Cathedral of the Viking Ship, and the National Museums of Norway

Posted by dianamuir on September 03, 2013

In 1932 Norway built a cathedral to house the spectacularly preserved  Viking ship unearthed at Osebourg.   They call it a museum,  but as I crested the hill walking up from the ferry landing the cruciform, domed  church museum building with it’s enormous vaulted nave looked so much  like a large, mid-century, suburban Lutheran Church  that  I assumed that it was one, and glanced back at my iPhone to figure out where  the museum was.

Inside, light angled from tall windows into the foyer, filtering into the high arched nave built as a reliquary  to contain  the most arresting physical relics of Norway’s Viking past.    The Viking Ship Museum is formally a branch of  the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, located in the city center, and  curators in both museums present the relics of the nation’s past with a reverence once reserved for fragments of the true cross.

The  Museum of Cultural History devotes the first floor to the history of Norway from the Ice Age through the Middle Ages – treating the carved doorways of Norway’s stave churches with especial reverence –  but it does so as one floor in an ethnology museum.   There are large Africa, Arctic, and Amerindian galleries, a recently revamped Ancient Egypt gallery, and  an East Asia gallery with compelling objects in a series of display cases that appear not to have been altered since the  museum opened in 1904.   The Japan section, for example, includes kimono, Samurai armor and an elegant sedan chair, and it is located beside sections on  China, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia.   Norway, then, is presented here as a national culture that can take it’s place in the world alongside other ancient cultures.   This was a bold political statement  in 1904, when Norway was ruled by the king of Sweden.

Norway was governed by the Danish King until January 1814, when, with Denmark on the losing side in the Napoleonic Wars, there was no government in effective control of the country.     Norway’s republican nationalists seized the moment.   They declared themselves independent, asked Prince Christian Frederick, heir to the Danish throne to serve as head of a constitutional monarchy,  ratified a Norwegian Constitution  on May 17, 1814, and began seeking diplomatic recognition.   The victorious powers, however, had awarded Norway to the King of Sewden, who had an army.  A brief Norwegian-Swedish war in the summer of 1814 ended in a negotiated truce that allowed the Norwegians to keep their new constitution.    Norway, however, came under  the Swedish crown, where it would remain until independence in 1905.   The history of 19th century Norway  can be read as a long nationalist campaign for  independence, echoes of which are still visible in Oslo’s  national museums.

Pre-oil boom Oslo, a city that you could visit as recently as a decade ago, was set back from the working harbor and centered around a one-block-wide park stretching from Parliament  (built 1866) to the Royal Palace (1825), with the   National Theater (1899) placed in the center of the park.   National institutions clustered nearby:  the 1811 University of Oslo, 1876 Kunstindustrimuseet (Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design)  and the 1882 Nasjonalmuseet (National Gallery).

The two old art museums have recently merged with Oslo’s architecture museum to form the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, slated to move into a dazzling new building on the waterfront.    The new museum has not yet been designed, but we can know that it  will be architecturally dazzling because part of the Norwegian  identity being built by North Sea oil is a self-image of Norway as a country that combines love of the mountains and countryside with some of the world’s best architecture and design.     Oslo is carefully adding density and dazzle without blocking its views of  green hills and  harbor islands, the beloved city nestled between mountains and sea is too dear to the hearts of Norwegians  to risk.

The National Gallery houses the canvases of Norway’s romantic nationalist painters, but the Decorative Arts and Design Museum (Kunstindustrimuseet) is perhaps more interesting.   The building originally housed both the Kunstindustrimuseet and the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Industry, (Statens håndverks- og kunstindustriskole), founded in 1818, a category of institution beloved of romantic nationalists.   The Kunstindustrimuseet inscribes Norway into the roll of European nations by displaying Norwegian examples of work from every category and period of decorative arts from the 11th century forward alongside work from France, England, the Netherlands and Germany.  The display of Norwegian art nouveau objects is particularly arresting in it’s strongly Norwegian themes. 

Many of the tapestries and, in particular, the silver are worth seeing for their artistry, but they are interesting for the argument they make, backdating the national borders and identity into the mists of medieval politics to stake a claim to the cultural continuity of the Norwegian nation that goes back to the Viking period.   And reinforcing that claim with the display of modern Norwegian artistry.   In this regard the fourth floor with its dazzling exhibition of the work of Norwegian designer Per Spook is particularly interesting in it’s assertion of Norwegian design as both part of the international fashion scene, and a unique product ofg the Norwegian nation.

And yet Norwegian nationalism is most compellingly on display in the origins of Norwegian  democracy as shown at the Norsk Folkemuseum.

In 1891,  when the King of Sweden ruled Norway, Stockholm opened the Skansen, a collection of old buildings gathered in an outdoor museum with the intention of preserving folk architectural traditions.  ( Sturbridge Village  followed in the 1930s)  Skansen describes itself as the world’s first  open air folk museum.    Norway answered with the 1894 Norsk Folkemuseum.    However,  in 1907 Norway’s 1894 museum incorporated the collection of old Norwegian buildings collected and re-erected near Oslo beginning in 1881 by King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway in an effort to show how deeply he cared about his lesser kingdom, Norway claims that its museum is the oldest.   Certainly, few museum donors can top the 12th century stave church His Majesty collected.   But the museum’s most moving exhibit is not at all royalist.

The constitution of 1814 is comparable to the constitutions written in that era across Latin America in that it was written by liberal nationalists who were members of the small, educated elite in a desperately poor and largely illiterate land.  What is impressive about Norway is not only that the gentlemen liberals of the Storting (parliament) were able to defend their constitution against a series of determined attempts (1815, 1821) by King Carl Johan to destroy it.   But that instead of feathering their own nests as powerful elites are wont to do, Swedish nationalists brought farmers into the Storting, building an increasingly real democracy.

The Constitution was written and ratified in a manor house at Eidsvoll, but the Storting very quickly moved to Oslo (then called Christiania) where it appropriated a lecture hall in the Latin School as its meeting place.   The building was demolished, but the interior of the old lecture hall is preserved in the Folkemuseum.

The Norwegian Parliament moved to it’s present quarters in 1866.  But for me, the room where they defied a king and included simple farmers in a  democratic government is the most moving exhibit in Norway.  Constitutions, after all, are easy to write.   And national liberation movements all too easy to organize.   But the room where a clear-eyed group of romantic nationalists built a democratic nation – that is something worth seeing.

The Folkemuseum’s collection of buildings from all parts of the country makes a straightforward statement that All of Norway – from Rogaland to Finnmark – forms a single nation.  Next door to the Folkemuseum, but set on a commanding hilltop, is the Cathedral of the Viking Ship with its claim to unify that nation with an shared and ancient history.






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