Gift from Norway: A new cultural gem amidst natural wonders

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has written about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he examines a major travel issue – and what it means for you.

Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, New York, London? None of them can compete with the world’s newest cultural attraction, according to Karen Hindsbo.

“It’s the best museum in the world,” she says. Karen isn’t exactly an impartial observer: she’s the director of Norway’s new national museum.

Norway is celebrated more for its natural wonders than its cultural assets. I daresay you will know of one single piece of Norwegian art: The ScreamEdvard Munch’s famous depiction of a tourist who has just seen the bill for a round of drinks on the terrace of an Oslo cafe.

The study of inner agony is a highlight of this massive new structure, which finally opens to the public on Saturday, June 11th. While Munch made several versions of it The Screamthis is the original – and bears the elaborate inscription Kan kun være malet af en gal Mand! (“Could only have been painted by a madman”).

But according to Karen, there’s so much more.

“We have an amazing collection,” she says. “I think people will be quite surprised by what we have in Norway.

“We have The Scream, of course, which is a reason. But we have Ming Dynasty vases. We have small figures from the 12th century.

“We have a 1,000 year old tapestry that is in incredible condition. We have contemporary art, we have installations, we have sculptures…”

And to house them, Norway now has a £600million art museum, as a gift to itself and the world.

Some people have derided the building, which partially wraps around the city’s old West Train Station, as the “national prison.” Looking at the austere, storm-grey walls from the outside, it has more than an air of maximum security. But once inside, the Nasjonalmuseet already feels like home.

Karen speaks to me at The Salon: a lounge area designed for weary tourists, where they can rest and reflect. With chairs scattered around, it feels like a particularly cozy airport departure lounge, with a tall, floor-to-ceiling window. However, the view is much better: ferries travel across the Oslofjord; the old train station stands like a transport temple; and pedestrians create random patterns as they walk along the water. Cultural collections do not need to be separated from their community.

Even better, the rooftop is one big garden with an even better panoramic view of the city skyline and harbor — plus random details, like a replica of an old dwelling made out of turf, a reminder of life before the oil boom.

Of all the nations that have become fabulously wealthy from their hydrocarbon reserves, Norway has been the wisest and most generous spender – and the country deserves more tourists.

“We’re going to boost culture in Norway, and we’re going to lift Norway up with culture,” says Karen. “Norway has always been [world-class]but now we can represent it much finer.”

The moment I realize I’ve been gone too long is when the man in the café looks at my 100kr note as if he himself belongs in a museum. “We can no longer accept them,” he says, and advises me to find a bank where the currency could be revalued. Oslo soon deserves a return visit with its latest creation of sheer size and class.

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