OSLO, Norway – For decades, Oslo lived in the shadow of the other two Scandinavian capitals, Stockholm and Copenhagen, Denmark. The Norwegian town, alongside a picturesque fjord dotted with rugged islands, has often been derided as sleepy and overpriced, or just a stopover for tourists heading into the Norwegian mountains or embarking on a cruise along the coast.
In recent years, Norwegian and municipal authorities have spent hundreds of millions trying to change this view. In a redevelopment project known as ‘Fjord City’, leaders have transformed Oslo’s waterfront into a gleaming district of skyscrapers and pedestrian plazas dotted with places to swim and cultural amenities, including its now famous opera house and the imposing new home of the Munch Museum, dedicated to the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.
On Saturday, after years of delays and contestation, the most ambitious of these projects finally opened its doors: the country’s new National Museum, a gargantuan building clad in gray slate that houses the collections of four now-combined art institutions chronicling the artistic heritage of the country. . It is the largest museum in the Nordic region.
Officials hope it heralds Oslo’s transformation into a world cultural capital. “Norway is so much more than fjords and mountains, and I think it will be a surprise for people when they visit,” said museum director Karin Hindsbo. “I brag, but it’s true.”
There are historical reasons why Norway, a country of 5 million people, has long been culturally overshadowed by its Scandinavian neighbors. Denmark ruled Norway during the Danish-Norwegian Union, which lasted from the 16th to the 19th century. Norway became an independent country in 1814 with its own constitution but remained in union with Sweden under the King of Sweden until 1905.
But backed by oil wealth, the country has become an economic powerhouse in recent decades, and its cultural output has attracted increased international attention. His generous artist support programs have helped boost his recent high-profile contribution to film (including last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Worst Person In The World”), music (actors like Sigrid and Girl in Red) and literature (Karl Ove Knausgaard, Vigdis Hjorth).
The 6,500 items on display at the National Museum include perhaps Norway’s best-known work of art, Munch’s ‘The Scream’, as well as elegant displays of Viking drinking horns, medieval tapestries and modern Norwegian furniture. The museum also includes what Ingvild Krogvig, a curator specializing in contemporary art, described as the first permanent exhibition of post-war Norwegian art in an Oslo museum. Krogvig said organizers put together the collection with the aim of sparking discussion around the country’s artistic canon. “Maybe now there is more confidence that we are part of the international discourse,” she said.
Sometimes the project was overshadowed by public disputes. The opening was delayed from 2020 by problems with contractors, angering many locals who had already spent many years without access to the museum’s collections; Klaus Schuwerk, the building’s architect, publicly bristled at the museum staff’s interior design and choice of signage. In an interview with NRK, the Norwegian public broadcaster, he derisively described the setup of the inaugural contemporary art exhibition as resembling a “flea market”.
Other pushbacks focused on Hindsbo, the director. She has been criticized in the media for her management style and purchasing decisions for the collection. She was also accused of getting her job through connections through her husband, a former Norwegian Conservative Party politician. “I think it was a bit misogynistic,” she said. “I’m sure I was nominated for my skills.” She added that she had barely met her husband at the time of his appointment.
Hindsbo said she prepared for criticism over her Danish origins, given the importance of the project to Norwegian identity and Denmark’s historical status as a dominant power over Norway. At one point, she recalls, an acquaintance spat at her over a project-related disagreement (although she declined to discuss the details of the encounter). “It could have been much worse,” she said of the deportation, adding that she had now been granted Norwegian citizenship.
Despite the turmoil, early reviews of the project in the Norwegian press were positive. A writer from Aftenposten, Norway’s most widely circulated print newspaper, described it as a “responsible and tradition-conscious museum”. A reviewer from Dagsavisen, a left-leaning daily, predicted that the museum would “become an international magnet”, adding: “Norwegian artistic heritage has finally come home.”
Officials hope this assertive approach to showcasing Norwegian culture will bear fruit with more international visitors. As well as the National Museum and Opera House, the city’s waterfront has recently seen the construction of a remarkable new library, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Contemporary Art and the new Munch Museum building. This month authorities also unveiled a monumental bronze sculpture of a kneeling woman by British artist Tracey Emin on a jetty in the fjord.
But the Fjord City project came with its own set of controversies. The decision to move the Munch Museum from the more residential and less accessible Toyen neighborhood has been criticized for sacrificing the needs of residents over those of visitors. The museum’s new building, a soaring construction with a gray, wavy exterior by Spanish architecture firm Estudio Herreros, has not fared well locally.
Although the Munch Museum’s new building will allow curators to stage more ambitious exhibitions than its previous location, a reviewer from NRK, the public broadcaster, described the project as a “scar on Oslo’s face”.
Gaute Brochmann, editor of Arkitektur N, a Norwegian architecture journal, said he thought the museum was an “uninspired building” that made an “extremely poor” use of materials, with “similar interiors at an airport”.
Nevertheless, Stein Kolsto, the urban planner in charge of Fjord City, pointed out that the move of the Munch Museum had already achieved one of its major objectives: to increase the number of visitors. In the first three months after the opening of its new site, it attracted almost as many visitors as the previous building for entire years. “Putting all these public cultural institutions in one place will attract a lot more people,” he said.
Raymond Johansen, the ruling mayor of Oslo, said he was optimistic that criticism of the Munch project was diminishing. “The Munch Museum will become a landmark, but it will and must take time,” he said, adding that the opening of the National Museum and other cultural projects in Fjord City have been “an impetus for the municipality because it is important to be a visible place”. cultural capital.
“We are doing everything we can,” he said, “to put Oslo on the international map.”