Ice, anyone? Norway’s Glacier Museum turns 25
M. Michael Brady
Across Europe, specialist museums reflect the cultures and lifestyles of their home countries. The Wine Museum across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower in Paris is world renowned, as is the Swiss Alpine Museum in Berne and the BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche Museums in Germany. The Norwegian Glacier Museum, now 25 years old, is also suitably located—1,593 glaciers in Norway together cover about one percent of the country’s land area.
The biggest glacier in Norway is Jostedalsbreen (Jostedal Glacier), inland from the west coast. It’s the largest expanse of ice on the European mainland, more than four times the size of the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, the largest in the Alps. The prevalence of glaciers in Norway led to their being part of the country’s culture and everyday life. Children learn about them in school, and mountain hikers and touring skiers often cross parts of them.
In 1991, the Norsk BreMuseum (Norwegian Glacier Museum) foundation was set up by the International Glaciological Society and six Norwegian academic institutions, NGOs, and public agencies. The foundation worked apace. In 1992 the museum building, designed by renowned Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn, was finished in the Village of Fjærland on the west bank of the Fjærland Fjord, about six miles south of the southernmost tongue of Jostedalsbreen.
The location was ideal for its intent. The Jostedalsbreen consists of an upper ice field on a plateau and 50 tongues extending down surrounding glacial valleys. Of the tongues, 28 of them are named on maps. The glacier and its tongues are maintained by the heavy snowfalls, not by low temperatures, as coastal Norway is warmed by the Gulf Stream. Moreover, Jostedalsbreen is a temperate glacier, which means that it always contains water, because it’s at the melting point, from its base to its surface. So the glacier can easily shrink as well as slide at any time, sometimes dangerously. The Briksdalsbreen tongue has been found to be receding so rapidly that it may be on the verge of breaking away from the upper ice field and has been closed for ice climbing. The complex of the Jostedalsbreen and its tongues has become a giant laboratory, now much studied by Norwegian researchers as well as by scientists from abroad.
Glaciers are sensitive indicators of climate change. So in addition to studying glaciers and collecting and exhibiting the minutiae of them, the museum now has teaching programs for schools and conducts climate research in a purpose-built facility opened in 2007 by Walter Mondale, the Vice President in the Carter administration (1977-1981) whose ancestors hailed from the village of Mundal just a mile and a half west of Fjærland.
The museum, the first of its kind, inspired the creation of glacier museums elsewhere, including the extensive Glaciarium in El Calafate at the edge of the Patagonian ice field in Argentina, opened in February 2011, a small museum in the town of Höfn near the Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland, and Magic Ice, the first ice museum in a warm climate, opened in April 2011 in the Forum Shopping Mall in Istanbul, Turkey.
In 2016 the museum at Fjærland plans to expand its offerings of climate seminars for upper secondary-school teachers and to compile a comprehensive exhibition on the impacts of global warming.
Further reading and viewing:
• Norwegian Glacier Museum, www.bre.museum.no (many languages).
• Breheimen Center, serving the Jostedalsbreen and Breheimen National Parks, www.jostedal.com (English).
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.