At a press conference held 27 May on the twelfth floor of the new Munch Museum, Oslo’s Governing Mayor Raymond Johansen – now, after a year of various pandemic control measures, indelibly associated with announcements of closures and reopenings of Oslo and its cultural scene – had the honour of revealing the museum’s official opening date. The grand opening of the new museum is now set for Friday 22 October at 17:00 – provided, of course, that the strike among museum employees launched just hours after the press conference in connection with this year’s wage negotiations is not too long, prompting further delays. If all goes well, by October the city will be in stage four of the reopening process, which means that there will be no restrictions on the number of visitors allowed. According to the governing mayor and the museum management, it will be a “huge party” where everyone is invited: the people of Oslo as well as people from other parts of Norway and abroad.
The new Munch Museum has been hotly debated for years. First was the discussion centred on where the museum should be located. Then, once the move from the multicultural Tøyen on the eastern edge of the city to Oslo’s new downtown district Bjørvika was approved, a lot of criticism has been directed towards the building itself, designed by the architectural firm Estudio Herreros. The vertical museum with the strange slope at the top, the gloomy grey façade, and the museum’s new backward-leaning logo has met with everything from sober criticism from professionals to jokes and memes from the general public. It remains to be seen whether these critical voices will eventually fall silent, even though Director Stein Olav Henrichsen stated during the recent press conference that he believes the criticism will fade when the museum finally opens its doors to the public. In any case, it would be hard to say anything negative about the panoramic view from the balcony atop the museum, which was the only part of the building the press was allowed to access, apart from the room serving as the press conference venue.
Encompassing thirteen floors and 26,313 square metres, Munch is one of the world’s largest museums dedicated to a single artist, and it certainly sounds very promising that the new museum will offer no less than eleven exhibition halls, six of which will present different perspectives on Edvard Munch’s art and life, while the others will be devoted to contemporary art and other modernists engaging in a dialogue with Munch. The gift that Munch gave to the city of Oslo comprises more than 26,000 works of art, and the museum also manages the collection donated by the businessman and writer Rolf E. Stenersen. The new premises are five times as large as the former location on Tøyen, meaning that more of the collection can be made accessible to the public. No less than five hundred of Munch’s works will be on permanent display – in fact, some of the works are so large that they cannot be moved again once they are in place.
While there can be no doubt about who plays the starring role at the Munch Museum, Henrichsen assured the audience that the new museum will also “heavily feature contemporary art.” The programme revealed so far looks promising. Upon opening, the museum will show the exhibition The Loneliness of the Soul featuring British artist Tracey Emin, presenting the breadth of her oeuvre and her interest in Munch. Emin will also contribute her already controversial nine-metre bronze sculpture The Mother, which will be a permanently installed landmark on the so-called “museum island” outside the building. The sculpture is expected to be erected sometime this autumn, but the exact time is as yet undetermined.
It is particularly gratifying to note that the young Norwegian artist Sandra Mujinga will be represented with a solo show when the museum opens. Mujinga’s contribution inaugurates the museum’s new exhibition series Solo Oslo, developed in collaboration with Talent Norway and Canica AS. A total of six solo shows are planned in this series, which will present young contemporary artists in collaboration with young communicators acting as art mediators. Mujinga brings with her Zeenat Amiri as a communicator; Amiri has subsequently been made a permanent employee at the museum.
For the exhibition The Savage Eye, which considers Munch’s art within the wider context of Surrealism and Symbolism, the museum has borrowed a number of works from museums around the world. Among the artists represented are Paul Gauguin, Auguste Rodin, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Dora Maar, Joan Miró, Unica Zürn, and Louise Bourgeois. The museum has also invited the Norwegian black metal band Satyricon to enter into a dialogue with Munch, resulting in an exhibition where a specially composed musical work is linked to a selection of Munch’s pictures.
Other plans include an interdisciplinary event programme headlined Munch Live as well as a range of other initiatives to make the museum a vibrant meeting place. Munch has its own library, including a number of seats for researchers, and will advertise several research positions. Children are extensively catered to in the new building; for example, the museum includes “studios” for children made available to visiting kindergartens and schools. There will also be plenty of seating areas, small and large, and several opportunities to take refreshments: a café, restaurant, bar, and outdoor dining areas.
At the press conference, Johansen and Vice Mayor for Culture and Sport Omar Samy Gamal both emphasised the importance of the museum being owned by the community, and that the cultural heritage bequeathed by Munch belongs to us all. According to Henrichsen, a survey carried out by the museum shows that 71 per cent of Oslo’s residents plan to visit the new Munch during its opening year. There is every reason to hope that the museum will indeed be able to function in this way, as an inclusive institution where people from many different backgrounds will be able to feel at home.
At the same time, we, the people who collectively own the museum, should also follow its activities with a critical eye. For example, do we – as owners of Munch’s cultural heritage – want the museum to be sponsored by oil companies? At the press conference, Henrichsen praised the museum’s collaboration with Japanese company Idemitsu, which is involved in planting cherry trees outside the museum. While this is obviously a beautiful gesture in itself, it should be noted that Idemitsu Petroleum Norway is engaged in oil extraction and the development of new oil licenses, as are two other museum sponsors, Aker BP and Equinor, the latter of which funds the Edvard Munch Art Award. Sadly, the carbonated bottled water served up by the Munch Museum to the assembled press corps had an aftertaste of oil. I feel like the world’s biggest party pooper when I say that, but it has to be said. There is no reason to believe that the ethical profiles of cultural institutions will receive any less scrutiny in the years ahead, and in this respect the Munch Museum’s management faces a major challenge.