The Noble Museum is a small museum on the ground floor of the beautiful 18th century former stock exchange building in the heart of Stockholm old town. The rest of the building is used by the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. A Nobel Centre will be built on the Blasieholmen peninsula, at Nybroviken, an inlet of the Baltic Sea in the heart of Stockholm, next to the National Museum. The Nobel Centre is still a few years away. The Nobel Museum will probably have room to expand in the new location.
The museum has a section dedicated to the life of Alfred Nobel, a section for the growing collection of artefacts donated by various Nobel laureates and a section for the Nobel Prize ceremony at Stockholm Town Hall. Then there is a display area for information on all Nobel Prize Laureates and an area for exhibitions.
When little Puffles and Honey visited, the exhibition was Literary Rebellion – Images of Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature by Kim Manresa and Xavi Ayén.
In Literary Rebellion, twelve Nobel Laureates in Literature are depicted in the Spanish photographer Kim Manresa’s gripping and beautiful images. The authors have in different ways used their writing as a way to question, create change and make resistance. Through their literature, they have in different ways worked to create and maintain spaces for the free word.
The Nobel Laureates in Literature whose authorships were highlighted in the exhibition are: Svetlana Alexievich (2015), Dario Fo (1997), Nadine Gordimer (1991), Imre Kertész (2002), Doris Lessing (2007), Toni Morrison (1993), Herta Müller (2009), Orhan Pamuk (2006), Kenzaburo Oe (1994), José Saramago (1998), Wole Soyinka (1986) and Wisława Szymborska (1996).
Winning a Nobel Prize is considered one of the world’s greatest honours. The laureates for Literature have caused quite a stir at times.
The Swedish Academy’s selection of British writer Kazuo Ishiguro as its 2017 literature laureate was well-received, but this has not always been the case.
The Academy’s decision to bestow its distinguished literary award — and the accompanying $1.1 million (€937,000) prize — to Bob Dylan in 2016 unleashed a storm of criticism, with many arguing the American musician and songwriter did not deserve an award that was typically bestowed on novelists, dramatists, and writers of non-fiction. Dylan’s reluctant acknowledgement of the award and his decision to be absent at the official award ceremony only added fuel to the fire.
Other individual recipients have led to outcry and insults, such as Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 literature laureate who was said to focus more on politics than prose. And Russian dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s decision not to attend his 1970 Stockholm prize ceremony due to fear of Soviet repression escalated to the point that he said the Swedes’ conditions for acceptance were “an insult to the Nobel Prize itself”.
In addition, the Academy itself has been accused of Eurocentrism and gender biases. Critics of the literature award, in particular, argue it is highly subjective.
Based on the will of philanthropist and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, the award should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Yet there is no unanimous consensus on what constitutes this “ideal”.
Giant of American letters John Steinbeck beat the British authors Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, but he was not a popular choice. The names of 66 authors were put forward for the prize that year, with the shortlist consisting of Steinbeck, Graves, Durrell, French dramatist Jean Anouilh and Danish author Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa, rendered herself ineligible by dying that September).
Although Steinbeck was praised by the committee “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception” when his win was announced, the declassified documents show he was actually chosen as the best of a bad lot. “There aren’t any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation,” wrote committee member Henry Olsson. How about not awarding a prize then?!?
The choice was heavily criticised, and described as “one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes” in one Swedish newspaper. The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose “limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising”, adding; “we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer … whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age”. Steinbeck himself, when asked if he deserved the Nobel, replied: “Frankly, no.”
Moving on… to the display on Alfred Nobel.
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm on October 21, 1833. His father Immanuel Nobel was an engineer and inventor who built bridges and buildings in Stockholm. In connection with his construction work Immanuel Nobel also experimented with different techniques for blasting rocks.
Alfred’s mother, born Andriette Ahlsell, came from a wealthy family. Due to misfortunes in his construction work caused by the loss of some barges of building material, Immanuel Nobel was forced into bankruptcy the same year Alfred Nobel was born. In 1837 Immanuel Nobel left Stockholm and his family to start a new career in Finland and in Russia. To support the family, Andriette Nobel started a grocery store which provided a modest income. Meanwhile Immanuel Nobel was successful in his new enterprise in St. Petersburg. He started a mechanical workshop which provided equipment for the Russian army and he also convinced the Tsar and his generals that naval mines could be used to block enemy naval ships from threatening the city.
The naval mines designed by Immanuel Nobel were simple devices consisting of submerged wooden casks filled with gunpowder. Anchored below the surface of the Gulf of Finland, they effectively deterred the British Royal Navy from moving into firing range of St. Petersburg during the Crimean war (1853-1856). Immanuel Nobel was also a pioneer in arms manufacture and in designing steam engines.
Successful in his industrial and business ventures, Immanuel Nobel was able, in 1842, to bring his family to St. Petersburg. There, his sons were given a first class education by private teachers. The training included natural sciences, languages and literature. By the age of 17, Alfred Nobel was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. His primary interests were in English literature and poetry as well as in chemistry and physics. Alfred’s father, who wanted his sons to join his enterprise as engineers, disliked Alfred’s interest in poetry and found his son rather introverted. In order to widen Alfred’s horizons his father sent him abroad for further training in chemical engineering. During a two-year period, Alfred Nobel visited Sweden, Germany, France and the United States.
In Paris, the city he came to like best, he worked in the private laboratory of Professor T. J. Pelouze, a famous chemist. There he met the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero who, three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerine, a highly explosive liquid. Nitroglycerine was produced by mixing glycerine with sulphuric and nitric acid. It was considered too dangerous to be of any practical use. Although its explosive power greatly exceeded that of gunpowder, the liquid would explode in a very unpredictable manner if subjected to heat and pressure. Alfred Nobel became very interested in nitroglycerine and how it could be put to practical use in construction work. He also realized that the safety problems had to be solved and a method had to be developed for the controlled detonation of nitroglycerine. In the United States he visited John Ericsson, the Swedish-American engineer who had developed the screw propeller for ships.
In 1852 Alfred Nobel was asked to come back and work in the family enterprise which was booming because of its deliveries to the Russian army. Together with his father he performed experiments to develop nitroglycerine as a commercially and technically useful explosive. As the war ended and conditions changed, Immanuel Nobel was again forced into bankruptcy. Immanuel and two of his sons, Alfred and Emil, left St. Petersburg together and returned to Stockholm. His other two sons, Robert and Ludvig, remained in St. Petersburg. With some difficulties they managed to salvage the family enterprise and then went on to develop the oil industry in the southern part of the Russian empire. They were very successful and became some of the wealthiest persons of their time.
After his return to Sweden in 1863, Alfred Nobel concentrated on developing nitroglycerine as an explosive. Several explosions, including one (1864) in which his brother Emil and several other persons were killed, convinced the authorities that nitroglycerine production was exceedingly dangerous. They forbade further experimentation with nitroglycerine within the Stockholm city limits and Alfred Nobel had to move his experimentation to a barge anchored on Lake Mälaren. Alfred was not discouraged and in 1864 he was able to start mass production of nitroglycerine. To make the handling of nitroglycerine safer Alfred Nobel experimented with different additives. He soon found that mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr would turn the liquid into a paste which could be shaped into rods of a size and form suitable for insertion into drilling holes. In 1867 he patented this material under the name of dynamite. To be able to detonate the dynamite rods he also invented a detonator (blasting cap) which could be ignited by lighting a fuse. These inventions were made at the same time as the diamond drilling crown and the pneumatic drill came into general use. Together these inventions drastically reduced the cost of blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work.
The market for dynamite and detonating caps grew very rapidly and Alfred Nobel also proved himself to be a very skilful entrepreneur and businessman. By 1865 his factory in Krümmel near Hamburg, Germany, was exporting nitroglycerine explosives to other countries in Europe, America and Australia. Over the years he founded factories and laboratories in some 90 different places in more than 20 countries.
Although he lived in Paris much of his life, he was constantly traveling. Victor Hugo at one time described him as “Europe’s richest vagabond”. When he was not traveling or engaging in business activities Nobel himself worked intensively in his various laboratories, first in Stockholm and later in Hamburg (Germany), Ardeer (Scotland), Paris and Sevran (France), Karlskoga (Sweden) and San Remo (Italy). He focused on the development of explosives technology as well as other chemical inventions, including such materials as synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk, etc. By the time of his death in 1896 he had 355 patents.
Intensive work and travel did not leave much time for a private life. At the age of 43 he was feeling like an old man. At this time he advertised in a newspaper “Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” The most qualified applicant turned out to be an Austrian woman, Countess Bertha Kinsky. After working a very short time for Nobel she decided to return to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. In spite of this, Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner remained friends and kept writing letters to each other for decades. Over the years Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She wrote a famous book, Lay Down Your Arms and became a prominent figure in the peace movement. No doubt this influenced Alfred Nobel when he wrote his final will which was to include a Prize for persons or organizations who promoted peace. Several years after the death of Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) decided to award the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha von Suttner.
When Alfred Nobel died in 1896, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to create five annual prizes honouring ingenuity. He wrote his will in Swedish a year before his death while he lived in Paris, and the portion dealing with the prizes was one long paragraph. It named the groups to make the awards: the Karolinska Institute (medicine), the Swedish Academy of Sciences (chemistry and physics), the Swedish Academy (literature) and the Norwegian Parliament (peace). Nobel named these institutions without consulting them first! And the prize money was to come from a non-existent foundation that his executors had to create posthumously! He bequeathed his fortune to this foundation, that would then provide the funds to the various institutions.
Nobel said in his will that he wanted to reward those “who during the preceding year shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” in five categories. The economics prize was created later, after an endowment from the Swedish central bank (Sveriges Riksbank) in 1968 “in memory of Alfred Nobel”. The Economic Sciences prize has been awarded every year since 1969.
The Nobel prizes almost never came to be, largely because of the unsophisticated way Nobel drew up his will. It was flawed and legally deficient because he lived in many places and never established a legal residence. Nobel resided for many years in France, made intermittent visits to a home in Sweden and amassed assets in many countries before dying of a stroke at his villa in Italy.
To secret Nobel’s French assets to the Swedish consulate in Paris before claims might be made on them there, the will’s principal executor literally sat on Nobel’s millions as he rode a horse-drawn cab through Paris. “I sat with a revolver at the ready in case of a direct attack or a prearranged collision with another vehicle, a trick not unusual among thieves in Paris at the time,” the executor, Ragnar Sohlman, wrote in The Legacy of Alfred Nobel, which was published in English in 1983.
Large philanthropic gifts to science were rare in Nobel’s day. Moreover, establishing annual international prizes in any field was novel. And controversial. News of Nobel’s plan sent shock waves through Sweden with the intensity of a dynamite blast.
Bitter members of Nobel’s largely disinherited family fought the will in court. Scorn was heaped on Nobel’s gift, the equivalent of $9.5 million and one of the largest fortunes of his time, by the king of Sweden, Oscar II, newspapers, political leaders and other Swedes.
Nobel’s earnings came from his 355 patents and factories in many countries. Swedish leaders vehemently opposed dispersing a Swedish fortune to the rest of the world. Among their reasons: it was immoral, particularly at a time when many Swedes were impoverished.
King Oscar II changed his mind after the Nobel Foundation was established in 1900, in part because he thought publicity about the prizes might benefit Sweden. He was too ill to attend the first ceremony in 1901. Starting in 1902, Oscar II and his royal successors have handed the prizes to the laureates on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.
Alfred Nobel never explained his choice of prize categories. Chemistry and physics seem obvious choices because he was a trained chemical engineer.
The medical prize appears to reflect his heritage and interests. A 17th century ancestor, Olof Rudbeck the Elder, a professor of medicine at Uppsala University, was a discoverer of the human lymphatic system. With other researchers, Nobel discussed experiments in blood transfusions. While alive, he gave generously for research at the Karolinska Institute and at Ivan Pavlov’s laboratory in Russia.
Nobel often relieved his depression by writing fiction, drama and poetry, which probably explains his interest in the literature prize.
The reason for the peace prize is less clear. Many say it was to compensate for developing destructive forces. But his explosives, except for ballistite, were not used in any war during his lifetime.
Swedes were astonished that Nobel prepared his will unaided and without consulting the executors of his estate and the institutions that he entrusted to make the awards.
Ragnar Sohlman had to persuade the Swedish institutions to overcome many objections before agreeing to administer the prizes. The new demand was costly and added to the workload of academicians whose salaries were meagre. No blueprint existed to guide the prize juries. Those “who during the preceding year shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” was a rather non-specific and subjective directive. Sweden had produced leading scientists, but insecurity existed about whether a small group of scientists in a small country could effectively judge claims for the discoveries made worldwide.
If any institution that Nobel named in his will rejected his charge, there probably would be no prizes. But by 1900, Mr. Sohlman had gained their cooperation.
The Karolinska Institute decided to primarily reward fundamental biomedical research, not clinical research. That action is credited for linking medicine to the emerging wave of laboratory science illustrated, for example, by Louis Pasteur, a chemist and bacteriologist. Pasteur, who died the year Nobel wrote his will, was ineligible for a prize because the Nobels are not awarded posthumously.
There were many competitors for the first awards, which went to well-recognized scientists: a German, Emil von Behring, for developing a diphtheria immunization; a German, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, in physics for the discovery of X-rays; and a Dutchman, Jacobus H. van’t Hoff, for discovering the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions.
No more than three individuals can win in any science category. The system to choose Nobel medical prize laureates is costly. About $700,000 is spent for the research into the medical prize, now worth about $1.4 million.
The winners are announced in October, over consecutive days. But the nomination process for the next year’s prizes begins a month earlier. The Karolinska Institute asks 3,000 scientists and administrators to nominate by January 31 researchers who they believe have made the most prize-worthy discovery for consideration in that year’s competition.
The first prizes were awarded in 1901, five years after the death of Alfred Nobel. One hundred years later, the Nobel Museum was opened, as a fascinating homage to geniuses and their pathways to their Nobel Prize.
That took a while to read about… 🙂
And it’s time for lunch! At Bistro Nobel, located in the same building. We want this table!
Being on the short side 🙂 little bears easily found the chair signed by Barry Marshall.
In 2005, Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren were named joint winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of “the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease”. Professor Marshall is based at UWA and The Marshall Centre was founded in 2007 to celebrate the award of the Nobel Prize.
Love this photo from the Marshall Centre!
In the artefacts collection, we found the item donated by Professor Marshall, the sample jar that he used to drink the bacterium Helicobacter pylori in a broth solution. He contracted an infection, thereby proving that the bacterium causes gastric ulcers.
Next time you stop for a coffee or a meal at Bistro Nobel don’t forget to turn your chair upside down and see if it has been signed by one of the Nobel Laureates.
There is a more formal guest book for the laureates 🙂
Suitably fed, little Puffles and Honey went to explore Stockholm City Hall where great Nobel banquet is held.
Stockholm City Hall, with its spire featuring the golden Three Crowns, is one of the most famous silhouettes in Stockholm. It is one of the country’s leading examples of national romanticism in architecture. Designed by the architect Ragnar Östberg, the City Hall is built from eight million bricks. The 106-meter tall tower has the three crowns, which is the Swedish national coat of arms, at its apex. Behind the magnificent facades are offices and session halls for politicians and officials, as well as splendid assembly rooms and unique works of art. Stockholm’s municipal council meets in Rådssalen, the Council Chamber.
After dinner in Blå Hallen, the Blue Hall, Nobel Prize laureates, royalty and guests dance in Gyllene Salen, the Golden Hall, with its 18 million gold mosaic tiles.
Nobel laureates walk down the stairs to join the great Nobel banquet held in their honour. If they have stage fright 🙂 a star has been provided on the wall to help them focus!
The Blue Hall, with its straight walls and arcades, incorporates elements of a representative courtyard. But, not so blue! For a long time the architect, Ragnar Östberg, wanted to paint the brick walls in the Blue Hall blue, but he changed his mind when he saw how beautiful the red brick was. Although the hall remained red, he kept the name “Blå Hallen” (Blue Hall) because it was already in general use among Stockholmers. The Nobel Banquet takes place here in the City Hall’s largest ceremonial hall on 10 December every year. The actual prize award ceremony takes place at the Stockholm Concert Hall. The Blue Hall also houses one of the largest pipe organs in Scandinavia, with 10,000 pipes and 135 stops.
The walls of the Golden Hall are decorated with mosaics created by Einar Forseth, depicting the history of Sweden from the 9th century to the 1920s. The images consist of more than 18 million mosaic pieces made of glass and gold. The Queen of Lake Mälaren, that is, Stockholm in human form, sits on a throne and beside her there are figures and buildings from the rest of the world. The balls after the Nobel Banquet always take place in the Golden Hall.
The City Hall of Stockholm can only be visited with a guided tour. Little bears went walkabout 🙂
The Council Chamber is where the 101 members of Stockholm Municipal Council meet. The meetings are open to visitors, who are welcome to sit on one side of the gallery. On the opposite side there is a gallery for journalists. The painted opening in the beamed ceiling is designed to resemble a Viking longhouse.
The walls in the Oval Room are covered in tapestries which were woven at the end of the 17th century in Beauvais, France. On Saturdays civil weddings take place here.
From the Prince’s Gallery you can see the view over Lake Mälaren and Stockholm’s shores. On the other side of the room you can see the same motif in a painting by Prince Eugen. The black pillars are made of diabase rock. By the windows facing the water there are reliefs featuring male and female characters from Norse and classical mythology.
That was fun!