In the center of Oslo, near the harbor and next to the Nobel Peace Center, stands a massive slate building that has generated controversy since it’s been under construction over the past decade. On the site where one of the city’s main train stations was until 1989, this imposing grey monolith, with its lack of windows, led some residents to believe that a prison or a hospital might be rising up.
But once this new building, designed by German firm Kleihues + Schuwerk, opens its doors on June 11, as Norway’s Nasjonalmuseet, the 584,480-square-foot institution will become one of the largest art museums in Europe by size, surpassed only by the Louvre in Paris and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. A million visitors are expected to come during its first year.
Oslo has certainly taken its time in realizing this project, which has been in the works since the 1990s, when the Norwegian Ministry of Culture merging four existing institutions—the National Gallery, the Museum of Architecture, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, and the Museum of Contemporary Art—to create the new Nasjonalmuseet. (Five, if you include the Riksutstillinger, a building-less organization which has produced touring exhibitions since 1952.)
“We could not have dreamt of a better location,” Karin Hindsbo, Nasjonalmuseet’s director since 2017, said in a recent interview. “Looking back, I realize how fortunate it is that there was no question about whether or not we should house all the facilities in one building. Storage and collection management could have been placed somewhere else with a much cheaper rate.”
A $645 million budget has been invested in this colossal enterprise, and the government will continue to fund 90 percent of its operating budget, with the rest coming from ticket and shop sales, sponsorships and donations, and private events. Out of the 400,000 objects—in the format of paintings, sculptures, textiles, furniture, and architectural models—amassed since the mid-19th century, some 6,500 will be on view across two floors in 87 galleries that will allow for conversations between these newly joint collections. (The museum’s top floor is reserved for temporary exhibitions.)
With 140,000 square feet dedicated to its permanent collection, this merger of the country’s major institutions into a significantly larger space will allow not only to showcase never before seen works, such as a selection of newly restored antique plasters, but also to put national prides forward, like a room dedicated to Edvard Munch room, that will show the museum’s most famous work, his 1893 painted version of The Scream alongside other well-known pieces by him like Madonna and Puberty (both 1894–95). Additionally, other monographic spaces are dedicated to major Norwegian artists from various eras, like Romantic landscaper Johan Christian Dahl(1788–1857); Harriet Backer (1845–1932), who will also be the subject of a retrospective at the museum in 2023 that will then travel to Musée d’Orsay in Paris; and architect Sverre Fehn (1924–2009), whose pavilion for the 1963 Venice Biennial has been in part recreated.
Following a chronological timeline, the museum’s permanent collection galleries include thematic groupings for each time period that have been conscientiously composed by the Nasjonalmuseet’s curators through a collaborative process.
“This is the Norwegian way!” Hindsbo joked when speaking about the collaborative process to create the new permanent displays. “We tried to be as democratic as can be, having curators, educators, project managers, communication agents from all 15 teams look into what should be displayed in every single room and how. It was more time-consuming sure, but the display would not be as layered had we put one department in charge.”
If the years 1100 to 1530 were all about “Serving Faith,” they were followed, the curators argue, by a century of the “Gutenberg Effect,” which lasted until 1630. The groupings in “Serving Faith” especially show just how expansive the museum’s collection truly are. Highlights come in the form of icons of King David and the Prophet Hesekiel from the Church of St Nicholas in the Monastery of Gostinopl’e on the Volkhov River in Russia that were sold off by the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. Elsewhere is the Baldishol tapestry, one of the few woven 1200 textiles preserved in Europe, which was found in the 17th-century Baldishol Church in Hedmark. Depicting the months of April and May, the tapestry is a fragment of a larger work that would have depicted all twelve months of the year.
One floor up, the second floor traces the history of painting across six centuries, starting with a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. To get there, visitors climb a grey set of stairs that are framed by Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing (#839), originally created in 1988 for the head office of the financial services company Storebrand and reconstructed last year by the LeWitt Collection. At the top of the stairs, they can head into one of two wings: the right one spans from 1500 to 1900 (with works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Titian, Paul Bril, Artemisia Gentileschi, and more), while the left one covers 1900 to 1960 (with works by Rodin and Picasso, alongside local legends like Harald Sohlberg and Gustav Vigeland).
The great novelty here is that contemporary art has finally found its place in the museum’s permanent collection displays. Pile o’Säpmi by Máret Ánne Sara, who is one of three Sámi artists who have taken over the Nordic Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, is a case in point. This curtain of 400 reindeer skulls, each with a hole in their foreheads, was first presented at Documenta 14 in 2017 as a symbol of the forced culling of Sámi reindeer herds according to ever-changing government quotas. It is now the first piece the public will come across to their right when entering the building.
A room of works owned by sisters Cecilie Fredriksen and Kathrine Fredriksen, who appear on ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors list, and on view here as part of a partnership with their family collection is also given pride of place, with pieces by Simone Leigh, Sheila Hicks, Louise Bourgeois, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Eva Hesse, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Carmen Herrera, Alice Neel, and more all sharing space.
The museum’s interior design, by Florence-based firm Guicciardini & Magni Architetti, revolves entirely around the public. Every single detail has been thought through in order to make their visit more comfortable. Wall texts do not include academic or esoteric terms, and the art historical focus on movements endings with “-ism” have been avoided as much as possible.
Ahead of a room with pieces by Monet, Morisot, Renoir, and their ilk, the introductory text explains that in these works “the framing of the view and the painting technique all reinforce the impression of casualness and spontaneity. The phenomenon acquires the name Impressionism.” The same goes for another artistic movement: “Faces with green skin and yellow noses. Europe’s art world is challenged by painters who turn traditions upside down. Is their aim to provoke or to express emotion? The phenomenon is given the name Expressionism.”
Multimedia plays a great part in the display. In every room an interactive bench hides a surprise device or toy—speakers, tablets in Braille, construction sets for kids, touch screens. Interactivity is key, all the way up to the inaugural show “I Call It Art,” which includes over 150 artists, seven of whom were chosen via Curatron, an algorithm developed by Cameron McLeod, that allowed artists to submit work via an open call process and to select other artists they would like to be exhibited alongside. Their work is on view in one room in the temporary exhibition space, called the Light Hall, and includes pieces bySiv Vatne, Markus Li Stensrud, André Tehrani, Johanne Hestvold, Martin Sæther, Linda Lerseth, Melanie Kitti.
The rest of the exhibition, which fills the top floor, features Norway-based artists and collectives selected by the museum’s curators, such as Borgny Svalastog, Marthe Minde, and Ingunn Utsi all of whom have recently been added to the permanent collection.
“This show was the opportunity for us to make new acquisitions,” said Hindsbo, who wanted to mount an exhibition—and by extension enrich the collection—that would spark debates about identity, belonging, nationality, democracy, and exclusion from society and even the art world. One of the first questions she and her team asked themselves while preparing the show was “Why do some talents pass us by? How can we miss some who yet deserve to be in the spotlight?”
This temporary display would not quite be what it is without the public’s participation. In accordance with the NABC (Needs, Approach, Benefits, Competition) approach developed by Stanford University, a group of young people between 19 and 25 years old were asked what they expected from the exhibition and what they thought of the exhibition’s design and texts and the museum’s social media strategy and programming.
The new Nasjonalmuseet will continue to use this method for its future exhibitions, including ones dedicated to British icon Grayson Perry, opening in November, and to French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois and Anna-Eva Bergman, a Norwegian illustrator who took to abstract painting in the 1940s, both coming up in 2023.
“I can say this now because there is nothing we can do about it: what is done is done,” Hindsbo added. “So much has been invested in culture that is now concentrated in the very center of Oslo: our museum, along with the opera and the library. If you see how quickly the world is changing, I am not sure it would be possible now in 2022 to do it all over again, not in such wonderful conditions.”