’ tales spoke of 10-20,000 persons at Smeerenburg, while the author himself could not imagine more than 1000-1200 in a good season. When Nansen visited the site in 1920, he (literally) really went to town with his description of “a complete town with stalls and streets, 10,000 people during the summer with the noise of various stalls and train-oil boilers and gambling dens, of smithies and workshops, of dubious shops and dancing joints. Along this flat beach there were crowds of boats with sailors who arrived from the exciting whaling chase, and of women in gay colours who were out to catch men”.

Fortunately, or unfortunately for the story-tellers, the Smeerenburg project was not able to confirm this fantastic description, although the modest seeds of some of the details were uncovered. What they found and how that changed the history, I am sure that professor Hacquebord will tell us more about in a moment.

With the establishment of the storage facility well on the way, an agreement for the divided ownership of the Smeerenburg Collection and the return of a large part of this collection to Longyearbyen, was signed in 2002 between Director General Nils Marstein at the Directorate for Cultural Heritage, Professor Louwrens Hacquebord of the Arctisch Centrum at the University of Groningen, and Professor Peter Sigmond of the Rijksmuseum. We acknowledge with appreciation that a far larger part of the collection is being returned than what was originally intended in the agreement.

In fact the goodwill to do the best for Svalbard’s shared cultural heritage shines through, both in the agreement between the above-named parties, in the generosity of the conditions of the return of the collection from the Netherlands, and in the part the Governor of Svalbard has played in sending his ship Nordsyssel to fetch the collection, as well as in hosting the celebration here today. I would also like to thank the representatives for Tromsø Museum who have risen to the occasion and started the return of their Svalbard material to Longyearbyen.

On this optimistic note of cooperation and goodwill for the benefit of Svalbard’s unique and international cultural heritage, I proudly declare the storage depot and conservation laboratories for open!