Read more about Norway’s new National Museum here
While Oslo’s other shiny new mega museum, the Munch, looms up dramatically over the habourside, the National Museum is more subtle and retiring. Despite a spectacular setting on the edge of the fjord, next to the ferry ports and opposite Oslo’s famous City Hall, the new museum slots in graciously behind two old train station buildings, one of which now hosts the Nobel Peace Center. Long and low, it is hard to see the true scale of this building—the biggest museum in the Nordic countries, with more floorspace than the Rijksmuseum—other than from the air.
It needs to be big. The National Museum has been created from the merger of four of Norway’s major art and design institutions, part of a larger consolidation of the country’s state-run galleries. (Like every single part of this massive project, this policy has been vigorously debated in Norway.) The grande dame was the old National Gallery—established way back in 1842 and in its previous building since 1882. The gallery housed a peerless collection of Norwegian painting, most famously Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The other merged museums were those dedicated to contemporary art, architecture, arts and crafts, and an agency that created national touring exhibitions.
“Norwegian politicians decided to bring these four collections into one to have an institution that was able to tell the whole story from antiquity up until today about visual arts and culture”, says the National Museum’s director, Karin Hindsbo.
The result is an institution of unusually broad scope. In its nearly 100 rooms, you will see everything from antique sculptures and Ming vases to the latest contemporary art. The design displays have the kind of everyday objects most Norwegians will have in their homes, while the fashion displays include the coronation dresses of Norway’s queens.
A less obvious benefit of the new building is behind the scenes. Unusually for a city-centre museum, it includes a store for most of the 400,000 objects in the collection, as well as offices, conservation and photography studios. “You start working together in a different way,” Hindsbo says. “We are able to gain new knowledge about our collection. For example we recently found underdrawings on Munch’s Madonna, supporting earlier theories that the National Museum’s version is the very first one Munch painted. This co-operation between different departments—in this context, photography and conservation—is made much easier when we are all gathered under one roof.”
Having a whole new building and the freedom to rethink the museum’s collections in any way they wanted also brought challenges. “There are not so many points of reference when you build a whole new national museum and do a new collection display from scratch,” Hindsbo says. “You have a blank canvas—of course it is difficult to choose what to do.”
After a long debate, the museum decided to display the collection using a relatively traditional chronological model. The ground floor has the design and arts and crafts displays, then the fine arts are on the first floor. It’s here you can find artworks including Harald Sohlberg’s Winter Night in the Mountains (1914), voted Norway’s favourite painting. They are interspersed with works by prominent international artists that have had a particular impact on Norwegian art—Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh. Then an enfilade of white-painted galleries present the museum’s contemporary collections.
Merging the collections and rehanging them has forced the National Museum to look at the gaps in its collection. “We see obvious gender gaps, especially when it comes to older works,” Hindsbo says. “It’s easier to achieve equality for contemporary art, it’s not so easy when it comes to 19th century art, or 15th or 16th for that matter. So our curators have invested quite a lot of time into research and locating pieces. We are also focusing on Sámi art. I think quite recently, and even when I began, there were some people who felt there wasn’t a place for that in the National Museum.”
‘The new institution is able to tell the whole story from antiquity up until today’
Karin Hindsbo, National Museum director
This attention to the art of the Sámi—the indigenous people of the far north of Scandinavia—is evident from entering the museum. The first work of art you see is Pile O’ Sápmi Supreme, a 2017 work by Máret Ánne Sara, an artist also currently exhibiting in the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Four hundred reindeer skulls, the flesh boiled off and the bone polished to a shine, hang like a macabre flag in the entrance foyer. The work protests a reindeer cull enforced by the Norwegian government.
Another way in which the museum is expanding the works it can show is by a partnership with the Fredriksen Family Collection. Whereas the museum’s contemporary collection is primarily of Norwegian artists, they will be able to supplement it with works from a trove of international art from the past 90 years, collected by the billionaire sisters Kathrine and Cecilie Fredriksen in memory of their mother, Inger Astrup Fredriksen. The works will be shown in a dedicated space next to the regular contemporary displays—the inaugural display includes prominent female artists such as Simone Leigh and Sheila Hicks.
“From the Fredriksen Family Collection we have a focus on pioneering female artists, influences that have been important for Norwegian art history and artists,” says Stina Högkvist, the head of collections and exhibitions. “But also some of them can still inspire today’s artists as well. Artists that maybe haven’t been presented on a broader scale in the Nordic countries.”
Walking around the new museum, what is remarkable is the quality of the finish and the materials. The cost of the National Museum has been controversial—6.1bn kroner (around £500m)—but it is not hard to see where the budget has gone. The exterior is clad in Norwegian slate, with young vines starting to grow up it. The floors are oak and the fixings are bronze. The spectacular Light Hall at the top is walled with marble.
This is a museum designed to last for centuries, and environmental concerns were also paramount: the National Museum is planned to have half the carbon footprint of similar buildings, and uses water from the fjord for heating and cooling. “In terms of sustainability, the materials you use are quite important,” Hindsbo says. “So for instance it’s recycled steel, then the slate on the façade is a stone that can last for centuries and age gracefully. And the same for the oak floors. Maybe it would be easier or cheaper to buy a linoleum floor, but then you will need to change that in five or ten years.”
Of course, Norway has grown rich from oil—it boasts the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund—but, like the Gulf states, needs to transition eventually to a future that is free from fossil fuels. One way of doing that is attracting more tourists. The National Museum joins last year’s Munch Museum, the 2007 Opera House and 2012’s Astrup Fearnley Museum as part of a string of attention-grabbing new cultural buildings along Oslo’s harbour. It is part of a new outward-looking face for this traditionally modest country.
“There has been this huge investment in cultural institutions in Norway, in Oslo in particular in the last decade,” Hindsbo says. “So that’s quite special and significant. We need to work closely together to maintain the momentum that we’ve got now. To have art take another position in society. And also to use art to make Norway [assume] a position internationally.”
But Hindsbo points out that international tourists are not the only target. “We are also the National Museum, so we work very specifically with Norway, with telling stories from our collection that will have links to all parts of the country,” she says. “It’s important that the people of Norway feel an ownership of the new museum and our collection.”
The opening of the National Museum is the end of a long process, drawn out further by Covid and construction delays. The museums were merged administratively in 2003-05; in 2008 the site of the new museum was chosen; an architectural competition was held in 2009, won by the German-Italian architect Klaus Schuwerk; and building commenced in 2014. It was supposed to open in 2020, but delays pushed it back to 11 June of this year.
As a result, many of Norway’s artistic treasures have been out of view for several years—the old National Gallery closed in 2019. To help mitigate this, some key works from the collection have been toured around the country, many visiting the spots they depict.
My interview with Hindsbo takes place just over a month before the opening—the museum looks almost ready and they are just completing essential safety testing. As this marathon project approaches the finishing line, what does she hope visitors will feel?
“For a Norwegian audience, I would say pride,” she says. “To be extremely proud of what we’ve got in Norway, what kind of collection. What kind of cultural nation we’ve become and have been, for a lot longer than Norwegians probably think. And for the international audience? I can’t wait to be back.”
The signature space of the museum sits on the top of the building. The Light Hall is a long cuboid with walls made from thin, translucent layers of marble between panes of glass. At night, it will glow with the light of 9,000 energy-efficient LEDs and can be clearly seen from planes approaching Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport. Like Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, it will be home to a series of single-artist contemporary commissions, but in form it is more reminiscent of the glass box that spans the London museum’s chimney. Inside it is 130 metres long and seven metres high.
Behind the series of galleries that house the museum’s contemporary collection is a special room dedicated to works from the Fredriksen Family Collection. The large gallery space is highly adaptable, with fold-out walls and a curtain system that allows it to be easily divided into smaller spaces, for example to show video work. This is to allow the displays to adapt rapidly to changing situations and also to reduce the material waste associated with rebuilding exhibitions.
Whereas most of the galleries are windowless or overlook interior courtyards, the Salon on the second floor offers a widescreen view of Oslo’s harbour. It will have a bar serving drinks and light meals and an area for visitors to rest. The back of the space is enlivened by Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #839, donated by the Norwegian financial services company Storebrand. The Salon overlooks the courtyard café created behind the old train station buildings in front of the museum, one of which is now home to the Nobel Peace Center.
Oslo has been missing one of its defining spaces for over three years. The closure of the old National Gallery in 2019 meant saying goodbye to the room dedicated to the city’s most celebrated artistic son. The new Edvard Munch room evokes the old one. It will have 18 paintings, including The Girls on the Bridge (1901), Self-Portrait with Cigarette (1895), as well as probably the second most famous painting in the world, 1893’s The Scream. Further Munch works can be seen in the corridor outside as well as in the main hang.
• Read more about Norway’s new National Museum here