Picture this: It’s Monday. You check your phone. It’s 9 in the morning and you just took a five-minute drive in a red Peugeot with two of your colleagues. Calendar-wise it is the middle of May, but you’re all draped in sweaters, heavy coats and scarfs. You step out of the car and walk in unison into the depths of a concrete building. Inside the sound of spring and the warmth of the sun slowly dissipates as the door is shut behind you. Now the air is cool, dry and stale with dust.
You’ve left the outside world and stepped into one of Moesgaard Museum’s storage facilities. To either side are hundreds of items arranged on shelves – some are in boxes while others are too big to package. There’s everything from everywhere. A giant wheel from an Egyptian watermill. A sled from Siberia. Weaved baskets from Borneo, neatly stacked. All interesting in their own right, but they’re not the obvious treasures. Some items look alien, their foreign design camouflaging their practical use. You might find one relic beautiful and another downright disturbing, their presence invoking equal parts joy and disgust. Most of them might even bore you. Amidst all these items you start to ask yourself:
For the past four weeks I’ve been an intern at Moesgaard Museum’s ethnographic department. This means that nearly a month ago, I got the opportunity to peel back the layers of the neatly curated exhibitions, to see what goes on behind the scenes.
During this time, I’ve handled cultural relics from all over the world, assisting with moving and cataloguing them in the ethnographic department’s online database. Besides that, I’ve also been hard at work converting hundreds physical slides, donated by the globetrotter and photographer Mogens Stryhn, into digital files. For decades Stryhn travelled the world, documenting people and places with his camera. From Soviet Ukraine to the Ecuadorian rainforest he met with and photographed people from every corner of this planet.
At first, I felt a disconnect between my two primary tasks, one being a logistical challenge and the other a time-consuming and repetitious project with no end in sight. It was only when I reallylooked at Stryhn’s photos that I actually realized the importance of my work.
Looking past their immediate characteristics, cultural relics are, in their simplest form, products of human agency. They only exist because someone half a world away took time out of their day to make them. This means that every item on every shelf of the earlier mentioned storage facility (no matter how small or inconspicuous) is a piece of a puzzle, a small part of a bigger picture that tells a story, not of things but of people.
There is not a single culture in the history of humanity that haven’t produced something. Being surrounded by innumerable cultural relics, I almost forget about their origin. Luckily, I got the help I needed to remind myself of why all these items are significant in the first place. The items themselves might be dead, but they are the undeniable proof of human activity, of life unfolding somewhere else. Through his photography, Mogens Stryhn sought to document the beauty in other cultures, not beauty in the literal sense of the word, but the beauty of life as it is(dirt and crooked glasses included). His camera was an equalizer, immortalizing holy men and unwashed children equally. Most of them staring back through the lens confronting the viewer, not as an object to satisfy voyeuristic curiosity, but as a person – reminding us of our shared struggles in life.
I now understand that we preserve an item made by other cultures, not necessarily because it’s overtly impressive or beautiful, but because it helps us to tell the story of the people who made it – which in turn helps us to understand something about ourselves.
All photographs by Mogens G. Stryhn.
//Kennet Wad Falk