Oslo’s vast National Museum opens with tapestry of 400 reindeer skulls

It started as a pile of rotting reindeer heads dumped outside a court. The Norwegian government had ordered a mass cull of herds owned by Norway’s indigenous Sámi people, and Máret Ánne Sara wanted judges hearing a case against the demand, brought by her herder brother, to experience the grisly consequences.

But after a formal opening ceremony presided over by Norway’s Queen Sonja on Friday, Sara’s decapitated heads will make up the first art installation seen by visitors on Saturday as they pass through the doors of what is a new palace of the Nordic art establishment in Oslo – a vast museum of art, architecture and design, known as the National Museum.

Across 13,000 sq metres of exhibition space, the museum – the result of a decision to combine the collections of four existing museums including the highly popular National Gallery – contains more than 5,000 works, including Edvard Munch’s most famous version of The Scream, making it a bigger institution than Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or the Guggenheim in Bilbao. But, unmissable in the centre of the museum’s entrance foyer is the “Pile o’Sápmi Supreme”.

The tapestry of 400 reindeer skulls, the flesh and tissue boiled and scrubbed off and the bone polished to a shine, hangs like a huge flag in what the curator Randi Godø says is a statement about the museum’s intention to newly reflect all aspects of Norwegian culture and history.

“When you get closer you can see the bullet holes”, Godø said. “It is a quite remarkable piece of art.”

She added: “There was a dilemma for the artist: ‘I am protesting against the state and now I am selling my art to the state,’ because we are state-funded museum. In these conversations it was important to find a way that it wouldn’t be so challenging for the artist to be embedded.

“This artwork needs to be placed within a space that it could have this statement and not be packed in crates and put in storage. We have installed this for 10 years as part of the contract. We can take it down and loan it to other exhibitions, that is OK, but we are not supposed to put it back in storage and we also have to have a collaboration with the Sápmi institution in Sápmi [the region traditionally inhabited by the Sámi people]. If we want to find another place for the artwork, it should be a place in Sápmi so it comes back to the community where it belongs.”

Godø said the National Museum was turning a page. “It is quite an important art piece in the Sámi community. It is political and used in protests at the court cases. We needed to make a statement of its importance. The [old] museum hadn’t been collecting art by Sámi artists much, to say the least. It has been overlooked. It is the system of the art world: what has value and what does not. A system of inclusion and exclusion but art by Indigenous people is part of Norway also.”

The decision to put a piece of anti-establishment protest art at the front and centre of the nation’s most prestigious museum might also be seen by many as a defiant message to the museum’s detractors after much criticism during the last eight years of its construction.

The critics have crowed over issues ranging from the museum’s “grey box-like” appearance to the persistent delays in its completion and eye-popping £500m price tag. Such have been the controversies that the museum’s director, Karin Hindsbo, who was subject to regular personal abuse, felt moved to make a public apology.

Rando said the wait would be worth it. The museum on Oslo’s waterside Rådhusplassen covers everything from medieval Baldishol tapestry and Chinese imperial porcelain to fashion, Norwegian glass cups of the 18th century and contemporary design and arts and crafts.

A second floor is dominated by the visual arts, from Dutch and Flemish landscape paintings to still lifes from the 17th century. Its Munch room has some of the Norwegian painter’s most famous works, including one of his four versions of The Scream, while crowning the building is the 2,400 sq metre Light Hall, visible for miles around at night thanks to 9,000 energy-efficient, adjustable LED lights.

Godø said: “We have been talking about this for 19 years. It is a beautiful building. It is extremely lovely space to be in. It is huge at 54,000 square metres. It is quite grey and low-key when you look at it from outside, but when you come in it is astonishing and beautiful.”

“It is a grey box,” she added, “but it is beautiful material and what matters inside is what counts.”

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