Behind the scenes

Nasjonalmuseet of Norway: a cultural renaissance in Oslo

Norway’s ‘gargantuan’ new institution is the third largest in Europe

As a tourist attraction, Oslo has long existed “in the shadow” of Stockholm and Copenhagen, said Thomas Rogers in The New York Times. Yet where once the Norwegian capital was “derided” as “sleepy and overpriced”, it is now in the midst of a bona fide cultural renaissance that may put it on a par with its more traditionally glamorous Scandinavian neighbours. A major redevelopment project, dubbed “Fjord City”, is transforming Oslo’s waterfront into “a glossy district of high-rises and pedestrian plazas”, and a home for a clutch of world-class museums and art galleries. 

Chief among these is Norway’s national museum, a “gargantuan” new institution that finally opened its doors to the public in June, after an 11-year gestation. Combining the collections of four pre-existing galleries and costing more than £500m, the Nasjonalmuseet is Europe’s third-largest museum; with 80 rooms and no less than three acres of display space, it will be able to showcase some 6,500 of the 400,000 objects in its inventory, as well as major temporary exhibitions to rival those at Tate Modern or Paris’s Centre Pompidou. Featuring everything from paintings by Edvard Munch (including The Scream, Madonna and other famous works) to 17th century Norwegian tapestries, to contemporary works of art, it takes an “assertive approach to showcasing Norwegian culture”. 

This “long-anticipated” museum takes London’s V&A as a major “curatorial influence”, said Helen Barrett in the FT. This means that design will be displayed on an equal footing to art. Among its first big name exhibitions will be a solo show of Grayson Perry’s ceramics and textiles. On display are traditional arts and crafts and, as you might expect, exquisite examples of Norwegian furniture – a highlight is the studio of Terje Ekstrøm, designer of futuristic 1970s chairs, transplanted wholesale into the museum. But there is also industrial design from recent decades, when Nordic companies pioneered many technological advances. There are deep-sea robots, and displays of consumer tech by Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson. (In 2001, Nokia released a camera phone a full six years ahead of Apple’s first iPhone.) Elsewhere, we see a display devoted to “digital graphic design”, featuring curios such as the video for the Norwegian band A-ha’s 1985 hit Take on Me

The museum’s holdings are fascinating, said Tim Abrahams in the Architectural Record. One moment, you’re looking at Eastern Orthodox icons that ended up in Norway following an 11th century schism with the Western Church; the next, you’re in a room filled with “simple furniture” dating from the 19th century. It’s a shame, then, that the building that houses all this is rather uninspired. The architects, German firm Kleihues + Schuwerk, strived to avoid sculptural elements and idiosyncrasy; the result is a “minimalist” design that underwhelms on almost every level. It is clad in a stone that is neither “attractive or versatile”, and from certain approaches, it looks “astonishingly drab”. Its interior spaces are better, but not by much: the exhibits, you feel, are under-served. Nevertheless, it is possible to spend “a full day immersed” in this “very expensive box”, perusing “vibrant medieval tapestries, remarkable collections of glass and silverware, or the more recent story of a nation told through its modern art”. It is proof that “content, mercifully, can still be everything”.

Now open to the public; nasjonalmuseet.no

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