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Hazelius was born in Stockholm, son of Johan August Hazelius, an Army officer (with terminal rank of major general), politician and publicist. He entered Uppsala University in 1854, and received his Ph.D. degree in 1860, after which he worked as a teacher, as well as participating in several school-book and language reform projects.
In 1869 Artur Hazelius was the secretary of the Swedish section at the Scandinavian orthographic congress in Stockholm (det nordiska rättstavningsmötet), and published its proceedings in 1871. The radical reforms in Swedish spelling proposed there sparked opposition from the Swedish Academy and gave Johan Erik Rydqvist (1800–1877) the energy to publish the very conservative 1st edition of the Academy's one volume spelling dictionary in 1874 (Svenska Akademiens Ordlista). However, many of the proposals from the congress were introduced in the 6th edition of the same dictionary in 1889 (e-ä, qv-kv) and the rest (dt, fv, hv) in a spelling reform for Swedish schools, introduced in 1906 by the minister of education Fridtjuv Berg (1851–1916). Berg acknowledged that Hazelius had laid the foundation for all following spelling reforms.
During travels in the country, Hazelius noticed how Swedish folk culture, including architecture and other aspects of the material culture, was eroding under the influence of industrialization, migration and other processes of modernity, and in 1872 he decided to establish a museum for Swedish ethnography, originally (1873) called the Scandinavian ethnographic collection (Skandinavisk-etnografiska samlingen), from 1880 the Nordic Museum (Nordiska Museum, now Nordiska museet). In 1891 he established the open-air museum Skansen, which became the model for other open-air museums in Northern Europe. He got the idea after a visit to the world's first open-air museum, the royal collection of buildings established near Oslo in 1881.
For the Nordic museum, Hazelius bought or managed to get donations of objects – furniture, clothes, toys etc. – from all over Sweden and the other Nordic countries; he was mainly interested in peasant culture but his successors increasingly started to collect objects reflecting bourgeois and urban lifestyles as well. For Skansen he collected entire buildings and farms.
Although the project did not initially get the government funding he had hoped, Hazelius received widespread support and donations, and by 1898 the Society for the promotion of the Nordic Museum (Samfundet för Nordiska Museets främjande) had 4,525 members. The Riksdag, allocated some money for the museums in 1891 and doubled the amount in 1900, the year before his death. During the last few years of his life, Hazelius lived in one of the old buildings on Skansen. He died on the 27 of May 1901, and on 4 February 1902, he was interred in a grave at Skansen.
Hazelius was married to Sofia Elisabeth Grafström, daughter of Anders Abraham Grafström, a poet and member of the Swedish Academy. His only son Gunnar Hazelius (1874-1905) succeeded him as keeper of the Nordic Museum, and Gunnar Hazelius's daughter Gunnel Hazelius-Berg was later keeper of the clothes chamber at Skansen and her husband, Professor Gösta Berg, for some time director of both museums.
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