Oslo has over a dozen museums, and I have visited about half of them. In this post I will review:
– The Astrup Fearnly Museum of Modern Art
– The Viking Ship Museum
– The Historical Museum
– The Norwegian Folk Museum
– The Kon-Tiki Museum
– Extra: Oslo Medieval Park
– Extra: Oslo City Hall
This is a long list, hence the index. Just use ctrl+f to find the one you are interested in! (Or make a large pot of tea, and get ready for a good long story.) Significant museums missing from this list are the Fram museum (next to Kon-Tiki), the Munch Museum (I am not a Munch fan), the Ibsen museum (again not a particular fan), and the Nobel Peace centre (ran out of money).
Some essentials about transport, food and finance
Most of Oslo’s famous museums are located on ‘Museum Island’, Bygdøy (not byg-døy, but bygd-øy; øy is the Norwegian for island). It is very hard to find anything affordable to eat there, so stock up on snacks and a packed lunch before going! There is also a supermarket in the island ‘centre’ if you are willing to walk for maybe 20 mins (check a map). Since I went there on my last day, and I had some money left over, I had a coffee with a cinnamon bun at the Folk Museum café, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The staff was super friendly and I was allowed free re-fills on the coffee; so with 4 coffees, that worked out very well. I still paid c. 50 crowns (5 GBP) either way though!
Also, because I was in Oslo for 8 days, I got a week-long public transport card. It cost c. 250 crowns and wow, in my case, this was well worth it. I spent about 1-2 hours on public transport every day, switching between multiple trams and busses. They all go very frequently, and it is so nice to be able to hop on to a passing bus even for just 2 stops without worrying about buying a ticket, how much it will cost, and whether I have any change. Loved my public transport pass. All museums cost money (see below) but they do give student discounts. I think technically you are meant to be a Norwegian student, but no one checked me for that. Same for the train from the airport: I got a student ticket on the NSB train for 92 crowns and no one minded (the airport express train costs more!). I found everyone spoke English, which was great, because I am now used to living around a lot of very grumpy Germans who do not! However, it always helps to memorise a few lines like ‘I do not understand Norwegian’ (jeg forstår ikke Norsk) and ‘thanks’ (takk). My accent is just… embarrassing, but in emergency situations, it works.
For shopping one of my wonderful couch-surfing hosts pointed out I should try Grønland (one underground stop from the central station). They sell very cheap fruit and vegetables there and this totally makes it possible to live on less than 50 crowns a day. Mind: like in Germany, all stores in Norway are closed on Sundays. Buy your food on Saturday!
On the topic of couch-surfing: of course accommodation in Oslo is astronomical, plus the hostels are not exactly cool-people-adventure-hang-out type hostels, but instead the type with a hundred plain bunk-beds which you shove school-trips into. So I opted for couch-surfing. It is very difficult to find hosts in Oslo, because of the aforementioned issues, so it requires some luck. And I got very lucky : )
The Astrup Fearnly Museum of Modern Art
I visited this museum late on Sunday afternoon, when I realised my bus back from Rjukan was driving right past it. I do not normally put modern art museums high on my to-visit list in foreign countries, as modern art is not necessarily reflective of local culture, but in this case, I was there, so why not. The student ticket cost 80 crowns, which I guess is quite pricey. However, I am going to say it was worth it.
I recognised a few very well-known artists in the permanent collection, such as Damien Hirst. I am not a big fan; I find his work a little obvious, and as a vegetarian I do not appreciate artists working with dead animals. However, it is always good to start off a museum with an artist you know. At least, I find it lifts my confidence (‘I know modern art; hah, aren’t I fancy’) (admit it, I am not the only one who thinks that). There was your standard plain black canvas as well, which is a must in any modern art museum it seems. And a collection of Tom Cruise heads which didn’t appeal to me (the idea was for it to be a commentary on America’s celebrity obsessed society…).
That said, I immensely enjoyed almost everything else. There was ‘Male Mannequin’ by Charles Ray, who created an actually manly mannequin, if you follow, rather than the abstract version seen in shops. Lizzi Bougatsos altered old advertising posters, questioning the perception of beauty by e.g. giving a toothpaste model braces. Paul Chan created functional font types which can be downloaded, but any letters typed transform into a sexual monologue. There was a unique condensation painting by Prem Sahib, who used resin to paint small drops of sweat on anodised aluminium panels, representing a mirror in a sauna. Sigmar Polke makes beautiful ‘unpainted paintings’ by creating chemical reactions with artificial resin and fluids with different colours.
Ah and finally, there was my favourite artist in the collection, Kiefer. ‘High Priestess/Zweistromland’ is inspired by the idea of a book as a time-capsule and repository for knowledge; there are almost 200 uniquely created books there, in cases named after the Euphrates and the Tigris (my favourite rivers of course), because the first ‘books’ and writing came from Mesopotamia. Kiefer’s books are ambiguous: they preserve but at the same time conceal their information. The appearance of the books is meant to convey disintegration and destruction; technically they could be opened, but it would be difficult. They are made of lead, which can tolerate even radiation, but at the same time it is poisonous (a problem I know all too well from archaeology). So much knowledge is accumulated that we no longer have an overview of it. Knowledge of the past can be interpreted as a burden. Next to this hangs ‘Barren Landscape’, a stunning painting which was inspired by ‘High Priestess/Zweistromland’.
I have to say I was not a fan of the temporary exhibition, which showed work by Matthew Barney. I can tell he is a brilliant artist, but the work just does not do anything for me. I found the ideas very far-fetched and too intentionally shocking (à la Hirst), and also completely unpleasant to look at – but at the same time not so unpleasant that you walk away thinking ‘wow that really made me feel something’ which is one of those great negative things modern art can sometimes do. Side-note: I did enjoy the little museum shop with its unique collection of items on display (versus Norwegian tourist-y souvenirs everywhere else). And who does not love a good museum shop!
The Viking Ship Museum
The Viking Ship Museum is one of my favourite museums of all time. The much anticipated Viking exhibition the British Museum had last year has nothing on it. Entry is 50 crowns for students; I reckon it is a little bit cheaper because it is also a little smaller. I did not need more than an hour to see everything. Last time I was there (yes, I have been twice), there was a little exhibition upstairs about osteology and DNA research, but that had vanished for some reason?
The museum displays three amazing Viking ships; or four if you count the artefacts from another one, which was less well preserved. The thing about these ships is, that they were used for burials; so these are not ships found on the bottom of the sea. However, they would have most definitely been sea-worthy; they were not just mock-ships built to bury.
The Oseberg ship was a somewhat larger and more luxurious ship; not the kind the Vikings would take out for massive battles across oceans. Oseberg was, to our modern-day biased surprise, a burial of two women. One was aged c. 50 and one c. 70. It is not totally clear who was more important, and for a while the researchers thought maybe the younger one had been sacrificed to accompany the older one (probably not true). They clearly had a high status; they wore very nice clothes, and they were buried with fourteen horses, three dogs and an ox. Someone suggested it may have been queen Åsa, which would of course be very cool, but this is completely uncertain. A lot of the gravegoods, which were pressumably there, were robbed at some point in history. The thing which did survive was the so-called “Buddha bucket“, which is my favourite artefact in the museum. (Less excitingly, it is unlikely this was actually imported from Asia.)
The Gokstad ship was more of the classic warfare variety. It is very large, and very sturdy, and it would have had 32 oarsmen. One (male) skeleton was found inside. He must of course also been very rich and powerful, and the bones indicate he probably died in battle. Again, most gravegoods were robbed in the past, but three small additional boats, a tent and a sledge remained. Finally, there is the Tune ship. This one has crumbled somewhat, but then, what do you expect. It was the first Viking ship excavated so I suppose they were still getting the hang of it as well. The ship is smaller, and would have been faster, with a crew of 24. Due to the initial excavation issues not much of the bones or artefacts have survived and little is known about them.
I found a banner announcing that this month (March 2016) plans for a new Viking Age museum were revealed. It looks like it will be amazing. However, the estimated date of completion is 2023. Wow.
The Historical Museum (The Museum of Cultural History)
So I visited this museum in 2012, and I did not have time to return this year. However, I remember it as being extremely informative from an archaeological perspective. I would really recommend a visit, especially if you want to learn more about the history of Norway, including the Viking period. The Viking Ship museum is very cool, but really only focuses on the ships. You can use the same ticket for both museums fyi!
I remember seeing… a beautiful (if badly lit) stave church portal (the best bit about stave churches). An actual Runestone (one of my favourite kind of objects/monuments… ever). Incredibly well-preserved medieval combs. And some really bad-ass Viking swords (probably what inspired the British Museum to start with?). I realise that is not very much, but then again, it has been four years. I think the information signs were primarily in Norwegian, but there were little sheets of paper hiding in corners with information in other languages. This museum is also a lot more central, if you do not have the time/money to travel all the way down to Museum Island.
The Norwegian Folk Museum
This is stop #1 on Museum Island. The student ticket cost 90 crowns, which I thought was pretty expensive, but wow, you can genuinely spend an entire day at this place. However, if that is your plan, mind that it can have strange opening hours! It changes between summer and winter, but when I visited (March) it was 11am – 3pm. Which does not quite fit my definition of an entire day anyway! So even though the route was silly, I did Viking Ship Museum at 10am and then walked back again for the Folk Museum. I think I ended up spending around 3.5 hours there in the end? But I did not look at every exhibition in detail (I don’t care as much about the history of electricity in Norway), and I am certain that if I had been there with a small child or two I would have had to carry them out at 3pm, because you could run around there forever.
It being my first visit, I decided to sensibly follow the sign-posts, which suggested taking a right at the entrance, up towards the Stave Church. This did involve getting past the entrance, where the entire group of people in front of me could not figure out how to scan their tickets on the little port (and same on the way out; sigh). Anyway, before reaching the Stave Church I walked past the ‘English Garden’ (incredibly uneventful in what is essentially still winter despite the wonderful blue sky), and a little school house, which had been in use till the 1960s. I kind of love seeing old schools, and while I am much more of an ancient history aficionado, it is kind of amazing to imagine this is the kind of place your parents or grandparents would have been sitting in.
The Stave Church here actually stood in Gol originally. It was going to be demolished to make place for a new church at the end of the 19th century so they sort of picked it up and moved it to Oslo. As I briefly mentioned, I love stave churches. This one has its origins in the 12th-13th century, but as all stave churches, was renovated several times since. In fact, when re-erected in Oslo only the interior was re-used really, and the exterior was modeled after a different church from the west coast. I am not terribly impressed with that. Also, it is not even possible to see the interior of this one; you are not allowed inside, and the inside is dark, and also quite empty. Stave church side-note #1: these were not the first, but some of the first churches to ever be constructed in Scandinavia. They often had beautiful wood carvings, relating to Norse sagas and mythology. In fact, at a few stave churches Runic inscriptions have been found. This clearly reflects on the Scandinavian transition (and resistance?) to Christianity, which I find very interesting. Stave church side-note #2: in the 90s a bunch of people from the Norwegian black metal scene, lead by Varg Vikernes, decided it was a good way to take revenge on Christianity (?!) by burning down a load of stave churches. Now I appreciate some good metal, and I do not go to church, but what the… ? Stave churches, in my interpretation at least, are a symbol of cultural resistance as well as fluid combination. If Vikernes had picked up any sort of history book he could have realised how completely and totally ironic his actions were.
Next I wandered across a hill in the direction of some farm-houses. These were the part of the museum I loved most. I had already seen a few of them across Norway, but not a collection of so many different types all in one place of course. I love the fluffy turf rooftops (presumably good for insulation?). The information signs were rather… lacking, so I walked up to an information desk lady inside before I left the museum to clarify my one burning question: why are they all on poles?! I knew there had to be a good reason, but I couldn’t work it out. So the answer was logical: one, because of the snow (otherwise they all get snowed in, in winter), and two, because of the animals, so they could walk underneath (and keep rats out?). Most houses were used both for storage and for living (on separate floors), but a few of the buildings at the museum illustrated that farms might have separate buildings for each room: a storage building, a kitchen building, a sleeping building. There were houses with fireplaces right in the middle, and benches (or beds) on the side; I have to say, the people who researched Vikings did well, because it looked quite similar!
There was one section of houses with actors inside, going about old-Norwegian-daily-life. I have to say that I liked it. And all the small children loved it. The one I was most excited about was of course the little house where they were baking Norwegian sweet bread (lefse). Yes, it smelled fantastic. And no I did not try it, because they charged 30 crowns. Lol. I took the recipe and re-created it at home instead. I did 1/4 of the recipe pictured below, which was still far too much for 2 people. I also found out you want to roll this out thin, because mine became giant fluffy pancake things haha. Anyway, I have a weakness for the history of bread-baking, and I did find this a very interesting one. The dough is rolled with special rolling pins. I asked if it was for a particular pattern (like with Dutch ‘iron waffles’) but no, I was told it is just to improve the grip. I see why after trying it, because it is sticky! – but I guess it is not necessary to buy or create a special rolling pin. They also had special sticks with which they picked up the bread. Again, I see why now – because picking up a giant, sticky thing with just my hands was… difficult. I suppose the sticks are especially useful if you are making huge ones on an open fire – which I will not be doing because… well, imagine what my landlord would say. I googled it later, and apparently these breads are also very commonly made with potatoes. Not the ones in the museum though. They are often eaten warm, with butter, and possibly sugar. Mmm. Of course you can eat them with anything though! Note on googling: there was wifi throughout the entire museum, inside as well as outside!
There was also a large section with more ‘modern’ town-houses. The 50s in Norway, the 90s in Norway, etc. It was a little odd to find a student room from the 80s (I think meant to illustrate how much better it is now? … but is it?), and a re-constructed Norwegian-Pakistani home (noting very carefully not every Norwegian-Pakistani home would be like that). I really enjoyed seeing the old shops and taverns however, and I was intrigued by the tiny, tiny size of the houses. How many beds they could squish into a house consisting of only a kitchen and a sitting room! Amazing, tidy, table, with a lace tablecloth and porcelain cups – surrounded by three little beds. Norway has so, so much space; why did people live to small? Of course I can think of some reasons. Class thing? City thing? Again, there were no signs to be seen anywhere explaining this. Instead the signs told me about the people living there, so the museum can be forgiven. Fascinating stories about families and individuals; a different one for each and every little house in the museum.
So this is kind of where I started to feel the information overload. I did not visit every city building. And I just sort of stumbled through the indoor exhibitions, such as a history of decorations from all over Norway. No matter how much I love medieval manuscripts, I could not pay attention. I do remember the most ‘modern’ exhibit there however, explaining the trademark of the ‘Norwegian jumper’ pattern, and a history of Norwegian-jumper-production! There was also a whole room dedicated to Sami culture, but… I don’t know. Can anyone Sami tell me whether it is accurate, or offensive? It was a bit like … people who have a few African bits and pieces in their living room so they can tell you great stories about that time they visited Africa? In other words, I felt it was kind of stereotyping and generalising, and also a bit old-fashioned. Like, yes, I did wear clogs when I was little, but I am not convinced that is how I would accurately represent modern Dutch society to you…?
Clearly time for a coffee break!
The Kon-Tiki Museum
Last but not least, at the very tip of Museum Island you will find the Kon-Tiki Museum. Kon-Tiki is the name of a raft; but it is much more than a museum about just one guy or one raft. I will give a summary: once upon a time there was a rather remarkable man called Thor Heyerdahl, who got stuck on the thought that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. I admire this, because he realised that ancient people, and particularly ancient seafaring, should not be underestimated. Then he had the slightly more crazy thought: to try this out. You can call this early experimental maritime archaeology, or just completely unfounded and insane. Either way, it was the cause of one hell of an adventure and… ah, I am sure I am not the only one who thinks it: regardless of how stupid it was, I would have wanted to go too. This was a time of real exploration and experimentation which is just hard to find or do nowadays.
The museum of course provides detailed information about the other crew-members, Erik Hesselberg, Bengt Danielsson, Knut Haugland, Torstein Raaby and Herman Watzinger, as well (and yes I had to google how to spell all the names). And you know what? They all survived the one hundred day long expedition, and… they were right. It was possible to sail across. Whether all of Heyerdahl`s anthropological theories were correct is a different story however; he kind of went about it Schliemann-and-Troy style, possibly basing himself a little too much on mythology. That said, he was not Schliemann-destructive and actually, as far as I can tell, established a serious and well-documented research project which is still being expanded on today.
The museum, which was really badly lit and very dark by the way, also had a fascinating exhibit on the archaeology of Easter Island. I even discovered they have an undeciphered (proto-)script there which I had never heard of before (Rongorongo). There is also a second boat / raft there, the Ra II. Heyerdahl never lost his fascination for ancient seafaring, and in the 70s he and an international team built another raft, based on drawings and models from ancient Egypt. They crossed the Atlantic, illustrating that this kind of venture was possible long before Columbus.
Oslo Medieval Park
Just something extra: if you are looking for something either… outdoors, historical, free, or all three, maybe the Medieval church ruins of Oslo are worth a look. I am saying maybe, because although this sounds like a winning combination, the real world is a little disappointing.
I started at St Hallvard’s Cathedral. Now, I can see the beauty in finding ruins alongside graffiti, but of course this does not point towards careful monument preservation. Nothing is left standing, and the bits of crumbled wall which remained were quite badly re-constructed. Also, I am fairly certain a drug deal was happening in one of the naves (I just shuffled past without taking pictures). However, a redeeming feature here is that a few of the nice stones with nice decorations have survived, and it is possible to go on a little hunt to locate them – which is more than can be said for all the other ruins in the vicinity. Next to St Hallvard’s is the St Olav Monastery More of this is standing, as more of it has been badly reconstructed. It did come with an information sign-post – but in Norwegian only. I gathered from this that these buildings date all the way back to the 13th century CE, that a school opened there in the 16th century, and that there was a large fire in the 17th century.
Next I made my way down to the actual park, passing by the ruins of St Clemens Church. Construction work literally surrounded the entire muddy patch of grass, so it was impossible to see the structure without also seeing cranes and skyscrapers in the background. You can kind of tell it used to have a (rare) double-nave floor plan, and it was supposedly built c. 11th-12th century CE. The interesting thing is that a lot of earlier graves were found there (c. 10th century), but of course there is nothing to see today. These would be some of the oldest Christian burials in Norway, if they have any link to that later church at all.
So, in the middle of the Medieval Park is St Mary’s Church. This was an extremely important church in Early Medieval Oslo and had a royal chapel. It had a lot of additions made to it throughout the middle ages. However, in the 16th century the Swedes set it on fire, and with the whole Reformation happening… they kind of gave up and demolished it. This is probably, no, certainly, one of the saddest and worst preserved buildings I have ever seen. I really hope my entire post is not an insult to the Norwegian archaeological service, because… ah, they must be aware of the situation. If anyone wants to tell me more about the choices made here, please do; I would be very interested in finding out how the place came to be in this state. There were fences everywhere, just sort of falling over on top of each other. It was muddy and messy. A lonely football, never retrieved, in the middle of it all. And a lot of the walls had been covered with a layer of cement (?) to keep them together, which is just a preservation method I would personally avoid. There were two other people wandering around there too, looking similarly sad and puzzled.
My own hometown in Holland has a rather beautiful and well-preserved ruined church, with a little market surrounding it on Saturdays. Where there is a will there is a way.
Oslo City Hall
And finally: the reason I was in Oslo to start with, was to attend a conference. As part of this, we were invited to a private reception at the City Hall, and we got a tour as well. The tour was completely in Swedish, and while this is my Scandinavian language of choice, I did have to double-check some facts online afterwards, because an hour-long speech in Swedish at 8pm in the evening, pfff. I think you can go there for a tour for free? In English? And I think it is open from 9 am – 4 pm. Do check though – I have a feeling this is not all set in stone.
The City Hall is a very impressive and intimidating building, looming over Oslo harbour. It is a 20th century creation, so not particularly old and interesting in itself. However, if any building gets to be packed with history, Oslo city council did an excellent job here. Outside, there are wonderful woodcarvings of episodes from Norse mythology. Inside, it has absolutely stunning murals with scenes from Norwegian history, although I did not catch the name of the artist(s). I think it is comparable to getting a tour of a castle or palace, but minus all the stuffy old teapots and fancy lace curtains. It is also the place where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is hosted every year. This is an award which I for one admire very much, and it is cool to feel close to a significant event like that.
So, that is all I have on Oslo for now. There are a few things left to see, so I am sure I will be back! Particularly for the new Viking Age Museum in a decade of course….