It’s finally happening: Norway’s new National Museum, which boasts of being the largest museum in the Nordic region, opens to the general public – initially for the 15,000 people who have secured a ticket for the opening weekend on 11–12 June. With this, the trio of landmark museums in Oslo’s harbour area is complete: the privately owned Astrup Fearnley Museum, the municipal Munch Museum, and the state-operated National Museum, each in its own way a monument to an immensely rich oil nation and part of an overall process of urban development where old buildings are abandoned in favour of showy new domiciles that better suit the current Norwegian self-image.
One must assume that such extensive investment in cultural venues reflects an appreciation of the importance of art and culture, beyond their being decorative magnets for tourists. No matter what the motivation of the governing authorities may be, after five or six years of most of the National Museum’s former buildings being closed, it was quite an overwhelming experience to attend last Friday’s press preview, during which we were allowed to spend hours browsing the almost one hundred galleries, both small and large. It was good to revisit familiar works in the collection and to see a substantial number of works and artists that have never been shown in the museum before. If the building looks heavy and closed-off from the outside, it feels open and generous on the inside. And with the roof terrace at the top of the museum, the city has gotten a new and beautiful vantage point, where, as part of the opening exhibition I Call it Art, visitors can even creep into a small structure inspired by traditional Sámi gamme that is part of Joar Nango’s outdoor installation A House for all Cosmologies (2022), built from parts left over from the construction of the museum.
At the same time, I cannot quite rid myself of nagging doubts regarding the tremendous building boom that we have seen – and are still seeing – in Oslo. What kind of city is emerging before our eyes? The richly illustrated book The New National Museum published earlier this year, edited and largely written by the critic Audun Vinger, includes an essay by author and art historian Lars Mørch Finborud in which he writes about his upbringing in the area around the old yellow railway station, the so-called Vestbanen, which has now somehow shrunk up against the colossal slate-grey museum. His was an upbringing centred around the tracks, piers, and tunnels in the area – not exactly a playground for the faint-hearted – but also one where the old National Gallery, which apparently also admitted children for free at the time, was extensively used as a hang-out: “We had been told that spending time in a national museum was a human right.” Finborud also points further back in history, including to the age of the Kristiania Bohemians (a radical political and cultural movement in the 1880s), when the harbour was a place of poverty and prostitution. There is no reason to view the past through rose-tinted glasses, but these days the areas around the harbour – Aker Brygge and the brand-new district Bjørvika – are among the most expensive places to live in Oslo, and, after a period of intense construction, the city is in many ways very different from how it was relatively few years ago. It has a new centre of gravity, as if everything is being pulled down towards the fjord.
Even as the new residential areas with sea views are reserved for those with deep pockets – and even as we Norwegians live in a society characterised by rapidly growing inequality – the mantra from the public cultural sector is that everyone is included and should come visit the museum, library, and opera. “Our museum is your museum,” is the title of the director’s preface in The New National Museum. And yes, it ought to be quite self-evident that a national museum is for everyone and that care must be taken to ensure accessibility and diverse representation. But the task of inclusion cannot simply be delegated to the realm of culture alone. If everyone is truly to be given equal opportunities, Norwegian society needs to evolve in a different direction than it is now. For example, all the well-meaning outreach programs in the world cannot remedy the widely different conditions for children growing up today. That being said, I am in no way arguing against outreach programs. What is important is that the efforts to ensure increased representation and diversity in cultural life are not used as an excuse, a way of getting around the underlying and growing class divide without fully addressing it.
In many ways, the National Museum is facing a challenging time. The museum must find its feet as a single institution: the National Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, and the Museum of Architecture have been united administratively since 2003, but are only now housed under one roof. Indeed, it is clear from the book The New National Museum that work is being done to define what a national museum should be today. Much has happened since the Museum of Contemporary Art closed in 2017. That was the year in which discussions about decolonising the art field began in earnest, and since then the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have both prompted an intensified focus on representation. The National Museum very obviously seeks to respond to this, partly in the selection of artists presented in the book and in the new acquisitions made for the museum, which is all to the good. But it also seems somewhat hesitant to really come to grips with the issue – at least, we find no proper critical account of how the museum views its own role and position of power (historically, today, and in the future) apart from a few vague statements in an interview with Director of Exhibitions and Collections Stina Högkvist.
One attempt to define the concept of “the national” seems to be embedded in the last four sections of the book, which centre on subjects and materials related to fjords, light, mountains, and forests, and which, apart from some examples of architecture and design, mainly present visual art. Each section has a brief thematic introduction written by Vinger, conveying an impression of a kind of updated National Romanticism, even if some works by international artists have been incorporated. A clever way of showing different parts of the collection, but not very interesting as a contribution to the discussion about what it means to be Norwegian today.
In connection with its diversity work, the National Museum has established what it calls a “blind zone team” that seeks to identify the museum’s own blind spots. At the same time, however, it has so far been deaf to criticism of the museum’s agreement with oil and shipping billionaire John Fredriksen’s heirs Cecilie and Kathrine Fredriksen, a criticism which has been raised from many different quarters and recently took on renewed relevance due to the Fredriksen family’s connections to Russia. Director Karin Hindsbo does not mention the collaboration in her brief introduction to The New National Museum. Elsewhere, there are a few references to the Fredriksen Room. Högkvist is among those who refer to the room, but the book offers no detailed account of the agreement or the debate surrounding it.
When Hindsbo took over as director in 2017, the position came with a clear injunction from the then Conservative-led Ministry of Culture to raise more private funds for the museum. More than anything else, the collaboration with the Fredriksen sisters appears as a manifestation of a cultural-political ideology which, under the right-wing government, intensified the museums’ quest for rich sponsors. In any case, the contribution from the daughters of Norway’s richest tax refugee does not appear to be indispensable. Currently painted pink, the Fredriksen room features a selection of works by artists who are said to all share the trait of having had to “fight to be recognised,” including a sculpture by Simone Leigh, currently featured in Venice, and an early work by Georgia O’Keeffe. It is interesting enough and actually adds something that can’t be found in the museum’s collection, full of gaps as it is. Still, I cannot see that it makes any crucial difference to the overall experience of the museum. In any case, the works on display are only on loan, not an actual expansion of the National Museum’s collection. Every other year, the Fredriksen sisters will also be responsible for an exhibition in the Light Hall – the first of which opens in November, featuring Laure Prouvost – and will sponsor four doctoral dissertations.
The big question is how much this collaboration will damage the National Museum’s credibility and reputation in the long run. There is little to suggest that the opposition to awarding influence to ethically problematic sponsors will fade in the near future; rather, I predict that we are poised at the beginning of a showdown in the art field that will only increase in strength. At any rate, there is a problem of principle here: have we in fact built a vast state-owned museum with obvious ambitions to make its mark on the world without being able to finance its operation at the level one would reasonably expect from such a museum, instead being at the mercy of rich “benefactors” who clearly have a vested interest in such collaboration (and who really ought to have paid their taxes instead)?
That said, it should be added that the focus on large museums should not be at the expense of the artists and the small and medium-sized exhibition venues which are the very foundation of a vibrant art scene. The new government’s scheme to promote culture includes guidelines stating that now, following the emphasis on major construction projects, priority should finally be given to artists and smaller institutions. This resulted in a cut in the National Museum’s budget for this year, so perhaps the stage has been set for recurring funding battles in the years ahead. But surely we, snug in the Dubai of the North, should be able to afford both