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Will Oslo Save Its National Gallery?

The National Gallery (Image courtesy of Simon Q/flickr)
The National Gallery (image via Simon Q/Flickr)

Construction has been underway since June on Norway’s €5.3 billion (~$6.6 billion) National Museum at Vestbanen, a former railway station on Oslo’s waterfront. The 177,165-square-foot institution will span seven football fields and house four formerly separate museums, including the National Gallery, which museum officials said was small and outdated. “This new museum will speak to modern man,” museum director Audun Eckhoff told the newspaper Osloby. But the major effort is not without its detractors.

group of prominent Norwegian architects who have long opposed the new building are now speaking out to save the original National Gallery, which dates to 1842. “This is a golden opportunity to upgrade the National Gallery,” Erik Collett, head of Oslo Architectural Association, told Aftenposten. “A city must have ‘depth.'”

The dissenting architects are trying to gain support for their proposal in Parliament, despite the fact that culture minister Thorhild Widvey has said it isn’t the state’s job to save the older building. Members of the right-libertarian Progress Party have expressed their support, however. “No one dared to discuss it before the National Museum was secured,” Progress Party cultural policy spokesman Ib Thomsen told Aftenposten. “Now we can say it is possible to have two thoughts simultaneously: building new National Museum, and preserving the National Gallery.”

The activists believe it is in the interest of the new National Museum to do so. Architect Kristian Vårvik has said that when the National Gallery first explored the need for more space in 1991, it estimated it would need at least 16,732 square feet (5,100 square meters) for it’s “older” art. Though its collection has expanded, the new museum will only dedicate about 12,000 square feet (3,600 square meters) to the older art. Vårvik and her fellow activists believe that by preserving and keeping the current building as a second venue, officials can kill two birds with one stone. “You solve two problems: the practical need for more exhibition space, and the saving of this valuable building,” she told Aftenposten.

Museum director Eckhoff has brushed off their concerns about needed space, saying that older estimates were based on the former director’s “relatively airy aspirations.” He said it’s impossible to look at the older art in isolation, and that the new building will dedicate nearly 43,000 square feet (13,000 meters) to old and new art and design. Regardless, he would welcome the task of managing the older building if there was political interest in preserving it.

“I have great sympathy for the National Gallery,” Eckhoff said. “The institution and the building played a significant role in the structure of the Norwegian cultural nation, and is one of the oldest cultural institutions we have.”

A post on the new museum’s site by its architect, Klaus Schuwerk, seems to echo this point: “We live in an age that produces things that soon become obsolete, and that are quickly discarded. This is of course profoundly unecological,” he wrote. “A museum represents the collective memory of the society to which it belongs, values that are important for future generations. The longevity of a museum building therefore becomes doubly important.”

Whatever its fate, the government has said it won’t be able to do anything with the National Gallery until after 2020.

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