Wardrune performing at Musikhuset, Aarhus, Denmark

The Past Reimagined

Making cultural heritage relevant and popular to new generations

When we explore our past, it is not because we want to go back to what our ancestors were but because we search for our connection to the stories, the songs, the lives and the rituals that came to life right here, where past and presents members of our community has lived for many, many generations. Our roots are intertwined with the roots under the surface of our past, present and future landscape. It is our shared identity, and we must understand it to know ourselves.

Wardruna has recently done a series of shows in Europe. In their own words, they are a Norwegian music constellation dedicated to creating musical renditions of ancient Norse and Nordic traditions. The words above are an elaborated paraphrasing of a statement that leading composer, vocalist and founding member Einar Selvik made from the stage during at least one of those shows. It should be noted that Wardruna does not see themselves limited to a detailed or historically correct recreation of the past, although their appearances, stage show and music may suggest otherwise. As they have stated on their website about their process and art:

Thorough research and serious study form an important foundation for our music, but the ultimate intention is not to copy or recreate music from any specific time period. We take thoughts, tools and methods from the past and use them to create new music which builds on the contemporary as well as the ancient.

Reimagination for contemporary audiences

One can argue that Wardruna is reimagining the past, creating new experiences and artistic expressions while celebrating historical and traditional sources of inspiration. In doing so, they combine tradition, history and culture to captivate a broad audience across many ages and walks of life. 

Wardruna are not the only artists who have established an audience by reimagining the past in a learned way. We find artists, musicians, television shows, movies, game developers and festivals. With their creations, they get attention and appreciation from a wider audience, including young people that are at once coveted and deemed unreachable by many cultural heritage sites and institutions. The latter idea has to be challenged: They are within reach; it is what many cultural heritage professionals want to present them with that is often out of touch. To advance beyond this point, it has to be recognised that one approach to how we perceive and present our cultural heritage is not necessarily better than the other; they are merely different. By merging their differences, we can create new, innovative and inspiring ways to engage with our culture, ancestry and origins. This approach is not a reinvention of the past centuries but a rethinking of our shared history’s relevance, presentation and impact in the 21st century.

A new generation of cultural heritage appreciators

Experience designers and storytellers – or indeed the combined discipline of story experience design – working with cultural heritage need to take note of the achievements of the performing artists reimagining the past because they are not just about the artists being inspired by history; it is about connection to audiences changing their view of the world in the past, present and future.

While focusing on Northern Europe here, more specifically Scandinavia, the basic premises of what is being explored applies to many peoples and places around the world, mirroring their different cultures and locations in which they are anchored.

With their creations, they get attention and appreciation from a wider audience, including young people that are at once coveted and deemed unreachable by many cultural heritage sites and institutions.

Identification with the past in a modern world

First and foremost, the steady spread of what we may call nonreligious neopaganism shows us that people are searching their historical past to find anchoring in their modern lives. We can arguably call this a need for spirituality while remembering that spirituality and religion are not the same. The people looking for deeper meanings and a balance with nature will outnumber those interested in worshipping Norse gods such as Thor and Odin many times over. Also, this modern rediscovery or reinterpretation of the spirituality of one’s ancestors does mean taking a stand against other religious beliefs. Exploring the paths of nonreligious neopaganism is not to enforce a culture or faith that is believed to be superior. For story experience designers, this insight opens up to creating stories and experiences based on deeper themes and values that relate to lives, concerns, hopes and dreams associated with the 21st century. This is way beyond adding Vikings or Viking-esque designs because they look cool.

Connection and inclusion through rituals

Another aspect connected to the search for deeper meaning and purpose is the celebration beyond the creation of the experiential moment. What is more powerful and touching than a mere event, a concert or a show? A ritual. 

In various degrees in different countries in Scandinavia, rituals have arguably been more or less neglected in the modern age, leaving people with mainly longer-lasting traditions related to birth, marriage, death and confirmation of faith as part of coming of age. However, other traditions and rituals are continuously established in everyday lives and different groups. Consider going to a sports event, a social gathering or the workplace. Or consider the dreaded social media selfie or challenge as a ritual. Rituals celebrate specific circumstances in specific ways shared by a group of people while reinforcing their interconnection and inclusion within the group.  

When reimagining the past, stage artists such as musicians use inspiration and imagery from what was or could have been part of ancient rituals. Sometimes a show evolves beyond the event of a band playing on stage to a celebration of a particular lifestyle. With artists reinterpreting the past, their performance can be experienced as being outside of time and place, connecting our present with our ancestors. 

Cultural heritage identification and ritualisation design

For story experience designers, the ambition to create relatable rituals is also the intention of designing events with deeper meaning, relevance and impact on the audience. Understanding how the audience’s identification connects with cultural heritage, bridges between them can be established as confirmations of the cultural identity. The audiences then become part of a more extensive experience through inclusive design and participation, capable of establishing an authentic connection with history. A bond that is worthy of celebration and rituals. Rituals that the audience does not want to miss, and most of them want to take part in again because they have become part of something of utmost importance and value to them:

Who they are and what they are capable of becoming.

July 2023
Author: Klaus Sommer Paulsen
CEO & Founder, AdventureLAB

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