Great ‘museum shuffle’ plays on

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The government minister in charge of building a new museum for such national treasures as the Viking ships and medieval artifacts was supposed to decide on its location in February. Tora Aasland felt forced to delay her decision, however, because of massive public debate, disagreements with city officials in Oslo and a need for more information.

There's much debate over where an expanded museum housing Norway's Viking ships will be located. Pictured here, the existing museum at Bygdøy in Oslo. PHOTO: Views and News

Debate over the construction and locations of new museums in Oslo has been going on for months, if not years. Ambitious plans are on the drawing board, for example, to move the National Gallery’s collections to a location next to the Nobel Peace Center in Vika, to move the Munch Museum to the waterfront redevelopment area at Bjørvika and move the Stenersen Museum’s collection into the new Munch Museum. 

Perhaps the most heated debate, however, is that revolving around Norway’s national treasure: The Viking ships that were unearthed in the late 1800s and have been housed on Oslo’s Bygdøy Peninsula since 1936.

The building now housing the Viking ships is Norway’s most popular museum, with more than 400,000 visiting annually. It’s located just next to the outdoor Folk Museum, and not far from the Maritime Museum, the building housing the polar ship Fram and the Kon-Tiki Museum. Officials at the Folk Museum don’t want to lose their famous neighbours, while Thor Heyerdahl Jr, son of the Kon-Tiki’s legendary skipper, told newspaper Aftenposten that the Kon-Tiki Museum will move south to the city of Larvik (Heyerdahl’s home town) if the Viking ships are moved.

Technically, though, the Viking ships are part of the collections of Norway’s Museum of Culture and History, which now is housed in a building downtown from 1904 that’s overdue for renovation. It only has around 67,000 visitors a year and its leader, Egil Mikkelsen, wants to build a new, expanded museum that would house both the downtown collections and the Viking ships, at a new location near the waterfront at Bjørvika on Oslo’s east side. 

The Museum of Culture and History in turn is part of the University of Oslo. That’s why Tora Aasland of the Socialist Left party has some serious decision making to do, because she’s Norway’s cabinet minister in charge of research and higher education.

She’s now caught in a power struggle between several strong forces, with some fellow ministers and Norway’sRiksantikvar (Jørn Holme, the country’s head of cultural preservation) among those wanting the Viking ships to stay berthed at Bygdøy, and Mikkelsen, university officials and Oslo city politicians among those favoring the new site.

Advocates of the current Bygdøy location say a new, bigger museum could be built adjacent to the current Viking Ships Museum, with one proposal calling for it to be fashioned like a Viking burial mound. Others are skeptical, and want a more spacious, modern structure at Bjørvika.

It remains unclear whether the Viking ships can even tolerate a move, although two studies say they can. Aasland said she needs more time to settle the debate, admitting “it was a bit stupid” of her to initially claim a decision would be made in February.

An analysis of traffic impact from an expanded museum at Bygdøy is due by May. The city doesn’t want to lose the Kon-Tiki Museum, but remains firmly committed to Bjørvika. Aasland is acutely aware of the fight she faces, but claims that “it’s positive” so many forces are engaged in the lively debate.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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