To the left: Map of Gothenburg from 1923, with places marked where Roma historically lived or stayed. The places have been grouped into three periods. Orange shows places that can be attributed to the second half of the 19th century, green is places around the year 1920 and blue is places around 1950. The borderline surrounding the city shows its extent in 1921. To the right: Snarsmon in northern Bohuslän near the border with Norway, a place where Traveller families had lived during the second half of the 19th century.

Cultural heritage at the crossroads

Despite the fact that Roma and Travellers have been in Sweden for 500 years, we know little about their lives and history. In her Rörligare Kulturarv research project, Ingrid Martins Holmberg has for the first time compiled the knowledge that does exist about how they lived and worked.

Ingrid Martins Holmberg’s interest in the lives of Roma and Travellers began when she happened to see a photo of a Roma tent site at Gothenburg Central Station. It was from the 1950s, before the Roma became citizens and received the right to take up permanent residence.

“It was a watershed for me. I have a great interest in Gothenburg history but never came across the fact that for several years there was a Roma tent site there, in central Gothenburg.”

Her curiosity eventually led to the Rörligare Kulturarv (“Mobile Cultural Heritage”) research project, in which she has surveyed the knowledge that exists about the history and settlements of Roma and Travellers. It turned out that museums, county administrative boards and others have carried out more than ten relevant cultural heritage projects.

“Roma can’t go to church archives because they were not registered in municipalities for a long time. So you have to go to other sources, and it became apparent that cultural heritage sector employees are sitting on knowledge of how to go about this.”

She has now compiled the knowledge she collected in the book Vägskälens kulturarv – kulturarv vid vägskäl (“The Crossroads’ Cultural History – Cultural History at the Crossroads”).

As part of the Rörligare Kulturarv project at the Department of Conservation, a case study surveyed Roma historical settlements in the Gothenburg area from the end of the 19th century until 1950. Government reports and local historical literature were among the sources used.

Settlements were identified in more than ten places. They included Bergslagsparken near Central Station, a meadow area behind Backaplan before it became a shopping centre and a meadow next to the Koppartrans oil refinery in Skarvikshamnen.

They also discovered that Roma periodically lived in the city centre as well, in now-demolished quarters in Östra Nordstan. At the beginning of the 20th century, America-bound emigrants and others stayed in cheap hotels there, and it was a place where many disparate groups came together.

The mapping of settlements later was included in the Rom San project tracing Roma history at Gothenburg City Museum. In addition to the exhibition and the book We are Roma, the project included a major commitment to education, and Roma representatives had a great deal of influence on the project.

“This was the first exhibition in which Roma could read and write their own history. Previous historical accounts often have been based on clichés, so this was a powerful experience for everyone, especially the Roma themselves.”

Ingrid Martins Holmberg

Ingrid Martins Holmberg

Another large project that mapped settlements is Resandekartan (“the Travellers’ Map”). It originated with an archaeological excavation initiated in 2004 in Snarsmon in northern Bohuslän near the border with Norway, a place where Traveller families had lived during the second half of the 19th century. “They often lived close to national boundaries and wandered around, making a living selling farm produce.”

The archaeological project was subsequently expanded into Resandekartan, which is a digital map of sites in western Sweden and southern Norway where Travellers lived and worked. This is a collaboration among museums on both sides of the border, the Swedish National Heritage Board and its Norwegian counterpart and representatives from three Travellers organisations. “Resandekartan is an enormously interesting initiative since it shows both sites and occurrences.”

The sites have been selected in part by looking for names that allude to “tattare”, or tinkers – the old name for Travellers. In southern portions of Sweden, the cultural heritage sector also has mapped Roma and Travellers settlements, and they are included in listings by county in the book.

Ingrid Martins Holmberg has recently been involved in starting a new centre at the University of Gothenburg, the Centre for Critical Heritage Studies. Her work will include initiating new cultural heritage research on urban issues under the theme “Curating the City”.

She regards the Rörligare Kulturarv project as basic research and hopes that her book will be used as a source of information and inspiration for further research. “It would be exciting to be involved in finding the oldest physical traces of Roma in Sweden. I would also like to look at how city planning enables the coming together of differing groups and backgrounds. Why is it that cultural, social and ethnic dissimilarities are accommodated in some parts of the city and not others? Like in Östra Nordstan before it was demolished – all of this existed there, after all.”