Visitor information about Swedish national parks gives a problematic picture of humans and animals

As a result of the pandemic, many Swedes have headed out into the country’s forests and other outdoor areas – and its national parks have been particularly well visited. LiU researchers have studied visitor information for Swedish national parks. The results show that, perhaps against its purpose, the information fuels the notion that humans are not part of nature. Most of all, the national parks are presented as isolated refuges to which people can flee, in order to escape society.

Swedish National park Swedish National park

Sweden’s 30 national parks have special protection because of their valuable natural and cultural heritage. Researchers Emelie Fälton and Johan Hedrén from Linköping University have studied the image of the Swedish national parks conveyed by the visitor information. The study has been published in the Journal of Northern Studies.

“The result shows that the nature in the parks is presented as an opposite to society – and especially to humanity. This creates a distance between us and nature, as if we are not part of it, which is problematic. Conservation and national parks are good things, but what notions do we charge these places with, and what consequences does this have for how we view ourselves and the world we call nature?” says Emelie Fälton, doctoral student at the Department of Thematic Studies, and first author of the article.

The researchers studied visitor information for Swedish national parks. The information, produced between 2008 and 2018, consisted of books and web pages from tourism organisations such as Visit Sweden and the Swedish Tourist Association, as well as actors in conservation such as the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

Both the images and texts demonstrate clearly that northern Sweden is presented as unknown wilderness. These perceptions can be traced all the way back to the Romantic era (...)
Emelie Fälton

For the study, the researchers analysed more than 2000 images, using the Norrköping Decision Arena with its 360° surround screen. They also analysed visitor information in written form, as well as in a combination of texts and images. Using discourse analysis, the researchers could see the representations that were present (or not present) in the material, as well as the significance of this for the relationship between humans and animals.

The exotic north of Sweden meets the familiar, accessible south

The picture of the national park that emerges is, to a degree, contradictory. On the one hand, the wild and untouched nature is portrayed as extraordinary, yet on the other hand as something everyday, accessible for everyone.

The image of nature as something wild and exotic is particularly noticeable in materials that describe national parks in the north of Sweden. For instance, the parks in Norrland province are described as mystical and sublime, in strong contrast to society, and can only be accessed by experienced hikers. National parks in the southern part of Sweden, however, are described as ordinary and accessible for everyone, safe to visit and easy to learn things from.

“Both the images and texts demonstrate clearly that northern Sweden is presented as unknown wilderness. These perceptions can be traced all the way back to the Romantic era, and they peaked around 1900, but are still very much alive today”, says Emelie Fälton.

But there are also similarities in the descriptions of the various national parks in Sweden; they are all presented as superior to other types of nature, as something worth protecting. In some cases the image becomes elitist, and it reinforces the division between people and nature: the parks are adventure-filled places for people to learn in and escape to, but which they can then leave, to return to the “real” world.

The study was funded with the assistance of the research programme The Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboration.

The Neverlands of Nature. Exploring Representations of the Non-Human in Visitor Information Publication Material on Swedish National Parks, Emelie Fälton, Johan Hedrén. Journal of Northern Studies, Vol 14, no. 1, 2020.


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