An arena for learning for people of all ages

The new National Museum of Norway seen from an educational angle

Image: Iwan Baan / National Museum
Norway’s new National Museum houses the National Gallery, the Museum of Architecture, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

MARY JO THORSHEIM
Norway Art®, Minneapolis

“I Call it Art” is the title of the centerpiece exhibition at Norway’s new National Museum in Oslo. Another exhibition might be titled “I Call it an Arena for Learning.” Exciting opportunities for people of all ages to delve into the world of art can be effectively offered in the vast new space.

This bird’s-eye view over the New National Museum of Norway in Oslo shows the old west railroad station in the foreground, backed by the massive gray-slate new building that is crowned with a lighted, rectangular gallery. The “Light Gallery” when illuminated at night glows like an ingot of gold or silver. It may be the most striking feature of the Museum’s design.

The aim of Norway’s new National Museum is to present an experience encompassing older and modern art, contemporary art, architecture, and design, all under one roof and in completely new ways. It brings together the National Gallery, the Museum of Architecture, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, all owned by the government of Norway.

On June 11 and 12, 2022, this massive new National Museum complex was inaugurated by gala affairs attended by royalty and dignitaries from Norway and beyond. It was also opened to the public. (The general admission is about $20, but discounts are given to members and designated groups. Children get in free.)

Queen Sonja, an artist herself, is reported to have said “Wow” upon entering the building. That one word may not have said it all, but it was a fitting reaction! The structure is huge at 140,000 square feet; the cost was $650 million; it is located on prime waterfront in its setting, which is spectacular from all directions. And how many museums in the world can offer a rooftop terrace open to gorgeous harbor, fjord, mountain, and city views?

How do you get there? Public transportation is recommended: by tram, subway, train, or bus to the National Theatre station. The museum is located on Brynjulf Bulls Plass 3, a walk from the National Theatre. There are no parking spaces, except for four handicapped parking spots in Dokkveien. Bicycle parking is available. For most people, this is a convenient location, however it is surprising that so little attention is given to accessibility for people with limited mobility.

As with most projects, some people are thrilled with the results, and some are unhappy with the outcome. The National Museum project had been a subject of controversy for many years before its completion. The many objections that have arisen and the decisions that have been made are beyond the scope of this story, but they are part of the museum’s history.

Image: Bjørn Erik Pedersen / Creative Commons
The old National Gallery on St. Olavs Plass was a beloved Oslo destination, but with time, the collection outgrew the solid brick building built in 1882, and a climate-controlled environment was needed.

Although the new National Museum is conveniently situated, I will miss my hike up Rosenkrantz Gt., from Karl Johans Gate, with a left turn on Kristian IV’s Gate (with a detour into Cappelen’s antique book store on the way) and on to the old National Gallery on St. Olavs Plass. The solid, brick building had housed famous masterpieces of Norwegian art for many years. They were very exciting to see. At the same time, the paintings probably needed an environment that was climate-controlled by more modern systems. Paintings do not like heat and especially humidity any more than human beings do!

According to Harald Nikolaisen, CEO of Statsbygg, “The new National Museum is a complex building with strict requirements for safety, temperature, and climate” (source: lifeinnorway.net). It seems that these improvements are something that everyone can agree on.

From what we read, the major criticisms stem from the design of the building itself and the selections for the exhibitions. It is probably too late to do anything to change the design, if it were desirable to do so, but perhaps programming in the future can find a better balance between classic Norwegian art and emerging art. The museum has devoted special spaces to the work of famous classic artists like Harriet Backer, but it seems that more emphasis is given to emerging, popular art and a wider definition of art. A dress that belonged to Kim Kardashian? Mediocre creations displayed along with good contemporary work? Is there enough to study and learn from some of the curated selections to draw an audience… and a repeat audience? It is the very special character and history of classic art that is distinctly Norwegian and will draw me to the National Museum and perhaps others who have grown to appreciate this genre and have come to know their Norwegian ancestors better through studying images of the past. I like contemporary art, but I can see examples in many venues anytime. (You are correct, dear reader: I am getting off on editorializing and not straight reporting here, but I can’t help it!)

Nevertheless, the programming for children and families seems to be outstanding. Innovative activities abound and the space in which to conduct them is now improved. And teacher training, along with inter-institutional cooperation are essential to such programming. The institutions that form the present National Museum have had historically strong connections in organizing programming that involves other museums and educational organizations.

Teacher-training in art for schoolchildren is notably emphasized in Oslo, Tromsø, and Bergen, including at the new Nord University. Networks for teacher training at the university level disseminate research results and promote scholarly competence. In 2007, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research established the Norwegian Centre for Arts and Culture in Education. Schoolchildren from kindergarten through upper secondary education benefit from the values reflected in programs at the center. At the National Museum, shared values relating to art education are evident. For example, the beautiful library in the new National Gallery is an important resource for educators, architects, art historians, and others, regionally, nationally, and globally. (I think of how thrilled my St. Olaf College art professors Arnold Flaten, Dorothy Divers, and John Maakestad would be to know about the new National Museum.)

Image: Ina Wesenberg / National Museum
The exhibit “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” features works by Erik Werenskiold and Theodor Kittlesen to engage children and adults alike in a Norwegian fairy-tale world.

Activities for families with children

From the museum’s website: “The whole family will find something to enjoy in the new National Museum. Discover fantastical artworks and fairy-tale rooms, learn a new skill in the workshops or explore on your own with activities in the collection presentation.”

•    Activity benches: Thirty-two of the benches to sit on have special compartments for activities and lists of questions to think about and talk about.

•    Children’s map: The children’s map shows routes to the activities, drawing stations, and workshops, to the spectacular Light Hall, and to the art, architecture, and design displays.

•    Drawing stations: Paper and digital drawing tablets are provided. At one of the drawing stations, recorded birdsongs are heard in the background.

•    Workshops: Here visitors can try out various forms of creative expression and techniques.

•    Exhibition: “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” features Erik Werenskiold and Theodor Kittlesen drawings from Norwegian fairy tales published in the first illustrated book of fairy tales for Norwegian children in from 1879 to 1887.

•    The Fairy Tale Room: shows the enchanted realm of the forest, as imagined by Kittelsen and others. Creatures from Norwegian fairy tales are featured, as well as the sounds of the forest.

•    App with audio stories for children: more than 100 audio descriptions of the exhibits that are geared to children.

Next time you are in Oslo, visit the National Museum and enjoy an interesting new experience. If you are a virtual traveler at home, take a look at the website and the abundance of other information to be found on the internet. It will be eye-opening!

Visit the National Museum’s website at: nasjonalmuseet.no (Norwegian and English).

This article originally appeared in the September 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mary Jo Thorsheim

Mary Jo Thorsheim (1937-2023) was the owner of the Norway Art® importing business for 40 years and a regular contributor to The Norwegian American.