ONE 3 • A Swedish Reality Show since 1891

Reality vs fiction—what do we really mean when we make such a distinction? In this age when almost anything can be replicated and mass-produced, many of us long for something we perceive to be truly authentic. On television there is such a variety of programmes with documentary-like content, it is hard to draw the line between fiction and what is actually caught by a camera.

The world’s first reality TV show was broadcast in Sweden in 1997. It was called Expedition: Robinson – an allusion to the famous novel by Daniel Defoe about Robinson Crusoe surviving on a desert island. This show’s format was later produced as Survivor in the US and has been the model for subsequent reality shows where participants are put together in a situation and then, one by one, voted off.

In Sweden, this vote—not for who’s to win, but for who’s to lose – initially caused an outrage. Sweden is traditionally a rather egalitarian society, where children are taught that competing is essentially a bad thing. To make things worse, the first participant voted off the island killed himself soon after. His family reportedly blamed the impact which that public rejection had on him, and after that the format of the show was modified. The actual voting was no longer shown on television so that the loser would not feel publicly denounced.

All the same, the show was a fantastic success, and the ever increasing number of reality shows since is a global phenomenon.

More than a century before the reality show, a very different form of reality entertainment—or what today might be called edutainment (educational entertainment)—was likewise launched in Sweden. The world`s first open-air museum, Skansen, appeared in Stockholm in 1891. A “miniature Sweden”, it is a nature park where authentic buildings from around the country have been gathered, enabling visitors to experience, say, an 18th-century farmstead as well as a cooperative dairy shop of the 1930s in less than an hour. One may watch a cabinetmaker working in his workshop or see a near-extinct breed of pigs in the pigsty.

Sweden is traditionally a rather egalitarian society, where children are taught that competing is essentially a bad thing.

Every day there is a steady stream of tourists coming with guide books in hand, hoping to get to all the must-see places. In the various houses visitors are greeted by museum employees dressed in historical costume appropriate for the time period and context of each building. A degree in Art History and Ethnology/Anthropology is the background of most, in addition to special craft skills. “Do they actually live in those old houses?” is not an unusual question from tourists who visit Skansen. This may be taken as a compliment on how authentic these visitors perceive the museum to be. Or is it a sad testament to historical ignorance, and more importantly, to an inability to recognize the difference between reality and make-believe?

From the beginning the museum’s aim has been to educate the public about lost customs in the modern, industrialized society which replaced the rural way of life. Skansen presents re-enactments of old customs such as women milking the cows at their “summer pasture” in the museum park, scenes that are museum artifacts, just like murals on the walls. Ever since Skansen first opened, the aim has been to educate the public about customs soon forgotten in the industrialized society that was replacing the Swedish rural way of life.

Until the mid-19th century, regions and villages had their own characteristic ways of dressing, cooking and living off what the land could offer them. That life disappeared as people moved to the towns and cities, and Skansen’s founder, Arthur Hazelius, set out to collect not only buildings, but songs, games, and ordinary folks’ everyday possessions. A revival of traditional folk dancing is one example of how Mr Hazelius’s efforts resulted not only in preserving old customs, but also in giving them a place in contemporary people’s lives. The museum thus provides both entertainment and education about how things used to be, in order for us to reflect on where we have been, where we are today and where we are headed. An authentic reality show.

— Cecilia Kopra