70 Years of Activism, Research and History with the Nordic Summer University

This post is contributed by Kai Green, the Anniversary Project Manager for the Nordic Summer University (NSU), a nomadic institution which meets every year in a series of winter and summer circles for interdisciplinary exchange.  In 2020, the Nordic Summer University is celebrating its 70th anniversary with arts/research projects investigating and inspired by NSU’s past, its archive in Copenhagen, and reflecting on its future as an institution.

Since 1950, the Nordic Summer University (NSU) has been an independent, democratic, academic institution, committed to cross-disciplinary research and critical thinking. Inspired by the 19th Century Danish public reformer N.F.S. Grundtvig – who developed a social philosophy of “people’s high schools” (folkehøjskole) – NSU was founded to express Nordic humanistic and educational values. The institution sought to cross disciplines, to flatten hierarchies by mixing established figures with young scholars, and to be both scientific and popular by expressing Grundtvig’s ideal that “the University must build bridges between the light of the scholars and the lives of the people” (højskolen skal bygge bromellem lyset hos de lærde og livet hos folket).

Keynotes over the years have included Slavoj Žižek, Martha Nussbaum, Karen Armstrong and Simon Critchley, but this is no ordinary conference!  Keynotes not only deliver lectures but live with and around the study circles during the week, joining discussions and switching over to become just another curious researcher among peers.  (Sound histories of our keynotes are being explored by one of our artists/researchers, Eduardo Abrantes.)

Living History

Despite 70 years of activities, NSU has always had the character of an experiment. Still today, members collectively create “study circles” to explore a theme with cross-disciplinary interest, meeting every winter in three-year cycles for a weekend conference and then (together with the eight or so other circles) at the heart of NSU: the week-long, immersive summer sessions, held in a different Nordic location every year.

Constant experimentation reflects the fact that NSU – as a fully democratic organisation, voting every summer on plans for the year ahead (in sometimes exhausting detail!) – has always morphed with the influences of the times.  Even with egalitarian credentials, a more elite grouping of academics ruled the roost in the 1950s and 1960s, with significant figures like Niels Bohr in attendance.  In the 1970s, Marxism became popular amongst many NSU members, leading the Danish newspapers and radio stations of the day to decry the “bloodless revolution” being enacted behind-the-schemes, claiming that children were being brought into a “radical experiment” of left-wing ideology.

They were right about one thing: children have always had a significant place at NSU’s summer sessions, allowing adult researchers with child-caring responsibility to be free to immerse in the debate, learning and cultural sharing.  Such decisions were powered by the long association of NSU with feminist theory and gender equality: the 1973 study circle “The specific character of women’s oppression under capitalism” (Kvindesituation & kvindebevægelse under kapitalismen) was the very first such investigation of the subject in a Nordic University (you can read more about the feminist histories of NSU in the work of another of our brilliant artists/researchers, Hild Borchgrevink). Still to this day, there is a specific ‘Children’s Circle’ supported by pedagogues during our summer sessions.

Nordic Summer University

Tracing the Spirit

Throughout 2020, in collaboration with the Nordic Council, we are bursting open our history with a range of 10 arts/research projects – each taking departure in a theme of ‘Nordicness’ and producing films, essays, photos and blogs to trace the spirit of NSU across the world. We have projects finding the ‘spirit of NSU’ in:

  • the utopian colony founded by Norwegian violinist Ole Bull in Pennsylvania in the 1800s,
  • a British-US-Danish collaboration of letterpress artists,
  • a Foucauldian archaeology of NSU,
  • a video collage of keynote memories,
  • a documentary on the fight for ecological rights for the Swedish Lake Vättern,
  • a post-human vision of NSU using VR technology
  • a wall-to-ceiling ganzfeld from the archive
  • and a collaboration of artists/researchers in Oslo, Copenhagen, Berlin and Manchester.

The projects culminate in an Anniversary Celebration, during our Summer session, when we reach our 70th birthday.  If you’re interested in attending, please keep an eye on NSU’s website and social media.

Still Standing

Although Nordic countries have perhaps held out longer in the protection of their Universities from commercial impulses than their North American and British counterparts, the Nordics have not been immune from the efficiency-drives of Higher Education. Yet, even within Nordic countries, NSU’s emphasis on “salon-like”, trans-disciplinary and broadly-drawn seminars continues to be so rare. Being a nomadic institution, NSU has suffered more instability than most publicly-funded academic spaces, but has always fought-back against the chance of foreclosure.  The Nordic values of equality, democracy and openness bring a loyal following of academics from across the world.  But most exciting is the mix of longstanding and fresh members together.

Being nomadic, our history is not an easy one to collect and share. Run almost entirely on voluntary labour, NSU has not had the luxury of time to dwell on its history.  Yet, substantial effort has been rewarded: the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen now stores NSU’s extensive 70-year archive.  The next step, for an organisation that thrives on face-to-face dialogue, cocooned away from society for a brief while every winter and summer, is to make our archive alive so it can be fully engaged with.

I acknowledge and thank the authors of “Kritik og krise”, a publication from NSU Press (Gothenburg, 2000), which presents historical reflections from NSU’s past.  The full publication can be read (in Nordic languages) here.

Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology: birds, books and business

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This post was contributed by Henry McGhie, head of collections and curator of zoology at Manchester Museum.  

The University of Manchester’s cultural institutions are home to millions of objects, specimens, artworks and books. Each of these tells a story, or can tell a story with a bit of detective work. Among these are a collection of bird skins and eggs from Henry Dresser (1838–1915), one of the leading ornithologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dresser had an exciting life: his father was engaged in the Baltic and New Brunswick timber trade, working in London. Henry was sent to Germany and Sweden, alone, as a teenager to be schooled and learn European languages. He worked in the timber business in Finland and New Brunswick, where his father owned an enormous forest and sawmill. Following on from this he spent 14 months in Mexico and Texas at the height of the American Civil War. He settled in the timber and iron trades in London. Throughout his life, Dresser was a most ambitious natural history collector and ornithologist. He played a leading role in scientific societies, at a time when these were being established, as the world’s birds were being discovered and described, and as the bird conservation movement developed. Dresser made extensive collections that formed the basis of over 100 publications, including great illustrated books that combined masterpieces of bird illustration with cutting-edge scientific information. Dresser’s life is explored in the book ‘Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology: birds, books and business’, recently published by Manchester University Press. The book is also an exploration of transformations in 19th and early 20th century ornithology, and the role that private gentlemen naturalists played in a time without institutions or professionals.

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Natural history blossomed in the nineteenth century, as imperial and colonial expansion made inroads into hitherto unknown lands (at least unknown to Westerners). Official collectors accompanied many government, geographical and military expeditions, while even greater numbers of people involved in the machinery of empire took up natural history as a hobby and participated in ‘informal empire’. The subject was dominated by the discovery, description and classification of the world’s wildlife and natural resources. This great endeavour involved enormous numbers of people in a kind of production line connecting those in the field—farmers, lighthouse keepers, indigenous peoples, gamekeepers, fishermen, entrepreneurs—with a natural history readership, mostly in the seats of empire. Great numbers of natural history specimens flooded into ports and cities, with London described as ‘a kind of emporium of the whole world’. Natural history discoveries were presented at scientific meetings, and published in societies’ proceedings and, more especially, in beautiful, hand-coloured plates in subscription books.

The great bird books of the late 19th century were a combination of close observational accuracy, artistic talent, and scientific illustration. They brought to life the preserved remains of birds, many of which still reside in museums today. Among the finest was ‘A History of the Birds of Europe’ by Henry Dresser (1838–1915), begun with Richard Sharpe and issued between 1871–82. The illustrations in the great natural history books were, arguably, among the most beautiful ever produced and brought great fame to their publishers. John James Audubon had his own illustrations produced for his famous (and extremely valuable) ‘Birds of America’, famous (infamous) for both its price and its scale, in Double Elephant Folio size. Among British naturalists, John Gould is especially famous for the beautiful books that he produced (with the assistance of a team of artists, including Edward Lear and Gould’s wife Elizabeth).

Illustrations had been important in ornithology in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as specimens themselves were liable to be destroyed by clothes moths and other insect larvae. A reliable preservative was discovered, in the form of a bar of soap mixed with arsenic and camphor, the lather of which was painted on the inside of bird skins and which was a very effective deterrent. After this time, ornithology blossomed, aided by a number of instruction manuals with detailed instructions on how to prepare birds. For the most part, field collectors prepared birds as study skins: they removed the body via a shallow cut on the breast, cutting it off at the knees, shoulders and base of the skull. The ‘empty’ skin was filled with cotton wool or similar soft material, and positioned to lie on its back, with collecting information written on labels that were attached to the legs of specimens. This standardised preparation method meant that specimens from different places and different people could be amassed together in series of similar specimens, aiding comparison. Indeed, this preparation method is still used in museums, over 150 years later.

The great artists of the mid–late nineteenth century could do an amazing thing: in the days before photography or good-quality printing, and working in Europe, they could take a study skin and imagine what the bird had been like when it was alive, producing beautiful, detailed illustrations that captured the positioning, colouring and patterning of birds as they would have been in life. Joseph Wolf was especially famous and worked as the official artist at the London Zoological Gardens, but developed eye problems. A young Dutch artist, John Gerrard Keulemans, took over from Wolf, and worked at a time when great numbers of bird books were in production. Both Wolf and Keulemans made great use of visits to London Zoological Gardens, the original ‘zoo’, to study the form and attitude of birds when they were alive. The positioning of birds was standardised, so that the more colourful sex (usually the male) occupied the dominant position in plates. Joseph Wolf, who was criticised by some ornithologists as being ‘too much of an artist’, was similarly critical of artists who produced ‘nothing but a map of the animal’. Keulemans was in great demand, and illustrated many (most) of the great birds books produced in Britian in the late 19th century.

Dresser’s collections have much to tell us about both birds, and the ways people have studied and come to know what we know today. In a world where many birds face an uncertain, or all too certain future, Dresser’s collections are a testament both to the foundations of ornithology, and a priceless resource that continues to be made use of by researchers, who use these century old specimens as a source of DNA, to study changes in pollutant levels, and to understand the diversity of the world’s birds. They are very much the building blocks of ornithology.