“He belongs to us all”

The Munch Museum opens as a gift to Oslo and the entire world

MUNCH museum

Photo: Terje Pedersen / NTB
The new MUNCH museum, dubbed Lambda because of its shape like the Greek letter, takes a reverent bow to the City of Oslo. After many years of planning, sometimes controversial discussions, and a lengthy construction process, the museum opened to the public on Oct. 22 with a folk festival for the entire city.


“Edvard Munch is of common ownership. There are people living all over the world who have a relationship with Munch’s art. He belongs to us all,” said King Harald V to the people of Oslo on Oct. 22. The entire city was invited to an autumn street party when the royal couple inaugurated the new Munch Museum—MUNCH—one of the world’s largest museums dedicated to a single artist. 

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) bequeathed his fantastic works to the City of Oslo upon his death, the greatest gift ever given to a municipality and thus a gift to everyone who visits the capital.

Before the official cutting of the ribbon, the Norwegian king said that he needed a little help from someone who “knows both the art and the building very well.” As the audience stood in anticipation, he looked to his side and said, “I have the pleasure of asking the queen to cut the rope.”

“The Scream,” one of the world’s most famous works of art, is finally in place in its new home on Oslo’s seafront with sweeping panoramic views and the Deichman Library and Oslo Opera House as its neighbors. The iconic painting will be part of the permanent exhibition in the museum of 231 square feet over 13 floors, where the upper floors invite you in with a reverent bow of welcoming courtesy.

“Forget what you know about museums, because this is a different experience,” said museum director Stein Olav Henrichsen, who wants the museum to exceed all expectations and hopes.

MUNCH museum

Photo: Einar Aslaksen / MUNCH
The expansive building offers a “dynamic” area with open views of the surrounding city.

“Our new museum will be a meeting place for cultural events for everyone,” said Henrichsen, who has had Munch’s wills hanging in his office for over 10 years in anticipation of the day.

The scene was bustling with life, as the opening ceremony was being broadcast all over the country, with bells and ship horns resounding across the fjord. The public was encouraged to dress appropriately (it was a cold day) to experience the museum’s inviting festivities. There was free food, performances on two outdoor stages that featured artists such as composer Koka Nikoladz and the rapper Musti, who grew up in Tøyen neighborhood, where the old Munch Museum was located. He brought his multicultural background into a performance inspired by “The Scream,” created by author Fredrik Høyer and musician Bendik Baksaaas.

“Will the ballet dancer be here soon?” asked a little girl with pink, signed ballet shoes in her hand. The German violinist Laticia Honda-Rosenburg from the University of the Arts in Berlin was on a two-day visit with her daughter, Laila. With stars in her eyes, Kira was waiting for Maiko Nishino, the Norwegian National Ballet’s outgoing prima ballerina, who had given her the shoes.

Soon she got to  experience the artists, who were also projected on a big screen, so that all the other “girls on the bridge” that led across the river from the Opera House could experience the atmosphere among the 7,000 people present—and maybe one day she will return to be amazed by Munch’s art. Munch’s spirit was present that evening,  as the sky was colored with orange autumn colors, the building was lit up with Munch’s texts, and some in the audience even had to wipe away a tear or two.

MUNCH museum

Photo: MUNCH
The exhibit “Munch up close” presents different perspectives on the artist’s life.

As a gentle breeze swept across the stage, Oslo City Councilor Raymond Johansen quoted Munch’s own words when he said that Munch has an impact on us all through his painting of living people “who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”

“This museum also has its contrasts,” he said, “a controversial exterior, which leaves no one indifferent, and an interior that houses some of the world’s most famous works of art and some of Norway’s greatest contributions to international art and cultural heritage.”

An inclusive museum

“We want to expand the notion of what a museum is and open it up for completely new experiences and perspectives. The audience will always be able to experience the highlights of Munch’s art, while at the same time, we will have rotating exhibitions on a regular basis. We will also have a comprehensive program of events, with concerts, lectures, artist talks, curator talks, and the like. There will always be something new to come back to here at the museum,” Henrichsen said.

The museum director, who has spent several years in the United States, is concerned about the collection’s significance in terms of a broader cultural heritage, not only for Norway but for the entire world, and thus inclusion is a common thread throughout the museum.

Our group moved into the opening hall, a little overwhelmed by the large, open space, free of foliage. We continued on to the security check and headed up with the elevators and escalators. The large glass surfaces give a feeling of being in the city, of being a part of the city’s pulse, until you open a door and walk into one of the galleries where the art reveals itself, and the colors radiate a feeling of warmth. 

The new MUNCH feels very expansive and is, in fact, five times larger than the old Tøyen museum. Four of the exhibitions are permanent, while three galleries house temporary exhibits.

“We have a fantastic location in the center [of the city], not only physically but as a social statement,” said Henrichsen, who willingly answered questions.

If you came here as a tourist, where would you start your journey of discovery?

“You come into the entrance and take the escalators through the floors, but I think that the fourth floor, where you get to see the entire breadth of Munch’s art, is a good place to start. We think this is a room for interpretation.”

MUNCH museum

Photo: MUNCH
The galleries offer the space needed to display the artist’s momumtal paintings, including “The Sun” (left) and “The Researchers” (right).

Munch for young and old

At the new Munch Museum, it’s about getting close to the experience of art and Munch’s life. This can start early in life, so 150 fourth-grade students were the very first to get in for a sneak peek, including a visit to a specially designed “discovery room,” where they can explore art.

“Children always come first,” said the director, who is the father of five children. “We want children to develop their creativity and perhaps create their own art.”

At the museum, you will find workshops for everyone, regardless of age and prior knowledge, including art workshops led by visual artists that range from activities for 3-year-olds to silk-screening classes for adults. The goal is for everyone to have their own, individual experience with art. In a new, interactive installation in the museum’s lobby, children ages 5 to 12 are invited to step into a recreation of Munch’s own body and become part of his world.

Some of the children on their first museum visit probably thought that “The Scream” was a little scary, but as one of the children told the newspaper Avisa Oslo, “That picture exists as an emoji.”

At the MUNCH, there is truly something for everyone. The museum has over 2,600 Munch works and permanently displays 200, as well as the collections of Munch’s friends Rolf Stenersen, Amaldus Nielsen, and Ludvig Ravensberg. 

If you look away from the breathtaking views, the different floors have names that describe the themes you find inside their doors, such as “Edvard Munch Infinite” on the fourth floor, which includes the famous pieces “The Scream,” “Madonna,” and “Puberty.”

The new museum invites its visitors to explore contemporary modern art, and the very first thing we find is the exhibit “Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch. The Loneliness of the Soul.” The English artist Emin is known for her autobiographical and confessional work. Like Edvard Munch, she uses her experiences of love, pain, grief, and passion as raw materials for her art, which becomes obvious the moment you enter the room. 

Taking the escalator from there, you can take an “art break” to watch the fog dissolve over Ekebergåsen, watch the ships sail into the fjord, or take a curious look at the roof terraces in the “new city” before commencing to your next experience.

Another exhibition that stands out is called “Edvard Munch Monumental,” which is installed in a specially built hall over two floors. Here, you can see Munch’s greatest works, such as “The Sun,” versions of motifs Munch developed for the University of Oslo’s new auditorium in connection with its 100th anniversary in 1911.

MUNCH museum

Photo: MUNCH
The museum’s galleries not only present Edvard Munch’s artwork but many of the artist’s personal possessions as well as his person to life.

As we stood on the seventh floor and looked through a large window, we observed a living human lying on the floor one level down. When we later go down there, we found ourselves in the midst of a performance.

Museum director Henrichsen, department director Jon Ove Steihaug, and lead architect Juan Herreros from estudio Herreros in Madrid, the firm responsible for the building, elaborated on the building and the plans for the future. Henrichsen promised to keep a living and open museum, where a lot will always be going on. Among other things, in the new museum, visitors will get to know the modernist giant Munch as a person and join him at his home in Ekely, where he lived the last 28 years of his life.

To this end, there is a decorated room with his furniture—a cigarette butt is even found in an ashtray—a place where visitors can take part in the artist’s everyday life. Munch’s home has been rebuilt in a multimedia installation where light, sound, and vivid images tell stories from his life.

The building consists of a static and a dynamic part, a tower section, and a podium with three levels. On the podium on three levels, there is a public space with a lobby, space for revolving exhibitions, a reading room, and a research library. 

The tower functions as a combined exhibition and public tower and is divided into two parts. The static part is a closed concrete construction with strict requirements for temperature, humidity, and daylight control, where the works of art are located. 

The dynamic part is an open and airy space that extends throughout the entire height of the building. This part of the museum is a combined area for mingling and resting. Here visitors can take a break between exhibits, enjoy the view, and move on via the escalators or the elevator to the next floor. 

On the museum’s top floors, there are large roof terraces to east and west. Here the public can enjoy the view of the fjord and the city of Oslo.

The discomfort of art

We enter “The Green Room,” which is not at all a VIP room; it is rather “the poison room,” where upon entering, you hear a scream in the distance. For the artist Munch, the color green embodied jealousy, illness, and mystery.

On the seventh floor, you can also see unfinished woodcuts in the exhibition “Until,” which leads you to ask yourself the question: “What might the results of the unfinished pieces look like?” The museum somehow asks you if you would like to try it yourself.

Here are the photographs Munch took, often with himself in the center of them. The artist appears as a multifaceted person, and to reflect this, there are multiple entrances to the works of art, so you can come in and see them from different perspectives. 

During his lifetime, Munch made thousands of drawings, wrote poems, prose, and diaries, took photos, and shot film footage—despite the fact that his father had refused to let him follow the dream. 

Munch first studied engineering but later switched his studies and attended the Royal School of Drawing in Kristiania (today Oslo). The bohemian community convinced him that art had to renew itself to have meaning in people’s lives.

MUNCH museum

Photo: Einar Aslaksen / MUNCH
Museum Director Stein Olav Henrichsen wants the new museum to “exceed all expectations.”

The decision and the spectacular move

It was in 2008 that Oslo’s city council decided that the Munch Museum should move from Tøyen, in the eastern part of the city, to Bjørvika along the waterfront. The art collection had grown too large for the museum, and 1,850 paintings, an additional 45,000 works of art, and 154 litho stones needed a new home. 

The move was not uncomplicated. Some of the paintings were in disrepair and had to be refurbished before the move so that their paint did not come loose. Huge paintings could not be taken in and out in the normal way. They were transported up to the roof of the old museum, transported, and then placed in the new one through a gap in the wall on the sixth floor of the new museum. (There are videos documenting this process on YouTube; search “Moving MUNCH.”) 

The monumental painting “The Sun,” measuring 15 feet x 26 feet, not the largest but one of the largest works in the collection, was the first museum object to be moved out of the old museum on Tøyen. (The largest works are versions of what Munch painted for the University of Oslo’s auditorium in connection with the university’s 100th anniversary in 1911.) 

After many difficult years, a nervous breakdown that resulted in a stay at Dr. Jacobsen’s Nerve Clinic in Copenhagen, Denmark, Munch won the competition to decorate the hall, but only in 1916 did he paint “The Sun.” This painting radiates and evokes warm feelings in the viewer, and the work influenced the architects’ design of the building.

Special conservator for the relocation process, Tine Schmidt Haislund Jensen, followed the weather forecast closely throughout the days before the relocation of the invaluable works of art.

“The slightest wind would make a sail of the cloth in the air over the sea, and we had to wait until the wind calmed down and the sun went down before we got it in through a 20-inch wide opening,” she said in TV2’s morning broadcast the day of the opening. She told how men hung on lines, like little ants against the facade, to get the works of art in place. 

“It’s so much more than an exhibition, people will be blown away by the view,” Jensen added. 

The king also had a comment about the process: “We celebrate that the complicated moving process was carried out, not just with one shout, but actually eight,” said King Harald, referring to how many versions the museum owns of the famous Munch motif.

MUNCH museum

Photo: Jan Kuhr / MUNCH
Architect Juan Herreros, esudio Herreros, says the building reflects the vision of the artist Munch.

The queen’s dream

In 2012, Norwegian newspapers ran the headline “The queen dreams of a new Munch Museum.” Now the dream has finally come true, almost 10 years after the speech Queen Sonja gave at the opening of the exhibition “The Modern Eye” in the old Munch Museum. 

The queen said that she has been the most fascinated that Munch had seemed to never cease to be curious, a quality that kept on involving throughout his entire life.

We were not allowed to ask the 84-year-old royal questions directly, but then it turned out that in her speech at the time, she told how deeply she had been impressed that Munch had been afflicted by an eye disease. 

Munch contracted an acute eye disease in 1930 that blinded him in one eye. His attending ophthalmologist, Dr. Johan Ræder, ordered strict rest for his patient and wrote: “Mr. painter Edvard Munch suffers from an acute illness, caused by prolonged overexertion. He must have complete physical and mental peace for a long time. Any disturbance, orally, in writing, by telephone or by telegraph, should be completely avoided.”

In the words of Queen Sonja: “It was powerful to see to what extent it occupied him. Munch held something over the healthy eye and looked at the sick one. His view of the world was different. The watercolors with the circular motifs in strong colors—which allude to his sick eye—are extremely modern and remind me of American Expressionism.”

The queen was particularly impressed by Munch’s first photographs. In modern terms, he simply took a good number of “selfies,” in other words, pictures of himself.

“I have an old-fashioned box with which I have taken countless pictures of myself. There are often astonishing effects. Once I get old and have nothing better to do than write an autobiography, all my photographic self-portraits will also come to light,” Munch said in 1930. 

It has even been claimed that Munch invented the “mobile phone,” or rather, he wrote about it in a draft of a letter. 

“Had I been in possession of the as yet not invented small telephony device that you carry in your pocket, you would have received messages from me a long time ago,” he wrote.

Fittingly, visitors can also take pictures of themselves with an old Munch camera in the room with several hundred of Munch’s own objects.

“Making love to the city”

It was not only windy during the relocation of the works of art, but stormy debates also flared around the building with the characteristic crack, which was called “Lambda,” because its slanted top resembles the letter of the Greek alphabet with the same name.

Nor did the neon logo, which suddenly shone bright red in the dark Oslo evenings, arouse enthusiasm, as it almost screams out on a dark autumn evening, leaning 20 degrees to the left like the crack. This “scream,” however, was to only be intermittent, as it turned out that the sign can change color depending on the occasion and is turned off during the day.

And negative voices were still heard on the day of the opening. Among the crowd, wearing a fantastic “leaf hat,” we encountered Irina Ivanova from the Netherlands with her 5-month-old daughter, Kira. She is visiting her mother and has not yet been inside the museum.

“It looks like a parking garage to me,” she said, looking up. 

And she is far from alone in her criticism. The debate surrounding the building has been taken up with headlines taken from Munch’s titles “Anxiety and Despair” or “The Storm.” The building has been described as everything from “a threatening black shadow” to “littering.” Architect Gaute Brochmann, who is the editor of the magazine Arkitektur N, stated, “It is reminiscent of the arrival hall at an airport.”  

The museum director responded to the criticism by saying, “We should have a building that suits Munch, and it is a monumental building, a powerful building.”

Art historian Tommy Sørbø, who has worked as a museum lecturer at Norway’s National Gallery, has also been critical, but after the opening in Bjørvika, his criticism was somewhat milder. 

“I am left with an experience that the appearance lies about the content. I am happy, yes, almost euphoric about seeing all the famous works, along with material that has almost never been shown,” Sørbø said in a television news interview after a tour of Munch.

The building was designed in 2009, but many thought the museum should remain in Tøyen, and the process of building it dragged out for several years. We sat down on a sofa with Juan Herreros from estudio Herreros, who has taken it all in stride.

“What can I say?” he said. “We, a rather modest architectural firm, won a competition against superstars. It shows that Norwegian democracy works.”

Can we say that the crack symbolizes Munch’s vision?

MUNCH museum

Photo: Stian Lysberg Solum / NTB
Crown Princess Mette-Marit and Crown Prince Haakon proudly arrive to step onto the red carpet.

“Yes, the building reflects Munch’s vision,” the architect said. “Munch took risks. Not everyone liked his art; he inspired us to explore. We do not expect everyone to like it. Munch was avant-garde; it was something foreign to most Norwegians, but Munch was closely connected with the inhabitants of Oslo, even if they did not always understand him. We are also foreigners,” said Herreros.

If one looks at buildings as a body, can we say that the crack symbolizes a polite buck, or as a heavy weight on Munch’s shoulders?

“The building is a reverent bow to the city and its people. This is a museum for the people of Oslo, not a cemetery, rather a building that has a strong relationship to the city and this century, a complex modern society. Note that the building does not bend toward the fjord, but toward the arch, where the people who will use the building live, my interpretation of Munch’s gift [to Oslo] toward the end of his life. He wanted some of himself to be left in Oslo after he was gone.

“The building exudes ‘Okay, here I am.’ I hold the legacy of the most important artist in Norway’s history, and I gaze entranced at Oslo and the fjord, because it is the city and its collective dreams that have built me,” said Hereros.

He continued to say that the building reduces greenhouse gas emissions and the climate footprint, and thus, it is part of the fight against climate change. In his vision, the new museum is “making love to the city.”

What do you think about the debate about “ugly” or “nice” building?

“Our task is not to decide whether something is ‘ugly’ or ‘nice,’ but whether it is functional, within budget, and adapted to its location. The building itself asks many questions,” said the architect with a smile. He has used as few materials as possible, including recycled, translucent, and perforated aluminum plates, and the “body” of the structure rests on 300 pilings. Technology from Norwegian oil platforms has also been used, which was economical for the building, which boasts a price tag of a staggering NOK 2.7 billion.

And what is your favorite place in the building?

“It is the seventh floor where there is a window to the sixth floor,” said Herreros. “This monumental room will never be changed because it is part of the architecture, created to accommodate the largest paintings, a full 538 square feet. You can also start from the top and travel down. Why not?” said the smiling architect.

The MUNCH building will have an enigmatic and ever-changing presence in Bjørvika. It reflects the fantastic lighting conditions in Oslo that constantly change during the day and throughout the different seasons. And it is very possible that the “critic wind” will constantly blow in different directions.

But the building does have its fans. Outside, we met a group of politicians who are very passionate about the museum.

“We are pleased that the idea we launched in 2005 to move the museum to Bjørvika has now been realized,” says the Liberal Party’s parliamentary representative Ola Elvestuen, who stands with outgoing Minister of Culture Abid Q. Raja, who highlights the big words when he describes MUNCH located “between the beginning of Scream and the Opera.”

The new leader of the Family and Culture Committee, Grunde Almeland, also has only good things to say about the controversial museum building.

“This and the new National Museum to be opened are second to none, neither the Guggenheim nor the Tate, an international building open to the world, and which places us in the highest elite [level] in the international art world,” she said with enthusiasm.

MUNCH museum

Photo: Stian Lysberg Solum / NTB
Queen Sonja cuts the ribbon at the MUNCH opening ceremony with King Harald by her side.

About screams

It is dark in the room where we find the various versions of “The Scream,” or the majority of them, to be more accurate. One cabinet opens and closes, then another, and then a third.

On the French Riviera in the winter of 1892, Munch wrote a long poem in his diary, a poem describing a walk. This was the start of the painting. “The Scream” was first exhibited in Berlin in the late fall of 1893, then under the title “Despair.” 

As we looked at one, another one revealed itself, with automatically timed intervals between them. The light-sensitive images are protected, as if in a humidor.

“Did you know that MUNCH actually owns eight versions of the famous motif?” asks Henrichsen. The first is from 1893. Two of the versions, which Munch kept himself, are also in the museum’s collection today. Of the other “Scream” versions, one is in the National Museum’s collection, and one is privately owned.

For a full two years, “The Scream” had disappeared when thieves equipped with Smith & Wesson 357 Magnum brutally tore it down from the wall of the Munch Museum in Tøyen and threw it into a van in 2004. First in 2006, was the world-famous work of art returned. Earlier, “The Scream” was stolen from the National Museum in 1994, and a smaller one was stolen from the same place in 1993. One of the few versions of “The Scream” in private ownership, a pastel, was sold for almost $120 million in 2012.

“We do not know how many copies Munch printed of the lithograph, but we estimate that there are around 30 pieces,” said Henrichsen. “Six of these, including one that Munch has dyed by hand, are in the museum today. In addition, there are eight versions of  ”The Scream” text in Munch’s unpublished notes and diaries. We thus have good reason to assume that the text itself occupied Munch as much as the picture,” he said.

Munch was a pioneer of the Expressionist movement, and more than 100 years after the artist shook the hills over Oslo, millions of people use “The Scream” icon he created to express anxiety when communicating digitally.

Experimental programming has been part of the museum’s history since its opening Tøyen in 1963, and in Bjørvika, the tradition is continued with ambitious, interdisciplinary programs. The last exhibition, “Give me a name,” at the old Munch Museum in Tøyen, showed how Munch’s paintings can be used to debate current topics. 

“Arabs in green scarves,” “Africans in green scarves,” and “Negroes in green scarves” have all been titles of one of the pictures. When the Munch Museum encouraged the public to take part in changing the names of some of these paintings, it led to a heated debate about a “culture of violation” in social media and newspapers. The painting referenced now hangs in the new exhibition entitled “Untitled,” which ironically has also been one of Munch’s titles.

“You cannot experience everything at once, [and] that is why we have good food and a wide range of products, not just magnets and pencils,” Henrichsen reminds us.

MUNCH museum

Photo: Cornelius Poppe / NTB
The evening atmosphere in Bjørvika aglow with the lights of the Oslo Opera House and MUNCH museum.

A memorable day, top to bottom

On MUNCH’s top floor, a beautiful location, you will find the cocktail bar Kranen, which offers views over the city on the fjord from a bird’s eye view. The restaurant Tolvte, which is located on the museum’s 12th floor, leans on continental traditions and is a European bistro seen through generous American glasses. And, of course, they serve #munker at MUNCH, with eggnog ice cream, blueberry compote, and blueberry meringue.

And while we sat on the terrace and looked out over Oslo cloaked with autumn colors and the glorious rays of the sun, we know that some might wonder how “Munch” is actually pronounced. That has also been point of debate when some museum visitors thought that the employees there said it wrong, something that the play on words on the delicious cake proves to be wrong.

On the way out, we ran into Oslo’s mayor, Marianne Borgen, who said that it is completely unique in a global context that Oslo Municipality, not the country of Norway, received one of the largest art treasures any city has ever received—a long process that is now coming to completion.

“We are proud and eternally grateful that he handed over this gift to Oslo Municipality,” she said.

But as so many expressed during the opening, the new MUNCH is not just a gift to the Norwegian people, it is a gift to the entire world.

Perhaps the words of King Harald best sum up the universal experience embodied in Munch’s art, which is the essence of the new museum: “He painted his own life and at the same time the existence of us all.”

Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Tove Andersson

Tove Andersson is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She conducts interviews for the street magazine Oslo while writing poetry and fiction. Jeg heter Navnløs (My name is nameless) was published in 2020. Her website is www.frilanskatalogen.no/frilanstove, and she can be reached at tove.andersson@skrift.no.