The Nobel Museum: A Celebration of What is Possible

This is the Nobel Museum. IMG_8812Situated in the heart of Gamla Stan near the Royal Palace, the museum pays homage to the Nobel Prize Winners in six categories: Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Economics, and Physiology/Medicine. Since 1901 there have been 863 prizes awarded, some sparking controversy, others lending a bit of character to the history of the prize.

One such character was Albert Einstein. Although awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921 for “his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect,” (not his Theory of Relativity, which at the time was considered too controversial), he didn’t actually receive the prize until the following year. In fact, no one got it in 1921. The committee felt Einstein didn’t merit the award but in 1922 decided that if they didn’t give Einstein the prize, historians would judge them harshly. (Like no kidding!) Lucky for his ex-wife things worked out. Years earlier she’d divorced him with the agreement that when (not if) Einstein won the Nobel Prize he would give her the money, which he did, for herself and the upkeep of their two sons.

Winners of the prize today are given 800 million Swedish Kronner (1.2 million US dollars), a medal, airfare and a weeks’ stay at the Grand Hotel for themselves and five of their friends and a hand painted diploma, specifically created by a team of artists to reflect their achievement. Take a look at some of the designs…IMG_8853


The Nobel Awards are held every year on December 10th, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel. Sweden’s four universities take turns hosting the “Nobel Nightcap,” the after party of the ceremonies. With over a hundred sponsors supporting the event, I’m told it is an incredible event of Disney-like proportions.

Museum goers can see all the faces of the Laureates, their photographs running along a dry cleaning track on the ceiling of the museum. They rotate in no particular order, each photo completing a revolution every six hours. Japanese tourists, our guide said, have been known to sit for all six hours to see their country’s laureates. I guess if you’ve traveled that far, why not?

While looking up, I noticed the photo of Alan L. Hodgkin making its way along the track (not be confused with Thomas Hodgkin). Born in England in 1914, Hodgkin was awarded the prize in medicine for his research at Cambridge on nerve “action potential.” I have nary a clue as to what that means, but to date, more than ten percent of all Nobel Laureates have studied or worked at Cambridge. Impressive!

Meandering through interactive displays with photos of brilliant people gliding overhead, I had the sense that more is possible. Better is doable. People really can change the world. I wandered into the museum’s small theater room, where four-minute clips run continuously about the lives of each prize recipient, just as the black and white reel played a clip of Nelson Mandela. I saw his speech to the ANC as a young man protesting apartheid then watched his address to fellow countrymen after his release from twenty-seven years in prison. He repeated the same words he spoke during his trial:

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with South African president F.W. de Klerk,  in 1993 for ending apartheid and bringing democracy to South Africa. To me Nelson Mandela is the very essence of why Alfred Nobel created this award, to highlight the best of what is possible in humanity.

Alfred Nobel himself was a scientist, inventor and entrepreneur with ninety-four factories around the world. Most well-known for inventing dynamite and nitroglycerin, he also wrote poetry, loved literature and spoke five languages. In his will he left 265 million dollars to fund future prizes to honor individuals who contributed to society in profound and meaningful ways.

The guidelines for choosing Nobel winners are broad and subject to interpretation by Swedish committees, however, the peace prize recipient, (Alfred stipulated in his will), would be selected by five individuals from the Norwegian Parliament based on the following 3 criteria:

1. The holding and promotion of peace conferences.

2. Reduction of standing armies.

3. Furthering the brotherhood and fraternity between nations.

Usually given to heads of state, this prize, more than any other, has sparked controversy over the years. Regrettably, one name is missing from the list of winners: Mohandas Gandhi. Nominated five times, he was never chosen and died in 1948, making him ineligible to receive the award posthumously (part of the rules.)

You should know, an enormous amount of creativity and genius goes into the bestowal and celebration of each prize. This is most evidenced by the exhibition by Beckmans College of Design and The Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Each year, students interpret the theme of the awards, creating a dress and original musical score based on the chosen innovation. I was blown away by the level of care and creativity.

Here is the dress for Economics. IMG_8832

I stood looking at the gown, listening to my headset pound a relentless beat, like the nervous churning of a runaway train. Visually, the shining copper coils form a gladiator-type halter with a luxuriant flowing skirt echoing an economy that’s had to do battle while certain sectors have remained incongruously opulent. Together, the dress and music were a statement of our times.

The Physics ensemble was based on the Higg’s Theory of mass particles. IMG_8833

The interpretation creates exactly that. A mass of silken thread particles enveloping the dress…made out of forty percent concrete. There is something massive too about the musical score accompanying this fashion statement. The piano music holds a steady melody of high and low notes while the sound of a bass cello and drum play in the distance, muffled by buzzing and humming noises, as if half the orchestra is underwater. The mirroring of music and design was incredible.

The Literature dress took a very literal interpretation of ‘spinning a yarn’. IMG_8841

Indeed the white dress is reminiscent of the white pages of a novel, laced with the broken roving red thread, a metaphor of Alice Munro’s work. Her short, yet poignant stories, seem to unravel and twist in the same way, leading the reader to unexpected and often “broken” places. The musical interpretation for this design was minor in tone. A deep resounding oboe, bass guitar, and violin played tenderly as a piano disputed the somber notes with a jazzy interjection. That’s literature for you.

Medicine was created with the iconic sterile white and surgical green. IMG_8835

Millions of tiny beads representing the “the discover[y] of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”. Even if it isn’t altogether clear what that means scientifically, you can see it visually. And you can hear it in the music, with the repeated brush strokes of the hi-hat cymbal, tinkling and pulsing its way through a chamber of cells in constant motion.

My favorite dress was the Peace ensemble. IMG_8856

The most fashionable of the exhibition, the dress was formed from a transparent black layer that left the body partially exposed, symbolizing our universal humanity–who we all are at our core. Layered on top were awkwardly shaped puzzle-like pieces, not intended to fit together. Rather the pieces crowded one another, over lapping territories in imperfect ways, creating texture. The hem was aptly linked by chains. Beneath this patchwork, a shimmering bodice sparkles through…hope in a dark time. You can see on the stand to the left, a piece of the dress hanging. The prize for peace was awarded this year to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. To me, this unworn piece symbolizes the unfinished work of fashioning a world without chemical weapons.

The music that accompanied Peace, was a pop song, the chorus sung by a woman belting out the catchy phrase, “Don’t give me war,” over and over. The gutsy lyrics and upbeat chords, in time, ventured sharply to more angelic strains with children’s voices speaking in the background. It felt like the prayers of our children for the future.

There was so much to take in from the exhibition, physically and mentally. I couldn’t stop thinking afterward about the men and women who have shaped our history and paved the pathway of our future.

Before leaving, I read the signatures on the bottom of the cafe chairs on display. IMG_8829

Every Nobel Laureate signs the bottom of a chair that is later added to the cafe. Since the award ceremony was just this week, the recent chairs were on display. Three scientist left these inspiring words: “To the future Nobel Laureates who may be looking at the bottom of this chair…”IMG_8827

It made me consider…no one, with the exception of Einstein, ever thought he or she would get the Nobel Prize. They were men and women doing what they loved, what they were passionate about, either for the joys of exploration or the needs of survival. Their lives are testament to the fact that the human spirit can triumph over the ills of society. We only need to read their stories to know what is possible.

The Ambassador of the United States to Sweden, Mark Brzezinski and his lovely wife Natalia attended the Nobel ceremonies and hosted the nine American Nobel Prize winners at their residence. If you’d like to read the remarks of that very special evening click here.

4 Comments on “The Nobel Museum: A Celebration of What is Possible

  1. I got completely distracted by the Nobel Peace Prize part of your post. It amazes me BHO won and Ghandi didn’t. Can they award this prize posthumously?

    • They won’t award it posthumously, which is a real bummer. Luckily Albert Camus, one of the youngest writers to win the prize at age 44, got it when he did. He died three years later.

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