Read more about Norway’s new National Museum here
While Oslo’s illustrious new mega-museum, the Munch, looms large over Haborside, the National Museum is more refined and retired. Despite the stunning setting on the edge of the fjord, next to the ferry ports and opposite Oslo’s famous City Hall, the new museum is located behind two old train station buildings, one of which now hosts the Nobel Peace Center. Other than the air, it’s hard to see the true scale of this tall and low building – the largest museum in the Nordic countries, with more floor space than the Rijksmuseum.
It must be great. Created from the merger of five of Norway’s major art and design institutions, the National Gallery is part of a larger consolidation of the country’s state galleries. (Like every part of this massive project, this policy is vigorously debated in Norway) grande lady It was the Old National Gallery – established in 1842 and in its former building since 1882. The gallery houses an unrivaled collection of Norwegian paintings, the most famous of which is Edvard Munch yelp. Other merged museums were those devoted to contemporary art, architecture, arts and crafts, and the agency that created national tourism galleries.
“Norwegian politicians decided to combine these four groups into one to have an institution that would be able to tell the whole story from antiquity to today about visual arts and culture,” says National Museum Director, Karen Hindsbo.
The result is an institution of unusually large scale. In its nearly 100 rooms, you’ll see everything from antique sculptures and Ming vases to the latest contemporary art. Design shows contain the kind of everyday things most Norwegians have in their homes, while fashion shows include Norway’s coronation dresses.
There is a less obvious benefit to the new building behind the scenes. Unusually for a downtown museum, it includes a store for most of the 400,000 items in the collection, as well as offices, preservation and photography studios. “You start out together in a different way,” Hindsbo says. “We are able to gain new knowledge about our group. For example, we recently found infographics on Munch’s Madonna, which supports previous theories that the National Museum copy is the first copy drawn by Munch. This collaboration between different departments – in this context, photography and conservation – is made a lot easier when we all come together under one roof. “
Having an entirely new building and the freedom to rethink the museum’s collections in any way they wanted also brought challenges. “There aren’t a lot of reference points when you’re building a whole new National Museum and displaying a new collection from scratch,” Hindsbo says. “You have a blank canvas – of course it’s hard to choose what you want to do.”
After a long debate, the museum decided to display the collection using a relatively traditional chronological model. The ground floor houses the design, arts and crafts displays, and then the fine arts on the first floor. Here you can find artworks including works by Harald Sohlberg Winter night in the mountains (1914), voted favorite Norwegian painting. It is interspersed with works by prominent international artists who had a special influence on Norwegian art – Cézanne, Picasso and Van Gogh. Then a set of whitewashed galleries display the museum’s contemporary collections.
The consolidation and alteration of collections has forced the National Museum to consider the gaps in its collection. “We see clear gender gaps, especially when it comes to older work,” says Hindsbow. “It is easier to equalize contemporary art, it is not so easy when it comes to nineteenth century art, fifteenth or sixteenth century for that matter. So our curators have invested a lot of time researching and locating the pieces. We are also focusing on sublime art. I think recently, and even when I started, there were some people who felt there was no place for that in the National Museum.”
“The new institution is able to tell the whole story from antiquity to today”
Karen Hindsbow, Director of the National Museum
This interest in the art of the Sami – the indigenous people of the far north of Scandinavia – is evident from the museum entry. The first artwork you see is Pile O’ Sápmi Supreme, a 2017 work by Marit-on-Sarah, an artist who is also currently showing in the North Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Four hundred reindeer skulls, flesh slashed and bones shimmering, hung like a horrific flag in the entrance hall. Labor protest against the culling of reindeer imposed by the Norwegian government.
Another way the museum is expanding the works it can display is by partnering with the Fredriksen Family Collection. While the museum’s contemporary collection is primarily made up of Norwegian artists, they will be able to supplement it with works from a trove of international art from the past ninety years, collected by billionaire sisters Katherine and Cecily Frederiksen in memory of their mother, Inger Astrup Frederiksen. The works will be displayed in a dedicated space next to the usual contemporary shows – the inaugural show includes such notable artists as Simone Leigh and Sheila Hicks.
“From the Fredriksen Family Collection, we focus on pioneering female artists, influences who have been important to Norwegian art history and artists,” says Stina Högkvist, Head of Collections and Galleries. “But some of them can still inspire today’s artists as well. Artists that may not have been introduced more widely in the Nordic countries.”
Walking around the new museum, what really catches the eye is the quality of the finishes and materials. The cost of the National Museum has been controversial – 6.1 billion crowns (about £500 million) – but it’s not hard to see where the budget has gone. The outer part is covered with norwegian, on which small vines began to grow. The floors are oak and the fixtures are bronze. The stunning Light Hall at the top is surrounded by marble.
Designed to last for centuries, environmental concerns were also of paramount importance: The National Museum was planned to have half the carbon footprint of similar buildings, and use water from the fjord for heating and cooling. “In terms of sustainability, the materials you use are very important,” Hindsbo says. “For example, it’s recycled steel, so the board on the facade is a stone that can last for centuries and safely outlive. Same for oak floors. Perhaps it would be easier or cheaper to buy linoleum, but then you’ll need to change that in five Or ten years.
Of course, Norway has become rich in oil – it has the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world – but, like the Gulf states, it needs to eventually transition to a future free of fossil fuels. One way to do this is to attract more tourists. The National Gallery joins last year’s Munch, 2007 Opera and 2012’s Astrup Fernley Museum as part of a series of attention-grabbing new cultural buildings along Oslo Harbour. He’s part of a new, outward-looking face of this traditionally humble country.
“There has been this huge investment in cultural institutions in Norway, in Oslo in particular in the last decade,” says Hindsbo. “So this is very special and important. We need to work closely together to maintain the momentum we have now. For art to take another place in society. And also to use art to make Norway [assume] international standing.
But Hindsbow points out, international tourists aren’t the only target. “We are also the national museum, so we work very privately with Norway, telling stories from our collection that will have connections to all parts of the country,” she says. “It is important that the people of Norway feel ownership of the new museum and our collection.”
The opening of the National Museum is the end of a long process, drawn up even more due to Covid and construction delays. The museums were administratively merged in 2003-2005; In 2008 the site for the new museum was chosen; An architectural competition was held in 2009, which was won by German-Italian architect Klaus Schwerk; The building began in 2014. It was supposed to open in 2020, but the delay has led to a return to June 11 this year.
As a result, many of Norway’s art treasures have remained out of sight for several years – the old National Gallery closed in 2019. To help mitigate this, some major works from the collection have been toured around the country, many visiting the sites they depicted .
Hindsbo interviewed me a month before opening – the museum looks almost ready and they have just completed basic safety checks. As this marathon project approaches the finish line, what do you hope visitors will feel?
“For a Norwegian audience, I’d say proud,” she says. “To be so proud of what we have in Norway, what kind of group we have. What kind of cultural nation have we become and still are, for much longer than Norwegians think. And for a global audience? I can’t wait to come back.”
Four main spaces in the new museum
hall of light
The museum’s signature space is located on top of the building. The Hall of Light is a tall, cube-shaped square with walls made of thin, translucent layers of marble between glass panes. At night, it will glow with the light of 9,000 energy-efficient LED lights and can be clearly seen from aircraft approaching Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport. Like Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, it’ll be home to a series of solo artist contemporary commissions, but in form it resembles the glass box that extends over the chimney of the Museum of London. It is 130 meters long and seven meters high.
Frederiksen family group room
Behind the series of exhibitions comprising the museum’s contemporary collection is a private room dedicated to works from the Fredriksen Family Collection. The large exhibition space is highly adaptable, with foldable walls and a curtain system allowing it to be easily divided into smaller spaces, eg for displaying video works. This is to allow displays to quickly adapt to changing situations and also to reduce the physical waste associated with rebuilding exhibitions.
While most of the galleries are windowless or overlook the inner courtyards, the salon on the second floor offers an expansive view of the Oslo Harbor. It will have a bar serving drinks and snacks and a rest area for visitors. The back of space was activated by Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #839Donated by the Norwegian financial services firm Storebrand. The salon overlooks the courtyard café set up behind the old train station buildings in front of the museum, one of which is now home to the Nobel Peace Center.
Oslo has lost one of its defining areas for more than three years. The closure of the old National Gallery in 2019 meant farewell to the room dedicated to the city’s most famous son of art. Edvard Munch’s new room evokes the old room. It will have 18 panels, including girls on the bridge (1901), Self-portrait with a cigarette (1895), perhaps the second most famous painting in the world, 1893 yelp. More of Munch’s work can be seen in the aisle outside as well as in the main commentary.
• Read more about Norway’s new National Museum here