Norway’s National Museum Opens its Doors

On Saturday 11 June, the largest art museum in the Nordic region will finally open to the general public.

The National Museum’s new building in Oslo will open its doors on 11 June. Photo: Iwan Baan.

The National Museum’s new building in Oslo is ready to receive visitors. The big opening event begins on Saturday 11 June at 11:00, comprising a ribbon cutting, speeches, and musical interludes in the museum square before the museum opens its doors. Last week, 15,000 free tickets for the opening weekend were made available and were all snapped up in less than 24 hours.

Museum Director Karin Hindsbo told Kunstkritikk that it feels good to finally be able to fling the doors open. “We have been through a long and demanding process, so it is almost impossible to describe what it feels like to be so close to the finish line. I think the audiences will be both surprised and proud of what they see, and that they will take home something to think about when they leave the museum,” she said.

The new National Museum (Nasjonalmuseet) combines, under a single roof, an institution which previously occupied separate buildings – The National Gallery, The Museum of Architecture, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, and the Museum of Contemporary Art – as well as a number of storage facilities around Oslo. More than 100,000 works of art have been relocated from these former venues, of which around 6,500 will be on display in the new museum’s halls. These span​​ 10,000 square metres of floor space – almost twice as much as the former venues’ exhibition areas combined.

Hindsbo reports that the collection will be activated and given continued relevance through initiatives such as regular changes to the hang, loans, and several exhibition projects in Norway and abroad. “Harriet Backer and Anna Eva Bergman are both due to be exhibited in Norway and internationally, and Thorvald Hellesen and Wenche Selmer will be presented here in Norway, to name just a few,” she said. “What is more, all our exhibitions relate directly to our collection, and we will launch research projects and a wide range of dissemination events.”

The opening of the new museum will take place more than two years later than originally scheduled. The Museum of Decorative Arts and Design closed its doors all the way back in 2016, followed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2017 and the National Gallery in 2019. The Museum of Architecture is the only one to have stayed open throughout the relocation process.

Installation view from the exhibition I Call it Art, opening on 11 June at the National Museum in Oslo. Pictured are works by Christian Blandhoel, Ben Allal, and Siri Austen. Photo: Frode Larsen.

Highlighting Norwegian contemporary art

The opening exhibition at the new museum, I Call it Art, is located in the 2,400-square-metre Light Hall at the top of the new building. The National Museum’s contemporary art curators Geir Haraldseth and Randi Godø have selected almost 150 artists and artist groups through a process involving open calls as well as studio visits. The exhibition’s fundamental objective is to show works of art by artists who are not already represented in the museum’s collection, making the project relate directly to the collection display on the first and second floors. “The Light Hall has given us a different kind of setting to work with, which makes this a different kind of exhibition – one which also shows some of the limitations a museum faces when it comes to showing and collecting contemporary art,” Haraldseth and Godø explained to Kunstkritikk.

The curators stated that it was important for them to focus heavily on contemporary art from Norway: “The National Museum’s collection comprises art, architecture, crafts and design, and only a fraction of all this material is shown in our collection display. Hopefully, starting out by presenting a large-scale exhibition of contemporary art from Norway as the first major temporary exhibition at the museum will clearly demonstrate that we take the field very seriously.”

Questioning the concept of what is and isn’t “good art,” the exhibition addresses topics such as identity, belonging, nationality, and democracy. The overall exhibition architecture is designed by Diogo Passarinho Studio and incorporates a separate hall in which artist Goro Tronsmo has created an exhibition architecture that also constitutes her sculptural work. The curators have included many different formats in the presentation, such as a separate video platform, publications, theatre performances, and a substantial performance art and concert programme. “The show is quite complex and has many layers. We want to promote discussion about contemporary art, about who makes it, how it is shown, what kind of role it plays – or doesn’t play – in people’s lives. As regards our colleagues in the art field, we hope to present familiar works and artists alongside works and art they have never seen before,” they said.

The Light Hall at the National Museum. Photo: Iwan Baan.

Disgruntled architect

The museum’s slate-clad building was designed by the German architect Klaus Schuwerk from Kleihues + Schuwerk. Over the course of the process, Schuwerk had several disagreements with Statsbygg (the Norwegian Directorate of Public Construction and Property), which is the official client, and with the management of the National Museum. The initial run-in concerned the glass in the Light Hall, which Statsbygg changed from the alabaster originally intended by the architect to glass, for technical reasons. Furthermore, Schuwerk has publicly criticised several of the museum’s choices, including aspects of the interior design, logo placement, and exhibition content. In an interview with NRK (the Norwegian Broadcasting Company) earlier this month, he threatened to refuse to attend the opening.

Hindsbo acknowledges that there have been certain disagreements about what falls within the museum’s purview and what belongs to the architect’s, but asserted that she is very pleased with Schuwerk’s work. “I think the museum is quite fantastic, which is partly due to us having a very committed architect. And then we will be in charge of delivering fantastic content.”

In the aforementioned NRK interview, Schuwerk also commented dismissively on the exhibition in the Light Hall, I Call it Art, which he describes as “a flea market.” Haraldseth and Godø do not take this criticism to heart. “The exhibition is so unusual that it’s only natural to describe it in unusual ways. In many ways, a flea market is a treasure trove that you need to work to find your way around,” the two said.

No changes to Fredriksen family collaboration

The new museum will also see the institution’s collaboration with Cathrine and Cecilie Fredriksen actualised. The set-up has attracted strong criticism since it was launched in 2019, partly due to concerns that it would threaten the museum’s independence and credibility. More recently concerns have been raised due to the Fredriksen family’s connections to Russia, their accumulation of wealth in conflict areas, and tax evasion. In April this year, the chairmen of the organisations The Association of Visual Artists Oslo and Akershus (BOA), The Association of Norwegian Visual Artists (NBK), and Young Artists’ Society (UKS) submitted a piece to the newspaper Dagsavisen asking for an account of the museum’s ethical deliberations and assessment of the collaboration.

In Hindsbo’s view, no new information has emerged which suggests a need to make changes to the collaboration, and she holds that the collaboration is an important contribution to the museum. “Being able to show leading international artists of a calibre like those found in the Fredriksen collection, such as Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keeffe, will be a big boost for us,” she said. “If no one had helped us with this, we would not have had the opportunity to display these works in the museum.”

According to the agreement, the museum will borrow and manage the Fredriksen Family Art Company’s art collection and receive funding for a research programme and the development of exhibitions. First out is an exhibition featuring Laure Provoust, opening in November this year. Once opened, the museum will invite applications for four doctoral positions which are also financed by the collaboration agreement.

Installation view from the exhibition I Call it Art, opening on 11 June at the National Museum in Oslo. Pictured are works by Sayed Sattar Hasan, Elena Abessinova, Malk al Jabiri, and Herman Mbamba. Photo: Frode Larsen.

Translated from Norwegian.