by Owen Lipsett
New York, New York
January 28, 2005
Open-air museums that consist of old buildings transferred from various sites (known as skansen, after the original located in Stockholm) are common throughout Northern Europe, and the Folkemuseum’s collection in this area alone is, in my experience, unmatched. Pride of place belongs to the 13th-century Gol Stave Church, one of less than a dozen such churches, a uniquely Norwegian phenomenon whose roofs resembled upside-down Viking longboats, still in existence. While less spectacular, the clusters of buildings arranged geographically to represent the regions of Norway are equally interesting. A recreated village known as "Kolonialen" contains shops from late 19th-century Oslo.
The Folkemuseum’s more modern elements are what elevate it beyond a simple nostalgic skansen. Nestled among the antique pseudo-villages is a 1940s gas station, and across from it is a house whose second floor contains a 1960s flat occupied by a professional Oslo couple of somewhat bohemian tastes. The implication is that despite their comparative lack of historicity, attractiveness, or novelty, these exhibits represent just as important a part of Norway’s history as bucolic villages that could have been lifted directly from postcards. Downstairs from the flat is an exhibition on the history of alcoholism (and temperance movements) in Norway, which seems to suggest that both have weathered the country’s emergence from an agricultural and maritime society to one of the richest in the world.
Indoor exhibits near the entrance display a comprehensive array of traditional Norwegian folk art and folk dress, painstakingly labeled in Norwegian and English. Others in the same building present the country’s first parliament hall and the tragic history of the Sami people (sometimes known as the "Lapps"), the aboriginal people of Northern Scandinavia, much of whose nomadic reindeer-herding culture was destroyed by Swedish missionaries (inspired by the writings of the scientist Linnaeus, among others). Most of the museum building is given over to temporary exhibitions–-I was fortunate to see one dedicated to the history of Norway’s historical relations with Russia (and the Soviet Union), which was hugely enlightening.
While its slogan, "See Norway in a day", might be slightly exaggerated because it’s simply impossible to recreate the country’s natural beauty in such a setting, the Folkemuseum provides a very thorough survey of its cultural history. If you visit one museum in Norway, make it this one, and if you’re visiting more than one, make this your first stop, since it will immeasurably inform everything you see afterwards.
From journal Oslo's Art and Culture on a Budget