From medieval manuscripts to black metal

The National Library archives Norwegian culture

national library

The National Library of Norway is located at Solli plass in Oslo and houses large collections and several exhibitions.

Tove Andersson

The National Library of Norway is Norway’s primary body for collecting, storing, and disseminating Norwegian media, including those published about Norway or by Norwegians abroad. Through mid-August it is showcasing several exhibitions, including one about Norwegian black-metal music.

The venerable building at Solli plass in Oslo was built in 1914. The ceilings are high and soon upon entry you discover the frescoes by Emanuel Vigeland and Per Krohg. You may sign up for a tour, in English, and learn about the history of the building – the architecture and the art – which houses exhibitions, events, a café, and pleasant reading rooms.

The National Library is a research institution that conducts its own research and also facilitates other research on the collection. As we arrived, there was a tour of the room with the name  “Illuminated.”


The fresco in the entry of the National Library painted by Per Krohg in 1933 has been restored to its original beauty.

The collection contains parts of what has been published to the public from the 1100s until our time. For the first time, everyone can see and listen to some of the most historically important cultural expressions in the National Library’s collections: manuscripts, books, films, music, television and radio clips, posters, and small prints.

The researcher who gives us a tour is interested in photography and starts by showing us a book full of old portrait photographs. He asks if we recognize anyone, and yes; there is Ivar Aasen (1813-1896), who laid the foundation for the modern nynorsk written language.

The photographs contain stories—a portrait taken at a police station in connection with an arrest, a commissioned photo that cost a lot. We see women with creative up-dos, overstated jewelry, but no one smiles: to take a shot took time, the negatives were made out of glass. We hear about the unique finds from the South Pole, negatives with photos so razor sharp that you can see the stitches in the tent cloth.

Among the objects in the exhibition are Roald Amundsen’s letters from the South Pole and Edvard Grieg’s handwritten score for the “Concerto in A minor.” The library has also brought home the most magnificent version of Magnus Lagabøte’s national law from Copenhagen­—after more than 500 years abroad.

It is a small exhibition with drawers where you can get more information, there is modern music and books about Norwegian fairy tales from the 1800s.

The transition from the 1800s to 1900s black metal was not entirely seamless; the researcher thinks the National Museum has gone far when some of the darkest, most criminal within the genre ends up on display. I remember that minutes ago he was fascinated by the idea that there may have been criminals of yesteryear in the photo album.

“Bad Vibes. Sonic emotions in Norwegian black metal”

The trolls of the fairy tales continue to fascinate and inspire black metal. The illustrator Theodor Kittelsen brought trolls to life in the classic publications of Norwegian folk tales. Kittelsen’s drawings are frequently used in black metal, as the woods have an enormous impact, described in the “taking a walk in the forest at dusk when autumn is at its coldest and the fog lies thick.” The forest represents the dark and the home of trolls and goblins.


Olve “Abbath” Eikemo (former Immortal vocalist and guitarist, now solo artist) uses a distinct form of corpse makeup to get into the right mood.

“Our cultural history is full of rebellion and resistance. We believe it will feel relevant and significant to a broad audience to learn about black metal as a countercultural art expression,” said Eline Skaar Kleven, director of exhibitions, events, publishing and press at the National Library, during the opening of the exhibition.

“Black metal is a close-knit, global counterculture full of emotion. It’s a weather-beaten topsy-turvy world where misfits are able to thrive, where wrong becomes right, where ugly becomes attractive.”

Today, the distinctive genre of music is a Norwegian cultural export and a commercial success worldwide.

An important part of our cultural history is the cultural expressions that rebel against the establishment; countercultures that find a home in exclusion. From 1989 to 2013, a large number of black-metal recordings were put on tape in Eirik “Pytten” Hundvin’s recording studio in Grieghallen in Bergen.

“In its most primitive form, black metal is raw and fearless music, characterized by discomfort throughout. If we dare to approach this discomfort, there may be something in there for all of us,” said the curator of the exhibition, Thomas Alkärr.

bad vibes

Guests may sign up for a guided tour of the exhibition “Bad Vibes. Sonic emotions in Norwegian black metal.”

From the 1970s onward, hard rockers like Alice Cooper, Kiss, and King Diamond used black and white face paint to develop their stage personas. In the 1980s, the Swedish artist Pelle “Dead” Ohlin used makeup to make himself look white as a corpse. When he came to Norway in 1988, as Mayhem’s new vocalist, he introduced this corpse makeup to the band. Norwegian black metal is in the exhibition explained as a continuation of 1980s metal and later a reaction toward American metal. Norwegian bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Enslaved emerged in this scene.

But in the early 1990s, the environment was shaken by several serious incidents. Church fires and murders were linked to the record store Helvete (Hell) in Oslo.

Today, Norwegian black metal wins Spellemannsprisen (music prize), and the festival “Tons of Rock” at Ekebergsletta in Oslo gathered 80,000 audience members for rock and metal in June this year.

This August, all tours of the exhibition “Bad Vibes” are being conducted in English.

For more information about the National Library of Norway, visit

All photos courtesy of the National Library

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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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, and she can be reached at