Norsk Folkemuseum

Our Norwegian Saga: Bygdøy and the Museums

September 22, 2018

Today dawned clear and bright, a welcome contrast to yesterday’s alternating drizzles and downpours. A clear blue sky replaced the looming gray cloud cover; it was just the perfect day for us to journey out to Bygdøy and visit the museums we had penciled into our Nordic itinerary over a year before. We were going to visit the Vikingskipshuset (the Viking Ship Museum), the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History), and the Norsk Maritimt Museum (Norwegian Maritime Museum).

These three museums, and two others we did not visit, are on the Bygdøy peninsula. The peninsula, once a true island, as one can tell by the distinctive ending on its name, is filled with parks and forests and several small, but upscale, residential areas. In addition to five national museums, it also houses the summer residence of the King of Norway. The peninsula is most easily reached by taking the ferry from downtown Oslo—the harbor only a few steps from the Nobel Peace Center, the former Oslo West Railway Station.

The ferry ride was short and uneventful; most of the transit involved the checking or purchasing of ferry tickets. Soon we were on the peninsula navigating to our first stop, the Viking Ship museum, where, among other recovered Viking-era ships, the Osebergskipet (Oseberg ship) is on display.  The Oseberg ship is an extremely well-preserved clinker-built longship of a type called a karve. The longship was, by all accounts, a seaworthy, working vessel that was later promoted to use as a funerary ship for an important personage. The karve was recovered from a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold county, Norway, complete with grave goods and the skeletons of two women.

The Oseberg Ship, 2018

This ship held a particular fascination for our little group of adventurers because of the possibility that one of the two women found in the burial was Queen Åsa of the Yngling clan, mother of Halfdan the Black and grandmother of Harald Fairhair. Why our particular interest? As it turns out, Joan had been able to trace her Norwegian ancestry back some twenty-six generations, using a combination of Norwegian church records, historical sources, and Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, directly to Queen Åsa. This connection, even if only possibly true, and mayhap only an exotic family story, added a particular thrill to the visit. Justin and Andrea had fully prepared for the visit, by reading William L. Sullivan’s The Ship in the Hill, a partly fictional recounting of the ship’s background story and 1904 excavation. Justin had finished the book, in fact, just hours before we stepped into the Vikingskipshuset and gazed up at the ship, with its elaborate, mesmerizing carvings at bow and stern. These carvings, in the so-called “gripping beast” style, featured fantastic creatures that intertwined as they grappled and snapped at one another.

One exhibit, amongst the displays of grave goods and carvings, had a disquieting effect on Joan and Justin. It showed the skeletal remains of two women, one older, and by the evidence, once important. The other, quite possibly a sacrifice, a handmaiden sent to accompany her companion across the last threshold. A set of skeletal teeth on one of them was starkly visible and a bit jarring. Joan felt a chill, eerily unsettled; she seemed momentarily distant.

Only later did she articulate her emotions, “it didn’t seem like the right place for them…it seemed inappropriate somehow. When I look at remains like these, I always imagine real people. I see them in my mind’s eye. I relate to them as what they once were, not the relicts that lie under the glass, under the gaze of thousands of strangers.”

Justin, terse and serious as he sometimes is, seemed similarly affected, but uttered only a single sentence, albeit one that said it all, “I read that they were buried….”

While he was referencing the book he had just hours before finished reading, his words expressed the essence of what he and Joan were feeling. The remains seemed displaced, in the wrong place, certainly not where this ancient pair had expected to be, on public view. The burial had been magnificent and intended by kin and community to bestow honor upon the deceased. Was this public display an honor?

It has to be said it was clear that, for both Joan and Justin, and maybe to some extent for Andrea and Greg, as affines to these Norwegians, there was something old and primeval unearthed in the presence of the longship. The curving prow, the fighting beasts, the swell and curve of the belly of the ship, brought up and to the surface, from somewhere deep within, a sense of great heritage, of a timeless legacy, and, yes, of kinship. There was an ineffable, inexorable feeling of attraction where past and present met, and we were balanced, if merely for moments, in a time between, when a long dead Queen reached out her hand and laid it proudly upon the brows of her children.

Humbled—yet stirred—by the great antiquity of what we had seen, we headed to the Norsk Folkemuseum to pick up the thread of Norway’s cultural history and follow it for just some centuries further. The Folk Museum is actually a fairly large complex consisting of indoor exhibit galleries and an “open air” museum similar to the one we had visited in Trondheim in 2003. The gallery exhibits focus on Norwegian folk art traditions, Norwegian folk dress, Saami culture, and even the history of Norwegian knitting!

The traditional carvings, regional folk painting styles, and complex textile patterns we saw in the exhibits brought home to us the significance of the traditional and decorative arts in Norwegian life—arts that are even to this day honored, preserved, and practiced. Our small collection of Swedish and Norwegian crafts at home certainly seemed unimportant and miniscule in the context of the museum. But both collections, the large and the small, signify a reverence for Norwegian folk tradition, in Norway today and among Norway’s scattered descendants in America.

Folk Arts of Norway, 2018

The outdoor exhibition was extensive, with relocated and restored farm buildings of all types: homes, granaries, outbuildings, and barns. There was a reconstructed “old town” with a collection of shops and dwellings from the cities and towns of bygone times in Oslo. There was a striking stavkirke (stave church), and also some examples of buildings from summer dairy farms called seters.  Many of Joan and Justin’s female ancestors from the Sogn og Fjordane region had been summer dairy milkmaids, or seterbudeia, residing the entire season temporarily in cottages on the seter. Our cameras were busy, recording rooflines, steeples, lintels and doorways, chronicling the everyday constructions that must have been home and hearth and neighborhood to generations of Joan and Justin’s ancestors.

Justin and Greg at the outdoor museum on Bygdøy, 2018

We could have spent longer on these extensive grounds, but a tourist’s day is finite, and there was one museum left on our itinerary. A little bit of a walk took us to the Maritime Museum. While Joan’s maternal grandmother’s ancestors had emigrated from the small farms along the Nordjord, her maternal grandfather’s people had come from islands off the Western coast, Vikna and Leka—the islands we had passed earlier in the week. They had farmed, but also extensively fished, living as they did, in constant contact with the sea. They had been skippers, mates, and crewmen on a myriad ships and pursued the Norwegian cod in the Lofoten Islands for generations. Many of her ancestors paid for their unspoken contract with the Norwegian sea using the only currency that mattered, their lives.

The Maritime Museum captured quite effectively the long and entangled history of Norway and the sea. A history of fjord sailing, coastal navigation, and transatlantic crossing. A history of fighting, fishing, and freight; a history of the transportation of a great portion of an entire people to America via emigration, and, now, lately, of luxury cruises and tourist amenities. One exhibit, quite striking, allowed visitors to imagine themselves on a vintage cruise ship, perhaps an early iteration of the vessels that first began to take passengers on tours along the Western coast to the North Cape. We could climb the wooden staircase up and down from panoramic lounge to dining room, and to the first- and second-class cabins. We had a clearer visual sense of how Casper and Gjertine’s 1932 journey must have been. Later, we stumbled upon a large-scale replica of the MS Stavangerfjord, the very ship that had transported her great-grandparents from Oslo, to Bergen, to Trondheim and finally up the coast to the northernmost tip of Norway, the eighty-six-year-old journey that we had, to some great degree, just replicated a few days before.

A Scale Model of the SS Stavangerfjord, 2018

However, as exciting as our discovery of the Stavangerfjord was, one of the most affecting exhibits was not this large model, but a very small painting by Christian Krohg in the maritime art gallery, entitled, simply, “The Herring Are In” [Silda kommer]. It depicts Norwegian fishermen in the street of a small town, putting on slickers and running for their boats. Two women are leaning out of windows, watching them hurry away to the sea. Their postures express a mix of hope for a bountiful catch and of unspoken fear. Joan and Greg remember the fiskerbondekona statue in the Rørvik town square we saw fifteen years ago—a fisherman’s wife looking out to sea with an expression of both expectancy and dread. The Norwegian sea is the source of life and health and wealth, but also of unexpected violence, death, and sorrow.

Silda kommer by Christian Krohg, Oslo Maritime Museum

Thoughtful, we returned to the ferry, navigating our own way back home by water and then by land. We turned in, after a cobbled together dinner of sandwiches, thinking already of our last full day in Oslo tomorrow.

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