Rough seas at two famed museums

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Both the Norwegian Maritime Museum and its neighboring Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo have been navigating through stormy seas the past year, rocked by financial and personnel problems respectively. While the Kon-Tiki Museum faces smoother sailing, the Maritime Museum appears stuck in crisis.

The Norsk Maritime Museum (at right, next to the A-shaped buildings of the Fram Museum) remains mired in financial problems. PHOTO: Views and News

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported earlier this week that the Maritime Museum has lost yet another managing director. Per G Norseng, who took on the job of trying to steer the museum back on course just last year, is resigning as of August 1 in frustration over an ongoing lack of state support despite state-mandated operations.

“It’s easy to show that our museum has especially weak public financing,” Norseng told DN. “Where other half-public museums get around two-thirds of their operating budgets covered by the state, county or township, we get only one-third of our operating expenses covered by the public sector.”

He claims the Maritime Museum, which also is responsible for managing national maritime landmarks of historical and cultural value in Norway’s 10 southern counties, has been under-financed for years. It was founded as a public-private venture in 1914, to spread knowledge of Norwegian shipping and the country’s maritime heritage, and often is called upon to examine and manage, for example, the discovery of shipwrecks or other historic maritime objects.

The neighbouring Kon-Tiki Museum is on a firm financial footing, but recovering from personnel conflicts. PHOTO: Views and News

Serious financial problems started emerging  several years ago, in line with increased duties and expenses. The museum, which changed its name from the Norsk Sjøfartsmuseum to the Norsk (Norwegian) Maritime Museum last year, brought in a new managing director, Knut Nygaard, last year but he quit in protest after five months.

Norseng, who had worked at the museum as chief conservator and research director, took the helm after Nygaard and has done “a formidable job,” according to the chairman of the museum’s board, Knut Grøholt. “But I understand it’s been tough to run a museum with a weak economy,” Grøholt told DN. Norseng, who has accepted an offer to lead a cultural institute at the College of Telemark, will be replaced by the museum’s director of administration and finance, Monica Bøsei, with historian Eyvind Bagle and archaeologist Frode Kvalø as deputy directors, pending the board’s search for a new permanent leader.

The museum narrowly avoided closing earlier this year and remained open only after Norwegian investor and philanthropist Christen Sveaas donated funds to maintain museum operations, and the city offered emergency funding. Now, according to Norseng, “the situation is worse than ever.” His pleas for more state funding have gone unanswered and he says he’s “tired of talking to deaf ears.”

It’s unclear why the state has been so reluctant to offer more funding, although some speculate state officials have expected wealthy private shipping interests to bail out the maritime museum. Shipping companies have contributed greatly to the maritime museum over the years, but apart from Sveaas, museum officials can’t rely on the shipowners to assume the responsibility they feel lies with the state.

The crisis may finally be prodding officials at the state ministry for cultural affairs into action. Newspaper Aftenposten reports that Culture Minister Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party will examine the funding from the state and township of Oslo. “We must evaluate whether the state can offer more funding, but it depends on the city also increasing its contribution,” she said.

Conflicts at Kon-Tiki
Meanwhile, the privately run Kon-Tiki Museum just across the street from the Maritime Museum has a solid economic base but has suffered from personnel conflicts during the past year. DN reported that several employees have quit, but museum officials now think the museum is moving forward.

“New staff has been employed and the good working environment has been restored,” wrote the museum’s board in its annual report.

The Kon-Tiki Museum has around 15 employees plus several part-time workers during the busy summer tourist season. Museum director Maja Bauge told DN the conflicts that cropped up starting last summer involved “some employees who disagreed with how things should be done. Some quit and we managed to solve the conflicts. I think we learned from the experience.”

Reversing decline
The museum has seen a decline in attendance, from around 226,000 visitors in 2007 to less than 200,000 last year. Some of the decline can be tied to a drop in tourism after the finance crisis and even last year’s travel disruptions caused by Iceland’s erupting volcano.

Now Bauge predicts visitor numbers to increase, not least when a new film about the life of the man behind the famous Kon-Tiki expedition, Thor Heyerdahl, is released.

The museum will also be offering classical music concerts next month in cooperation with the Maritime Museum and the adjacent Fram Museum as part of a new “Kon-Tiki Classical Music Fest” from August 9-12. Museum officials hope the concerts will attract more visitors, including the many cruiseship passengers arriving in Oslo.

Musicians will include Norwegian violinist David Coucheron, now with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and his pianist sister Julie Coucheron, plus three other young musicians: Turkish cellist Efe Baltacigil from the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, American viola player Jennifer Stumm and the Coucheron’s Norwegian cousin, violinist Marte Krogh.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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