Exploring Norrköping Sweden

Reinventing Ancient Norrköping

We would not normally set out exploring Norrkoping Sweden. But as part of our TBEX conference, we had an opportunity to a guided daytrip. Norrkoping is Sweden’s tenth largest city and is in Southern Sweden’s Ostergotland district. It is located near the outlet of the Motala River, which empties into the Baltic Sea. While this location initially provided easy access to fishing and the hunting of seals and other marine animals, it played a much more important role in the city’s subsequent development. The river, by virtue of its rapids, provided the initial power for the city’s large-scale industrialization of textiles and subsequently, paper. Easy access to the sea, meanwhile, provided a port into which supplies that these and the subsequent firearms industry needed to develop, and from which their products could be shipped to customers around the Baltic and throughout Europe.

The roughly 120,000 person city is about an hour south of Stockholm via train. It was officially founded in 1160 but, since Russia burned it to the ground in 1719, the city has no surviving buildings dating from before 1730. We began with a walk through the city’s pretty gardened main square,where we saw a beautiful cactus garden.

DSC02631Norrköping cactus garden


Himmelstalund Rock Carvings and the City’s Prehistory

The city’s history, however, goes much further back than 1730, or even 1730. We had a brief drive out of the city center to Himmelstalund Park which contains the first recorded evidence of civilization in the area—1,700 of the more than 10,000 of the region’s known pre-historic carved petroglyphs. While created about 3,000 years ago in the Bronze Age, these carvings, which are on flat rocks in the open air, rather than in caves, were carved by stone tools. The images, which are highlighted in red paint to make them visible in the sun, include men, animals (including domesticated horses and dogs), boats, hunting scenes and some presumably ritualistic images that can’t be identified

Himmelstalund Rock CarvingsHimmelstalund Rock CarvingsHimmelstalund Rock Carvings

City Museum as Urban Archive

The area’s history, however, stretches much further back than 3,000 years. We saw this at our next stop, the City Museum which traces the area’s history from prehistoric days into the 20th century.

But before we got to Norrkoping’s past, we, who were among the museum’s very few non-Swedish visitors, were greeted by a very American symbol—a poster of an American Indian chief in full headdress. The picture was an introduction to a temporary exhibit, a photography gallery with a display of local photographer John Anderson’s photos of surviving Sioux Indian tribe members.

Sioux Indian

However, we were there to learn of Norrkoping’s history—not America’s. So, after a quick glance at the exhibit, we moved on to the museum’s prehistoric section where we saw evidence that the area’s history can be traced much further back than the 3,000 year-old Himmelstalund site. The first evidence of the presence of man actually goes back 6,000 years, to a carbon-dated seal skeleton that that contained the remnants of a stone spear tip that was used to kill the animal. The museum also provides an interesting animation of some of the petroglyphs that brings the images that may have inspired the carvings to life.

seal skeleton with arrow headanimation of Himmelstalund Rock Carvings

The museum updated this history with discussions and displays of the Viking Age, including a reproduction of a so-called Runec Stone, which was used to memorialize deceased or missing comrades. These stones contained some of the first alphabet-like figures (Rounes) in Europe. The museum then provides brief highlights of the region’s civilization through the Middle Ages and the apex of Sweden’s military power and territorial range in 17th century—a period that is portrayed in a reproduction of a 1627 painting of the city.

Runec Stonepaintingmodel of castle

Two sections of the museum pick up the story in the 18th and 19th centuries with a display of a general store and more interestingly, displays and descriptions of a number of the primary crafts practiced in the city. These include bakers, milliners, barbers, basket makers, wood turners, bricklayers, wainwrights, coopers, shoemakers and tailors.

store 02storeshoemaker


The museum’s most extensive collection, however, focuses on the city’s heyday—the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Norrkoping was the center of Scandinavia’s textile industry. With more than 100 textile mills, the city was referred to as the “Manchester of Sweden”. Since increased production rapidly overwhelmed the limited capacity of local hydropower, manufacturers converted to coal-powered steam engines. The museum has displays and working models of machines that reproduce the entire textile manufacturing process. This begins with the processing of the raw wool (wool was the only clothing fiber to which the country had access until it began importing cotton from America in the early 20th century) through the finished product.

These machines (especially during the occasional times when they are actually operated) along with our very able guide, Asa, provided an overview of how the wool is spun into yarn, twisted into thread and fed into looms to create cloth. The display continues through the 1920s, shortly before the mills had to be closed due to competition from low-cost countries, when they began using punch card-programmed systems to automatically create patterns of different colors in the cloth. And to highlight the conditions of the work, the museum showed pictures of the large-scale factories and provided headsets that allowed you to experience the sound of working in a 100 decibel environment for even a few seconds—much less than for the ten-hour days that the women had to endure.

textile 03textile 06textiles 02machine to automate textile patternpicture of textile factory

But just as Manchester’s textile business was devastated by competition from lower-cost producers of cotton and wool clothing, so too was Norrkoping’s. As Asa explained, the textile industry—not to speak of the jobs—began to disappear in the early 1900s. By then, the neighboring paper factory, which traditionally relied on recycled cloth for their raw materials, had converted to using pulp from trees. They had moved their factory to be closer to their raw materials, further devastating employment prospects.

Luckily, the country’s emerging technology, business, in the form of Ericsson’s telephone exchange operations, alleviated some of the distress by taking over one of the textile plants. Even this, however, could not last. The business was moved offshore, leaving Norrkoping with few jobs and too many old, abandoned and rapidly deteriorating buildings.

Luckily, the city’s port continued to provide some jobs and the local university expanded to create more, much better jobs. The Swedish government, however, picked up most of the slack: both by providing retraining for laid-off factory workers and especially by moving a number of government jobs to the devastated area.

But what about the aging factories? While the city initially planned to tear them down and start over, it instead decided to rehabilitate them, creating what is, in effect, a post-industrial urban landscape.

Birth of the Guidning Historic Industrial Area

The government cleaned up much of the area, now called the Guidning Historic Industrial Area, reengineered the old waterfalls and rapids into a scenic area and a sustainable source of hydropower, built a number of attractive, modern pedestrian bridges to seamless connect the many areas and help create a sense of community. The old coal elevator was turned into a scenic attraction and the huge water pipes, which initially channeled the water to power the mills and had some of which had since been converted into oil storage tanks, were converted into scenic walkways. Artists also played important roles. One took a rather tong-in-cheek look at the reconverted industrial space by placing a sculpture of an old industrial chimney in the middle of the river. Another honored the ex-textile factory workers (the vast majority of whom were women) by creating a sculpture that represented the women, along with a union organizer, seeking to gain a fair share of the industry’s profits.

Guidning Historic Industrial AreaGuidning Historic Industrial Areaart replication of smoke stackDSC02703

Semi-private organizations and non-profits also played a critical role. The university took over much of the old space. The city’s symphony reinvented the old paper plant into the organization’s first permanent home, including a number of large performance spaces. A number of existing and new museums also stepped in. These include the afore-mentioned City Museum and the Museum of Work (see below).

Housing, in the form of apartments and condos occupied many of the other buildings, along with a number of initially controversial modern new buildings in the area. Local businesses, retailers, restaurants and cafes entered to capitalize on the affluent new residents, office workers and the growth in foot traffic. Just as importantly, a handful of public-private technology start-ups, spun-off from and in partnership with the university also took residence in the new neighborhood.


We visited one named Visualization Center C, which created and demonstrates a fascinating, intuitively designed visualization experiences (as in an immersive, multisensory, 3D dome) and products. One that was initially demonstrated for us, and which we could immediately use without assistance, is a fascinating visualization board. Although we can imagine many, many different uses for this technology, it is currently being used as a medical imaging system, whereby a full 3D scan of a body is input into the system and the user, simply by tapping a tab to select a view, can separately view the bones, organs, muscular systems and even the food and gas that is in the stomach. Then, with a simple sliding of a finger, you can rotate the image and select any cross-section view you may wish. This table-type system can be used for diagnostics, for non-invasive autopsies and for all types of educational purposes, from an interactive museum anatomy exhibit and all levels of education, from an introductory biology, chemistry or astronomy class, through medical school.

interactive skeleton 01interactive skeleton 02

The Past and Future of Work

We had a very brief stop at the Museum of Work, which is billed as providing an understanding of the working conditions and life in 18th and 19th century Swedish factories, the ways in which the nature of work has evolved over the past centuries and how it is changing. If this is indeed what the museum provides, we must have visited the wrong museum. True, it did have one very limited display (in stairway cabinets) that described the changes in the life of one woman textile worker through her working life.

For the most part, however, the museum we visited appeared to be targeted primarily at entertaining young children. Although we did not have time to determine how effective some of the game-like settings may be at helping children explore potential careers, we found little of value in helping teenagers or adults in such exploration. True, some of the special exhibits were interesting.

  • A photo-essay portraying the role of fathers in raising children.
  • A profile the work of Ewert Karlsson, a locally-born political cartoonist who built a worldwide following by caricaturizing and parodying political figures, and by taking on issues such as environmental degradation and human injustice.

Overall, however, this museum was a big disappointment, at least to us, as we have read and written much on these issues.

A 68-Meter Overview of the City

Our tour ended at Norrkoping’s Town Hall, where we visited the reception hall (lined with portraits of past council presidents), the council room and especially the tower room, where Asa not only treated us to coffee, tea and delicious homemade snacks, but also explained the history and meaning of the eight lovely, handmade tapestries that line the walls with a comprehensive history of the city, from Neolithic times, through the Vikings, Middle Ages and its role in Sweden’s period as a regional power, through the city’s industrial past and emerging post-industrial future—all tied together by a blue ribbon that portrays the river that played such a critical role through each ear. Then, to top the tour off (literally), we hiked to the top of the bell tower for a birds-eye view of the city and just in time for the ear-splitting sound of the tower’s 48 bells to remind us that it was 4:00, and time to leave for our return trip to Stockholm.

town hall bells 02town hall portraitstown hall tapestries 02town hall view from bell tower

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