Norway’s government was once again being accused on Wednesday of allowing the country’s Viking heritage to rot. State budget negotiations failed to provide funding to preserve its priceless Viking ships, or start construction on a renovated museum for them that would be dedicated to the Viking age.
“We are very disappointed,” said Håkon Glørstad, director of the museum of cultural history in Norway that’s part of the University of Oslo. The university’s online news service reported that no funding was allocated in the budget agreement reached Tuesday night between the three non-socialist government parties and the Christian Democrats.
The latter party, which will soon launch into negotiations to join the government coalition, had allotted NOK 20 million (USD 2.3 million) in its alternative state budget towards renovating and expanding the existing Viking Ships Museum at Bygdøy in Oslo. It has needed major improvements for years, and since the Viking ships have been deemed too fragile to move, plans are in place to renovate and expand it.
‘Great expectations’ dashed
The Christian Democrats’ allocation wasn’t much, but it could have allowed construction to finally start. It wasn’t clear how or why they apparently had to forego the funding in the budget agreement’s draft.
The small Liberal Party, which also has expressed support for a new Viking Ship Museum, also apparently failed to have any influence even though its leader, Trine Skei Grande, is now Minister of Culture. The government minister in charge of higher education and university-related matters, Iselin Nybø, is also from the Liberals, and had claimed earlier this fall that the museum project was cleared this autumn but hadn’t made it in to next year’s state budget for 2019.
“The Viking ships are very important, both for the nation and for the world’s heritage,” Glørstad said. “We had great expectations because both the Christian Democrats and the Liberals had signalled that they took this seriously.”
Experts have been sounding alarms for years, and especially in recent months, that both the famed Oseberg and Gokstad ships are literally starting to crumble. So are other Viking treasures excavated from the graves where they were found at the end of the 1800s and including decoratively carved sleds and a carriage.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported earlier this autumn that preservation techniques used on the wood in the early 1900s have proven damaging instead, building up sulfuric acid that’s “eating up” wood cells. “If we don’t do anything,” leader of the “Saving Oseberg” project Louis Boumans told Aftenposten, the precious Viking objects can turn to dust.
State funding had been allocated to fund efforts to reverse the process, and optimism is high that a solution had been found, but further funding seems to have crumbled as well. Glørstad stresses that the long-term care and housing of the Viking treasures are related, with the new museum itself critical for the ship’s future. Conditions inside the museum that’s housed both the Viking ships and other treasures found with them are also far less than ideal, nor can the existing museum accommodate the roughly 400,000 visitors who come to see the precious ships every year.
Strong public, if not political, support
“If we’re to succeed at preserving our Viking heritage, we need a new building,” Glørstad told Aftenposten in October. “Today’s building is not good enough.” He’s distressed over the discovery of new cracks in the Viking treasures’ wood and other signs of deterioration. Plans for the new complex, called Naust, were selected in 2016, integrate new structures with the original museum building (which is under preservation orders itself) and will greatly expand both exhibition and work areas.
Public support for the preservation project is high, with major newspapers editorializing in favour of building the new museum as soon as possible. When news broke last month of yet another “sensational” discovery of a Viking ship buried on a farm near Sarpsborg, many experts and letters to editors urged taking adequate care of Norway’s existing Viking ships first, before excavating any new ones. Archaeologists have already decided that the newly found ship will lie through the winter before more tests are done at the site next spring.
“The Viking ships are in danger,” Glørstad told NRK on Wednesday, “and they are our most important contribution to world heritage. Now we have found methods (to preserve them) and if there’s no money allocated, destruction of the collection will continue.”