Presenting Difficult Issues By Using Personal Narratives - An Example

Posted 2017-03-02 20:28:38

Since 2008, the Vest-Agder museum has initiated several projects on sensitive themes, based on a co-operation between the museum and a local society in the South of Norway. Locals were invited to participate with personal stories to subjects chosen by the museum after a professional evaluation of relevant themes for the region. This was accomplished with the help of advertisements in the largest local newspapers. While the first project was about our relationship to our own body, the second was about religion. The third concerned poverty in the apparently wealthy society in Norway, and this project is still going on.

Almost 70 people have participated in these projects, each with their own story. The museum has been and is extremely conscious of the responsibility that accompanies the invitation to participate as well as to follow up with individuals. Among other things it has drawn up its own moral platform which has been placed on our website. This was done to meet the requirements for transparency and openness in all aspects of the museum's work.

The latest project about poverty, titled "Not All good? On being poor in Southern Norway" may give some impressions of the sensitivity these themes present and how the museum introduces the theme to the visitors. The informants wanted to be totally anonymous, and just to hear the stories, to meet the adults and to collect some items, has been mentally challenging for the museums employees: the extent of efforts the informants are making every day to protect the children from feeling too different from richer kids and to hide their poverty for the rest of the community.

Poverty is still an important subject for our community, since it affects around 12 % of our inhabitants in the Ager countries in the South of Norway. For nearly a year, we at Vest-Agder Museum have worked on this heavily taboo-laden subject: poverty. People affected by poverty are likely to try to conceal it, even for their near and dear ones. This is because being poor is riddled with guilt and shame; it means that one has not been able to cope with today’s society, where ‘everyone’ appear successful. Being poor is therefore “not all good” – ikke bare greit – as the people of Southern Norway like to say about most things.


Since 1 November, 2016, we present the results of our work as an outdoor walking exhibition, with an exhibition space consisting of four interconnected barracks, and a new publication.

From the exhibition in the barracks


Not quite alright?”

Fifteen people contacted us after we announced a petition for informants in the newspaper and on social media. They have told moving stories about what it is like not to be able to work because of illness and how it is to have neither money nor a social network. They have spoken about how it feels not be able to afford food, and go to be hungry, leaving your last slice of bread for your children; how it is not to be able to work because you are too ill; how you sometimes pretend that you children are ‘sick’ when their friends invite them to their birthday, because you do not have the few kroner it takes to buy a gift; what it feels like to become more and more isolated because you do not have the money to meet friends at a café, because it means you have to pay for coffee; how much it hurts to celebrate Christmas with your family and not being able to buy a single gift to the others; and how hard both adults and children work to hide that they cannot afford to go to social meetings with friends or acquaintances.

At the exhibition, which is unattended, free of charge and available at five different town centers in the region, the visitors will be able to listen to these stories, through an audiovisual presentation. We challenge them to listen to them at length and to pay close attention; this is an important subject and remains one of our greatest challenges as a social community. 12 percent of South Norway’ population, and slightly above 10 percent of all the children in the Agder counties, are poor. Those are high figures, especially if we consider the close connection between poverty and social isolation.


Kristiansand in the south of Norway, around 1880

The history of poverty

The exhibition presents also a timeline that shows the establishment and development of the poor relief, which also describes the changing views on poor people through history. The timeline is based on the findings of a publication that will also be launched at the opening of the exhibition. There, six different authors examine the subject from different angles. Together, their articles are a good introduction to the treatment in the past of different groups of poor people.

Available information

To suite the visitors, the museum provides a lot of information one find in the exhibition on its webpages: www.vestagdermuseet.no/fattigdom, also in English.

•Information from the municipalities of Vest-Agder on free offerings and activities

•The museum’s documentation project: Anonymized interviews with our informants as coherent texts.

•Digital storytelling and a historical timeline that introduces the development of poor relief in Agder between from 1786 to 1920

•One of the articles from the publication

The exhibition barracks are highlighted at night with information in the windows.

At bottom, poverty means that one cannot take part in a social community for economic reasons. It appears that the clearest difference between being poor now as compared to before can be found in today’s more overwhelming feeling of being alone in facing one’s predicament. It is true that, in the old days, poor people lacked basic things such as food, clothes and a place to live, to a much greater extent than now. But when you lack the wherewithal to be part of social life you may experience a stronger sense of loneliness and social isolation. And when people in general seem to have more than enough money, it becomes increasingly fraught with taboos and shame to be one of “the few” who do not have it. This can make people withdraw even further, reinforcing a vicious circle of loneliness, shame and self-inflicted isolation.

If you have questions, contact project manager Kathrin Pabst via her e-mail: k.pabst@vestagdermuseet.no or telephone her at +47 932 46 157.













All images: Vest-Agder-museum


Kathrin Pabst (1971) is a german ethnologist with a master degree in European ethnology and a ph.D. in professional ethics. She works as Head of the department for research, collection management and visitor experience at the Vest-Agder-museet in Kristiansand, Norway. Pabsts working experience includes both practical and theoretical sides of working with challenging or sensitive subjects. As an author and lecturer she has hold a larger number lectures and workshops on professional ethics. She is also a member of the Norwegian ICOM board.

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