All the awards Sweden received at international exhibitions 100 years ago makes a sharp contrast to the present image of Swedish education as a system in severe crisis. One of the more successful exhibitions in this regard was the exhibition at St. Louis 1904 (pic 1).
Normally education was a minor part of the international World’s fairs. Sweden though had made an effort in presenting its education system in an ambitious way already in London 1862, Paris 1867, London 1871, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1876 (Lundahl & Lawn 2014). In St. Louis 1904 even greater effort was put in since the Swedish government decided to prioritise its display on education. For this investment the Swedish Department of education (Ecklesiastikdepartementet) received both Grand prizes and Gold medals (pic 1).
If we magnify the signs directly to the left after entering the Swedish pavilion, we see that they read Common schools (pic 2). Clearly education had a central place, directly at the entrance to the Swedish exhibition. A sign of pried one can imagine.
So, what was Sweden so proud of when it came to education? If we look closely at the plan for the Swedish display we see that it very much comprehend the various forms of education in Sweden: dark blue large area – boys primary school; dark blue small area – girls education; yellow – grammar and secondary school; purple – evening schools, vocational schools, adult education (pic 3). The exhibition also seems to display a model of inclusion of the outskirts of the educational landscape into a comprehensive structure (linking adult education, education in arts, sloyd and drill etc. to a more modern notion of education). The exclusive grammar- and upper secondary education is just a minor part of this exhibition, displayed in the back of the room. The prestigious Boarding school Lundsberg only received a Bronze medal for its part in the exhibition (pic 1).
When it comes to the question of what to highlight from primary education it is interesting to see how much room is afforded to the relatively novel subjects of Sloyd (red) and Arts/drawing and gymnastics (light blue and green). There is also a room about the new subject Kitchen training (pic 7).
If we look at the primary school classroom model we get a hint that “Object teaching” is at fore, displaying various maps, charts, globes and monitors with stuffed animals (pic 4). But Sweden was also awarded for its collection of educational literature in a Pedagogical library (pic 1).
Pic 4. Model of a primary school classroom. Picture from The Swedish School museum archive, Nordiska museets arkiv.
The from an international perspective relatively unique subjects of Sloyd and Gymnastics got plenty of room, and a lot of different teaching material were displayed as well as drawings illustrating how to actually use them (pic 5 and 6).
Finally we also see how Sweden displayed a model of a school kitchen for the subject of Kitchen training (pic 7).
We have elsewhere described these exhibitions as a national flag (Lundahl & Lawn 2014). The Swedish state funded a major investment in the Swedish exhibitions and with each exhibition, it became more sophisticated; from a collection of artefacts and a dark display to a standalone, complex full scale school. The exhibited objects change from merely books and maps to also include examples of new national pedagogical ideas (eg. Sloyd) and comprehensive descriptions of the educational system as a whole (Lundahl & Lawn 2014). The exhibition at St Luis 1904 provided a comprehensive overview of the educational system at large, but the actual space and place of the various objects at display reveal a lack of representativeness. These exhibitions were a plattform for progressive reforms – not showing or sharing what the reality looked like, but what was about to come.
Today, maybe more than ever, the international scene is an important place from where school reforms can be modelled, but in Sweden nowadays it tends to be done by telling everyone how poor the school system is and that is was better before, rather than by lifting hopes and ideas for a renewal in terms of structures, subjects and teaching.
Lundahl, C. & Lawn, M. (2014): The Swedish Schoolhouse: a Case study in Transnational influences in Education at the 1870s World’s fairs. Peadagica Historica http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00309230.2014.941373