Inflated Hopes

Brian Sholis on Norway's new National Museum


Left: A view of the National Museum's temporary structure. Right: The crowd at the entrance, with Carlota Alvarez and Uta Meta Bauer in foreground with sunglasses.

After a long day traveling the outskirts of Oslo to visit various art institutions—the Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium, the Preus Museum and Gallery F15 in Horten, and Momenum in Moss—I arrived back in the city Friday just in time to join what seemed like all of Oslo’s culturati at the crowded opening of “Kiss the Frog! The Art of Transformation,” the inaugural exhibition at the newly combined national museums of art, architecture, and design (now called, simply, the National Museum). The show features an international mix of art-world heavyweights (Jorge Pardo, Pipolotti Rist, and Kara Walker) and homegrown talent (Tone Hansen, Vanessa Baird, and designers Norway Says). Combining the museums was the idea of Sune Nordgren, who is now partly through the long process of developing a new home for the institution he directs. Despite having selected a site—a parking lot adjacent to one of the current buildings—no architect has been named, which is why Friday’s celebration was taking place in a giant Kelly green structure that serves as the museum’s temporary home.

As is to be expected when working within the strictures of governmental oversight, even getting to this point has been a long and difficult journey. Many people are looking to the National Museum’s consolidation process as a weathervane for the arts elsewhere in Norway, and several were eager to explain that a number of architecture firms had proposed plans in limited-entry competitions and that the government had spent a lot of money on these proposals before ultimately deeming each unsuitable. The tone of this discussion varied: Those closer to the institution’s machinations offered a weary, “What can you do?”-style politesse, while others (further down the line snaking around the block from the museum entrance) were a bit more blunt. “The government has no fucking balls,” offered one artist-collector later described to me as an “eccentric” who would nonetheless “likely be seated near the queen at dinner.”

Left: Inside the temporary structure. Middle: Preus Museum director Jonas Ekeberg. Right: The tunnel connecting the new temporary structure to the old museum building.

But the apparent radicality of the temporary structure’s design, and the willingness to award the commission to the young architecture firm MMW, offers hope that the government will have the courage to make a bold choice for the final building. Tethered to the ground like a zeppelin and affixed to the adjacent building via an enclosed walkway (like one of Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE structures), the temporary museum is paired with a one-room pavilion—seemingly based on Future Systems’s design for the media center at Lord’s cricket grounds in London—elevated on a forest of white columns. I say “apparent” radicality because unfortunately I was never able to see if its unique design requires a creative rethinking of display strategies—the same hope often voiced for the Guggenheim Bilbao eight years ago. Prior to allowing anyone to see the exhibition on Friday evening, museum staff herded guests into the new structure’s courtyard to hear a series of welcome speeches; hungry and exasperated by the wait, I wandered off to dinner and returned two minutes too late to see the galleries, which closed three hours before the end of the party. I returned the next day, as a second invitation indicated that Her Majesty Queen Sonja would open the exhibition at five o’clock, but was thwarted again: When I arrived at 5:30 everyone was still lined up behind velvet ropes waiting for the Queen to arrive. Let’s hope Norway’s government acts with a little more alacrity when it comes to building a permanent home for the National Museum.