Profiles of Norwegian science: How should we memorialize disasters?

Photo: Ilan Kelman The Oslo memorial to the Scandinavian Star ship fire.

Photo: Ilan Kelman
The Oslo memorial to the Scandinavian Star ship fire.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

How should we commemorate the horror of disaster? It is never easy, nor should it be. Disaster science can contribute to serving those affected by doing our best to understand the sensitivities and feelings involved.

Despite being relatively safe, Norway has had its share of disasters, nearby and overseas. Many are well beyond living memory, leading us to ask: When does memorialization become history and a tourist attraction?

Tromsø sports a tall monument amongst the woods for the crew of the airship Italia and Roald Amundsen’s rescue attempt in 1928. Even further back, along Vardø’s coastline, sits the Steilneset Memorial to the 91 people burned at the stake as witches in the mid-17th century.

More recent disasters still cause unimaginable pain. Whether death involves nature’s extremes or comes from savage human action, how does anyone begin to heal from the suddenness and permanence?

In 1990, arson aboard the ship the Scandinavian Star killed 159 people. A memorial stands in front of Oslo’s Akershus Castle and Fortress. A child reaches for his teddy bear as his mother drags him away to evacuate.

The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of December 26, 2004, devastated swathes of coastline, killing approximately 250,000 people, 84 of whom were Norwegian citizens. Thousands of other Norwegians or people with links to Norway were directly affected.

On the shores of western Bygdøy sits the memorial of a ruptured square slab with ripples moving outwards. It is a poignant representation set against the backdrop of a gorgeous fjord.

July 22, 2011. The dual attacks in Oslo and Utøya have not been straightforward to commemorate. Disagreements and controversy dog the proposals for remembering Utøya as a “wounded landscape.”

Meanwhile in Oslo, the 22nd July Center is a museum, memorial, and experience to re-live that day. The focus is the words of those directly affected as the events unfolded. The center is situated in the ground floor of the Norwegian government tower block that was bombed. The inside design presents minimalism. Five rooms giving ample space to reflect take viewers through the day.

The opening room displays names and photos, where permitted by the families, of the 77 people who were murdered. Then comes the “Prologue,” showing surveillance video of the terrorist parking the van with the bomb, followed by the explosion’s aftermath.

The main space, adorned by a photo of Utøya taken during the long, late sunset on the day, constructs a timeline of the progressing events using photos and tweets. The centerpiece is the van’s remains, surrounded by other displays of possessions collected from Utøya.

The next room is “Witnesses” with a looping video of survivors recalling their stories. The end room provides material on the memorialization and trial, including a library of books and objects from the courtroom. Much text throughout is taken from the court’s verdict.

The Center is not without controversy. Criticisms include the prominence given to the perpetrator and highlighting emergency response errors. But the events happened and the material exists. Could any representation of disaster be without detractors?

Those directly affected contributed to the design and displays. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) also did, through the research project “July 22 and the Negotiation of Memory.” Their expertise includes history, architecture, culture heritage, and memorialization.

They demonstrate the contributions science, art, design, and humanities can and should provide to and for disaster memory. As per the project’s title, memory does need to be negotiated, as does memorialization.

Research can assist, not being the final word, but providing one input among many. While common sense dictates that those affected by a disaster must be intimately involved in any memorialization and commemoration of it, social scientists can indicate methods, techniques, and spaces for doing so.

Time is important in addition to space. Too often, the rush to remember pains those involved because emotions are too raw.

While recognizing the difficulties in pleasing everyone, no one’s thoughts should be dismissed. Taking the time to listen, consult, develop, redevelop, revise, and work through and with varying viewpoints is essential.

Even if some of those affected remain unhappy with the final result, they must have had the opportunity and option to provide their suggestions and to voice their disagreement. Nothing can be forced.

There is never one approach and “success” might not be achievable. Yet disaster must be remembered for grieving and for honoring those who died. And so that we can work towards it hopefully never happening again.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 23, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.