Seeing the light at an Oslo museum

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MUSEUM GUIDE: Norway’s capital is packed with museums, and they’re often popping up in the news. We’re following that news, and aim to focus every week this autumn on a specific museum or attraction worthy of a visit.
THIS WEEK: The Museum of Decorative Arts and Design (Kunstindustrimuseet), a historic institution with a refreshing feel.

As the days grow darker in Oslo, a visit to the "Kunstindustrimuseet" can help enlighten them. PHOTO: Views and News

This is our second stop in a tour of Norway’s combined National Museum. Last week’s visit to the National Gallery in downtown Oslo featured the grand paintings and sculptures one would expect. This week we headed to the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, which contains furniture, tapestries, silver, glass, clothing, and more. The museum was said to display everything from European design to antique Greek vases to East Asian art. How would all this fit together? Would we emerge from the museum with a sense of understanding?

The answer is yes. In fact, the museum accomplishes more than simply displaying its pieces in a coherent way; it makes you view in a new light the everyday objects surrounding us today. With the museum’s collections dating from 1100 to 2005, it makes you think historically about the influence of the exhibited objects on the people of those times – and vice versa, which is perhaps the museum’s main theme.

The majestic building housing the museum is located around the corner from two other local landmarks, Oslo’s Trinity Church and Deichmanske Public Library. Since the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design is part of the National Museum, though, there are plans for it to be moved to a new complex at Vestbanen, behind the Nobel Peace Center and Aker Brygge. The move is controversial, but may be completed by 2016.

Lamp exhibit turns on the light
Meanwhile, the museum’s permanent exhibits span two floors and begin with a display of two or three dozen lamps dating from 1905 to 2005. This is fitting, as the oil lamp has been the symbol of this museum since its inception. The collection of lamps is like the preface of a book or the appetizer before a meal, in that it offers an idea of what follows but is not nearly as good as the main attraction.

Permanent collections also include royal clothing, like this gown from 1954. It was made for Crown Princess Märtha for her silver wedding anniversary with then-Crown Prince Olav, but she was ill, died on April 5 of that year and the gown was never used. PHOTO: Nasjonalmuseet

The permanent exhibits show the history of functional and decorative objects, with an emphasis on the evolution in their form and design. They’re movement-centered, allowing visitors to experience the Art Deco movement, Functionalism, Scandinavian Design, and Pop Design (which together make up Modernism) and onto Post-Modernism. Informative explanations of the central aspects of these movements are posted along the way in Norwegian and English. Visitors will probably discover that they know more about the history of design than they expected.

For instance, many people know that Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line revolutionized the production process (in 1913). Yet, they may not have known that his invention played a pivotal role in the creation of a new profession, the designer, which has had an impact on commodities ever since. In the years leading up to the birth of Modernism in 1920, engineers designed objects. However, with the new capacity for mass production there were concerns that aesthetic standards would disappear, and so emerged “the designer,” who filled the gap between efficient production and civilized consumption.

Another facet of the history of commodities that visitors might know without knowing is the change in society’s attitude towards commodities that occurred during the 20th century. Currently, we live in a consumerist society where it is common to regularly toss out the old and bring in the new. Most of our parents and grandparents didn’t live that way – most could not afford to. The museum illustrates that it was not until the invention of mass production and inexpensive materials that the cost of commodities could be driven down to a level that supported the push to “use and discard” (i.e the slogan of the Pop Design movement, which lasted from 1965 to 1980).

In that sense, a visit to Oslo’s Museum of Decorative Arts and Design is unique among museum experiences. Traditional museums display objects that indeed we can appreciate, but which most of us are not excessively familiar with or knowledgeable about – most of us did not grow up with Monets and Renoirs hanging on the walls. This museum is different. If your parents or grandparents are like mine they still possess many of the objects accumulated in their lifetime, including those bequeathed by their parents before them. As such, it is certain that your family has chairs, vases and teapots that – if you visit this institution – will suddenly appear museum-worthy!

Treasures, too, along with royal clothing
In its upper-level exhibitions, the museum does display its share of treasures. Its textile gallery boasts the Baldishole Tapestry, which is the only preserved tapestry in Scandinavia that dates back to the Middle Ages. Its silver collection is the largest of any European country, which is attributed to the fact that other countries suffered through wars in which silver was melted down.

The museum’s fashion collections, popular with visitors, include dresses, outfits and even wedding gowns donated by Norway’s royal family, a large display of 17th through 20th century attire, and a long-running yet temporary exhibition: The work of Norwegian fashion designer Per Spook. His designs are based in Norwegian knitting styles, but the museum calls them “more innovative than traditional.”

Visiting the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design will teach you about situating everyday and luxury commodities in an artistic chronology of form and style, offering an enlightened perspective on things.

The Museum of Decorative Arts and Design
http://www.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/venues/museum_of_decorative_arts_and_design/ (external link)
Open: Every day except Monday. Opening hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 11am-5pm, Thursday 11am-7pm, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4pm.
Location: St. Olavs gate 1. Take bus 33, 37, or 46 to “Nordahl Bruns gate” which drops you beside the museum, or like last week, take the #11, 17, or 18 tram to “Tullinløkka” and the museum is a short walk away.
Admission: Free

ALSO IN OUR MUSEUM GUIDE:

The National Gallery

Norsk Folkemuseum (The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History)

The Viking Ship Museum

Summertime at The Munch Museum

The Natural History Museum – Botanical Gardens

The National Museum – Architecture

The Kon-Tiki Museum

The Maritime Museum

Oscarsborg Fortress

The Polar Ship Fram Museum

“Be a tourist in your own town”

Views and News from Norway/Isabel Coderre
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