A box of delights | National Museum of Norway, Oslo - Museums Association

A box of delights | National Museum of Norway, Oslo

The chief curator of Oslo’s elegant new museum talks about the difficulties and joys of uniting four collections, covering 3,500 years of history, in a single building
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The museum building is topped by the Light Hall, a contemporary art space that glows elegantly at night NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NORWAY/PHOTO IWAN BAAN

Oslo’s waterfront rivals that of any city in the world, with cultural powerhouses such as the Oslo Opera House and exhilarating views over Oslofjord. It now holds another gem: the new National Museum of Norway, which opened in June. 

The result of a merger between four institutions – the National Gallery, the Museum of Arts and Crafts, the Museum of Architecture and the Museum of Contemporary Art – the museum is the largest in the Nordic region.

At first glance, the new institution is more earthbound than flashy neighbours such as the 13-storey Munch Museum. It hugs the ground closely, a monolithic rectangle of stern grey slate.

An installation from I Call It Art, the opening exhibition in the museum’s Light Hall space, dedicated to contemporary art NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NORWAY/PHOTO IWAN BAAN

But the building has some surprises: it is topped by the Light Hall, an exhibition space for contemporary art. Clad in marble glass – a thin sheet of marble sandwiched between two sheets of glass, never used on this scale before – the box glows elegantly at night.

The museum puts the environment first, using sustainable natural materials, such as bronze and oak, that will age beautifully. It is a
pilot project of FutureBuilt, a Norwegian programme to cut carbon emissions of new buildings by 50% more than current standards.

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The collection spans art, architecture and design from prehistory to the present, reflecting Norway’s artistic heritage and deep connection to nature and the sea. A new work by the Indigenous Sami artist Máret Ánne Sara made of 400 reindeer skulls dominates the entrance hall.

A gallery is devoted to the disquieting genius of Edvard Munch, which holds the version of The Scream that was notoriously stolen in 1994. The Fairy Tale Room, designed for children, explores the dark folk tales of spirits and trolls that are a central part of the country’s identity.

Pile o'Sápmi, a work by Indigenous Sami artist Máret Ánne Sara made of 400 reindeer skulls NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NORWAY/PHOTO IWAN BAAN

Chief curator Birgitte Sauge – speaking on behalf of the museum’s 17 curatorial teams – told Museums Journal about the complex task of creating the new museum.

What were your main curatorial goals?

Birgitte Sauge: The collection displays show the main strands of Norwegian art history in an international context, throwing light on Norway’s place in the world, and provides insights into different perceptions of Norwegian identity. 

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The curatorial teams had the same task: to communicate one narrative and one collection to today’s visitors, based on four museum collections with different purposes and histories. The result is two mainly chronological presentations: design, crafts and fashion on the ground floor and art and architecture on the first floor. Each room and theme has historical context to show the environment in which the works were created.

The focus has been on the human element – how art, architecture and design relate to human life and its various needs. The displays are built around the human dimension, from 3,500 years ago to the present. This focus has also determined our approach to learning resources – the aim has been to communicate to a broad, diverse audience; and to reflect an awareness of each exhibit’s historical significance while catering to contemporary audiences. Visitors are encouraged to engage with and learn more about the subjects through text, multimedia displays and practical activities.

The museum has extensive costume and textile collections NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NORWAY/PHOTO IWAN BAAN
What are the highlights of the collection?

Some key works are especially popular among visitors, such as the medieval Baldishol Tapestry, the Nøstetangen goblets from the 1700s, 19th-century landscape paintings by Norwegian artists such as Johan Christian Dahl and Peder Balke, and of course iconic paintings by Edvard Munch such as The Scream. But we have tried to avoid a presentation centred around highlights, instead curating each room as a unit centred around a theme.

Throughout, we have tried to highlight female artists and designers and so challenge old ways of seeing the collections. Nearly all rooms have one key work with an extended label and further information on the multimedia guide. These works cast light on the room’s main narrative, but are not always by the best-known artists. In one of the early 20th-century art displays, the centrepiece is a painting by the relatively unknown Norwegian artist Karen Holtsmark (1907-98), rather than work by Pablo Picasso or Asger Jorn.

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Four rooms are dedicated to one single artist or architect: Dahl, Harriet Backer, Munch and Sverre Fehn. This indicates their position in Norwegian art history and also creates breaks within the storytelling.

What was your hardest curatorial decision?

With 86 rooms and 6,500 works on display, there have been numerous big and small decisions. The most difficult was perhaps the most foundational: what type of presentation should we go for? Several single-disciplinary chronological layouts, or should it be thematic? Should it be completely cross-disciplinary?

Another closely linked question was how to make the presentation meaningful to a broad variety of visitors. We ended up with a chronologically structured presentation with thematically organised rooms, partly due to the layout of the museum building, the content of the various collections and the physical condition of each particular work. A programme for cultural mediation activities provides a variety of opportunities for learning and moments of inspiration, surprise and challenge, while also stimulating creativity.

In addition to its contemporary art spaces, the museum has more traditional galleries to display its historic art collections NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NORWAY/PHOTO IWAN BAAN
How will this organisation change Oslo’s cultural scene? 

The new museum is part of a wider shift in Oslo over the past decade, with new cultural buildings, including the Deichman public library and the Munch Museum, and a lot of public and private cultural institutions and galleries with ambitious programmes. It’s also part of the transformation of the city’s waterfront.  

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of opening the museum?

It is really rewarding to finally see all the rooms filled with people, observing how they interact and engage with the displays. Within the museum, this work has provided a valuable platform for cooperation across traditional disciplines, professions and organisational borders. 

Telling tales

Møyfrid Tveit on capturing the magic of fairytale art

The Fairy Tale Room was designed especially for children Photo by Ina Wesenberg

The old National Gallery had a fairytale room that was popular with families and groups of school children. It led many visitors to our study room for drawings and prints to see the other fairytale illustrations up close. In the new museum we wanted to create a similar room with many of the same works, but in a new “wrapping”.

Norwegian folk tales, and their visual expression in drawings, painting and design, are an important part of our cultural heritage. The Fairy Tale Room (below) reflects the atmosphere of the original drawings and other related works in our collection. By using the green colour scheme, alluding to moss and greenery, we aimed at associations with the forest and nature. Furthermore, some specific design elements, such as the tree in the middle of the room, tree stumps as supports for the sculptures, and the technical elements of light, shadow and sound, are intended to strengthen the character of the room.

Nevertheless, the most important objects in the room are the original artworks. The peepholes in the tree trunk showing copies of the fairytale drawings made it possible to integrate these as a permanent part of the exhibition. Throughout this year, the temporary exhibition East of the Sun and West of the Moon shows a fine selection of the original drawings from our treasure trove of fairytale fine art. More drawings are available for all visitors to see in our study room upon request.

Møyfrid Tveit is curator of the Fairy Tale Room at the National Museum of Norway, Oslo

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