National Museum of Norway: a cultural renaissance in Oslo

As a tourist attraction, Oslo has long existed “in the shadow” of Stockholm and Copenhagen, Thomas Rogers told The New York Times. Yet where once Norway’s capital was ‘derided’ as ‘sleepy and overpriced’, it is now in the midst of a real cultural renaissance that could 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 gleaming district of skyscrapers and pedestrian plazas’, and home to a handful of world-class museums and art galleries .

Chief among them is the National Museum of Norway, a “gargantuan” new institution that finally opened to the public in June after an 11-year gestation. Combining the collections of four pre-existing galleries and costing over £500 million, the Nasjonalmuseet is the third largest museum in Europe; with 80 rooms and no less than one hectare of exhibition space, it will be able to present some 6,500 of the 400,000 objects in its inventory, as well as major temporary exhibitions rivaling those of the Tate Modern or the Center Pompidou in Paris. With everything from Edvard Munch paintings (including The Scream, Madonna and other famous works) to 17th-century Norwegian tapestries, to contemporary works of art, he takes an “assertive approach to showcasing Norwegian culture”.

This ‘long overdue’ museum takes London’s V&A as a ‘major curatorial influence’, Helen Barrett told the FT. This means that design will be presented on an equal footing with art. Among his first big-name exhibitions will be a solo exhibition of ceramics and textiles by Grayson Perry. Traditional arts and crafts are on display and, as you would expect, exquisite examples of Norwegian furniture – a highlight is the workshop of Terje Ekstrøm, designer of futuristic 1970s chairs, transplanted wholesale into the museum. But there is also the industrial design of recent decades, when Nordic companies pioneered many technological advances. There are robots on the high seas and displays of consumer technology by Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson. (In 2001, Nokia released a camera phone six years before Apple’s first iPhone.) Elsewhere, we see a display dedicated to “digital graphic design,” with curios such as the video for the 1985 hit from the Norwegian group A-ha take on me.

The museum’s collections are fascinating, said Tim Abrahams in the Architectural Record. For a moment, you’re looking at Eastern Orthodox icons that ended up in Norway following an 11th-century schism with the Western Church; the next day you’re in a room filled with “simple furniture” from the 19th century. It’s a shame, then, that the building that houses it all is rather uninspired. The architects, German firm Kleihues + Schuwerk, strove to avoid sculptural elements and idiosyncrasy; the result is a “minimalist” design that disappoints on almost every level. It is clad in a stone that is neither “attractive nor versatile”, and from some approaches it looks “surprisingly dull”. Its interior spaces are better, but not by much: the exhibits, you sense, are underserved. Nevertheless, it is possible to spend “a whole day immersed” in this “expensive box”, perusing “vibrant medieval tapestries, remarkable collections of glass and silverware, or the more recent history of a nation told to through his modern art”. It’s proof that “content, fortunately, can still be everything”.

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Now open to the public; nasjonalmuseet.no

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