Astrid von Rosen – A pioneer in scenography research


With a keen interest in sensory experiences and scenography, Astrid von Rosen has recently been promoted to Professor of Art History and Visual Studies. She hopes that interaction between those outside and inside academia will continue to develop and expand and that research will have a tangible impact in society and vice versa.

Von Rosen’s childhood was defined by her parents’ eco-conscious lifestyle, encompassing organic gardening, veganism, conscious consumption and ideas about a global language. At the time, these were ideas that could be seen as extremely odd, while today they are often seen as good or even taken for granted. Von Rosen herself left the family’s red cottage in southern Östergötland for Stockholm, where she trained as a dancer at the Royal Swedish Ballet School. On completing her training, she worked as a classical and modern dancer at the opera houses in Malmö and Gothenburg.

“Dance was both a lifestyle and a powerful form of expression. I’ve danced in classical ballets like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. I am proudest of all of having been in dance theatre works at Stora Teatern here in Gothenburg.”

I stopped dancing because my body said no; it was too much with two small children and taking on extra work due to the banking crisis in around 1990. And then I had a powerful longing to be able to use my brain in a different way, a way that wasn’t possible when I was working as a dancer

However, it wasn’t until after she had studied information and business communication at the IHM Business School in the early 2000s that von Rosen found her way into academia.

“Coming from the world of dance to finding courses at Gothenburg University was hard. At first I took summer courses and evening courses and after that things moved quickly. Via philosophy and the history of ideas, it was art history and visual studies that grabbed me. I worked hard but I had no self-confidence. My children were quite young at the time, I was amid the chaos of a divorce, but I survived by focusing on my studies. One of my lecturers said, “don’t you know how good this is?” about an essay I wrote on Foucault.”

In 2007 von Rosen became a doctoral student in art history and visual studies and her interest in scenography started to take shape. In her research project, she worked with Gothenburg City Museum, writing about the groundbreaking set designer Knut Ström. Today von Rosen is pleased that her solid work is being used in the museum sector and that scenography has started to flourish as an international field of research.

In late 2022, the Vice-Chancellor announced that what in 2016–2022 had been the Centre for Critical Cultural Heritage Studies (CCHS) would continue as a centre for another six years and von Rosen took over as its director from 2023 onwards.

“At CCHS we are developing a theme that revolves around cultural heritage and sustainability. I look forward to taking scenography out into the city and examining it as ‘fast architecture’ – what happens or is done when places change through people’s actions and phenomena like urban gardening, spaces for insects, the weather, art interventions, graffiti, advertising, tents, birds, etc.”

Professor Astrid von Rosen står vid monter och håller upp faktablad om Sven Lindqvist
Photo: Jenny Högström Berntsson

Sven Lindqvist’s ground-breaking book Dig Where You Stand: How to Research a Job (first published in Swedish in 1978) is a constant presence in von Rosen’s current research, and it’s a book close to the heart of the Department of Cultural Sciences and CCHS. The first ever English translation of the book is set to be published in March this year, the result of a ten-year-long collaboration between Astrid von Rosen and Andrew Flinn.

“Lindqvist’s analysis of how bodies are archives of knowledge and how bodies bear traces of the structures in which they have lived is brilliantly incisive. His work can be linked both to insights from years of feminist research and to neo-materialism, which focuses on the relationship between the practical, concrete and physical (in a broad sense), and political and ideological dimensions. I am especially interested in the significance of the senses and how sensory experiences can be used as critical tools in research.”

I would argue that scenography is a good way to access the multi-sensory and physical aspects of history and contemporary events. I research scenography, but the theory and the methods can be used in different areas

Outside her academic career, von Rosen goes by the name of Simonssons Änka, and blogs on food, grief and love. Blogging has become a way of detaching from work and fully engaging with her creativity, processing grief and enjoying new tastes and flavours. At the same time, it is hard not to see a certain connection between food blogging and von Rosen’s academic interest in the senses and scenography. Both, after all, incorporate scents, atmosphere, and creating spaces and communities.

What does the professorship mean to you?
“I’m incredibly proud and happy to have been made a professor of art history and visual studies, specialising in scenography. As the two Finnish experts emphasised, I am a pioneer in scenography research, in bringing together theoretical renewal and empirical research. I am so grateful to them for taking the time to assess my work seriously and in depth.”

Von Rosen says that being granted a role that both involves leadership and representing the subject and the activities in which she engages feels a great responsibility, while she also assumes that being a professor may make it easier to be heard and treated with respect.

“At the same time, everyone, no matter where they are in the meritocracy ought to be able to be seen and heard. The memory of being dismissed by people higher up in the hierarchy as a committed and knowledgeable student still rankles. We must always defend and advocate for speech, listening, dialogue and writing, in the form of a respectful and creative exchange within and outside the structures of academia.”

What do you think the future holds?
“The strongest driver in my identity as a researcher and my research itself is that I still don’t feel at home in academia. I find it difficult to put up with bureaucratic inertia, although I respect the reasons why we have the systems we do. If all goes well, if I have the energy and my health, I have about ten years left to work in academia as a platform. My hope, which springs from the ideas in Dig where you stand is that interaction between those outside and inside academia will continue to develop and expand and that research will have a tangible impact in society and vice versa.”

Matarvspodden: Episode 15 "Mat i nöd och lust" (Podcast in Swedish)

Text: Linnéa Saaranen