Norway’s road less traveled: Big Bjørn and the Norsk Folkemuseum

Family portrait of Big Bjørn.

Photo: Public Domain
“Big Bjørn,” distant ancestor to the author (and probably many more, given his 18 children), in a portrait that hangs in the Norsk Folkemuseum.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

I visited the Norsk Folkemuseum (the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History) in Bygdøy, Oslo, for the first time in 2004. I enjoyed my visit because I found this open-air museum very interesting and educational.

But the second time I went, seven years later in 2011, I was excited beyond belief. That was when I saw, face to face, my eighth great-grandfather, Bjørn Tolleivson Frøysok!

Let me take you back a few hundred years, to 1699 to be exact, to the village of Gol in Hallingdal, Buskerud County. One of the biggest and most powerful landowners at the time was my ancestor, whom I affectionately call “Big Bjørn.”

Bjørn was married twice. He had 10 children with his first wife. After she died, he remarried and had eight more children with his second wife. In 1699 he decided to commission a portrait of the entire family. He then donated this painting, which measured 52 inches by 78 inches, to the stave church in Gol.

Bjørn stands proudly in the center of the painting, wearing a Renaissance-style costume (the fashion at the time) and holding a battle hammer. On the left you can see his first (deceased) wife with their children and on the right his second (living) wife with theirs. It is believed to be the earliest portrait of a Norwegian farm family in existence.

In 1885 a new church was built in Gol, and the old church, dating back to 1200, was to be demolished. Fortunately, the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments intervened to save it, buying the materials with the intention of rebuilding it elsewhere. King Oscar II then stepped in. He purchased the materials and rebuilt the church in his private open-air museum located at his summer residence at Bygdøy in Oslo.

The King’s collection later merged with the Norsk Folkemuseum. The museum manages the church although it remains nominally the property of the current monarch.

Stave church at the Norsk Folkemuseum.

Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt / Norsk Folkemuseum /
The stave church from Gol, which is also one of the attractions at the museum on Bygdøy.

This beautiful stave church is the museum’s centerpiece and main attraction. The painting of Big Bjørn did not stay behind in Gol but accompanied the church to Oslo. It can now be found in a safe and appropriate place.

When you visit the museum, make sure you go to the central museum building and go to the section “Dress and Clothing Traditions.” You will find Big Bjørn’s painting in a glass case. What a thrill it was for me to see him there! I wanted to tell all of the strangers in the room that the wealthy landowner who had commissioned this family portrait in 1699 was my ancestor! I resisted, but my heart did beat much faster than usual!

You will, of course, find many other items of interest in this section. In addition to paintings and photos, there are many lovely examples of everyday clothing and church clothing for baptisms, weddings, and confirmations. Clothing styles differed from region to region.

After learning about the colorful history of Norwegian dress, leave the building and spend a few hours walking around outside. The Gol church is the first stop for most visitors, but there is so much more! There are more than 150 buildings that were brought to the museum from all of the regions of Norway.

I will only mention a few to give you an idea of the wealth of offerings in the museum:

• The unusual loft from Ose with three stories

• The Kjelleberg House—an example of an open-hearth house in the 1600s

• Bathhouse from Åmlid in Valle, which was used for steam bathing (water was poured over hot rocks to produce steam)

• House from Væråsmogen in Flesberg—an example of a house with the common floor plan in the 1700s: main door leads directly into the house rather than an antechamber

• Hay barn from Nordre Mellom-Nørstebø in Uvdal, which had a gallery overhang along the front facade, unique to hay barns in Numedal

• Drying kiln from Istad, Volbu, in Valdres used for drying grain and flax

• Summer dairy farm from Gudbrandsdalen—farmhouse, cow barn, and goat shed

• Stabbur from Enlid, Budal—type of food storage building common on farms and tenant holdings

• Eldhus from Nes—building where washing, baking, brewing, and slaughtering were done

• Stable from Øye, Varaldsøy, which has a slate roof rather than the usual sod roof

• Guest house from Telemark covered in panel and painted red, modeled after brick buildings in European cities

• Post Office, Svartdal, Telemark—one of Norway’s smallest post offices (172 square feet)

• School from Natås, Lindås, Hordaland—three-room country school, built according to the law of 1860: an antechamber or vestibule, the schoolroom, and the teacher’s room

• A Gomme—a Sámi winter dwelling with two rooms

• Grocer’s Shop, Oslo—half-timbered building with mansard roof

• Townhouse, Kragerø—two stories with two rooms on the first floor and three on the second

• Replica of Town Gate, Bergen—the original built between 1628 and 1645

You can tour the entire country by staying in one place. Quite extraordinary!

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.