The Counterculture team who were hired to oversee the launch of a major new museum in Scandinavia could have been forgiven for viewing its prize exhibit as a terrible portent. ‘The Scream’, that howling poster boy for existential angst, is the star attraction of the National Museum of Norway, which is set to welcome its first visitors this summer. It cost a reported £500 million and it’s the biggest museum opening anywhere in the world this year. Munch’s Expressionist masterpiece would be hard to beat as visual shorthand for the challenge of establishing such an destination at the height of a pandemic. In fact, though, the specialists from Counterculture who have been working on the commission exude a chilled vibe that is positively Nordic, something they may have absorbed from their new friends in the north.
An elegant leviathan making land where the Norwegian Sea meets the capital, the Nasjonalmuseet, as Norwegians will know it, occupies more than 50,000 square metres. In other words, it’s big enough to accommodate forty Olympic swimming pools, although it’ll be doing no such thing, of course. Instead, it will be home to works by Van Gogh as well as Norwegian artists including Munch and the sculptor Gustav Vigeland, and a medieval tapestry dating from 1180, the Badishol, one of Norway’s oldest and most cherished artefacts. It’s not just one museum, in fact, but a combination of three, all brought together under the same state-of-the-art slate roof: Norway’s National Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Decorative Arts. Culture fanciers will be able to graze on a smorgasbord of over 6,000 lip-smacking delights, laid out in 86 rooms across two floors, although the full inventory of works held by the museum amounts to 400,000. It also boasts the largest art library in Scandinavia. All in all, the museum is as big as an airport terminal, albeit significantly more life-affirming as an experience, it’s hoped.
As the countdown to opening day tolls like a bell in the ears of project managers, with exhibition spaces in need of finishing touches and eleventh-hour making-good, they’ve been unable to resist calling on the dark powers of Glucifer. No, not the ancient Norse god of adhesives, but one of Norway’s most celebrated punk bands. The combo’s songwriter and guitarist Rolf Yngve Uggen is an axe-wielding rocker by night and the museum’s mild mannered Director of Collections Management from nine to five. The challenge of firefighting last-minute problems doesn’t faze Rolf, 53, who also goes by the self-deprecating stage name of Raldo Useless. “There have been some kinks along the way and some delays because it’s such a huge building project,” he says. “We closed down several older buildings to move all the collections into this new one. It’s been a long task and a huge learning process.”
Rolf’s Glucifer got to #2 in the Norwegian charts with their last album, ‘Automatic Thrill’, and have toured all over Europe and the United States. When he used to find himself with a few hours to kill on the road, Rolf says, “I would flip a coin, to go left or right: to the local museum or the record store”. The grind of being in a hard-working rock ‘n’ roll outfit taught him to be organised, he believes, a handy attribute in his day job. All the same, it might be a stretch to imagine a punk rock star, the Tom Daley of the mosh pit, in a museum setting. Rolf says, “I am two different people in two different environments, so it would be one Rolf you see on stage as opposed to the Rolf who is in museum management.”
A great enthusiast for British punk music, Rolf has also become a fan of the business chops of the UK’s Counterculture. “What they brought to us that was especially good was their understanding of cultural management in a big project. They knew how to translate construction lingo into words that we can all understand. They were also a help with the long-term business of what to choose in terms of procurement.” According to Rolf, another boon of this Anglo-Norwegian collaboration has been that his British colleagues could resolve the different – and to some extent conflicting – demands of building a museum, on the one hand, and operating it, on the other.
Rolf has worked closely with Chris Potts, Counterculture’s point man on the scheme. Chris says that they carried on undeterred by Covid19 and its many complications. “Like other major projects, it was far too advanced to come to a full stop. We were able to keep going right across the period, with a team who worked remotely for six to nine months.” Counterculture has been involved in the project since 2016. Chris echoes Rolf’s view of what the company brings to the minimalist Scandi table. “What we try to do is to bridge the gap between the art world and the construction world. Curators and conservators are passionate about art, of course. On the other hand, you’ve got architects and builders who look at this in a totally different way.”
The architects on this project were the German practice of Kleihues + Schuwerk. A spectacular illuminated ceiling, the Light Hall, is their coup de theatre – or should that be coup de museum? A smart take on the old fisherman’s friend, the lighthouse, it’s an exhibition space of 2,400 square metres soaring above Aker Brygge, Oslo’s old shipbuilding docks. For the opening, the Light Hall will hold an exhibition of contemporary Norwegian art, which has been assembled following an open call to studios and practices across the country.
According to Chris, he and his team enjoyed two great advantages which helped the work to go smoothly. The first was that the Norwegian clients were extremely comfortable with their British partners. They first met Chris when he was at Tate Modern during the project to deliver the Blavatnik Building, the extension to that hugely popular and prestigious gallery. “Of course the Tate Modern effect is very appealing, and everyone with a new museum opening would like some of that.” The Norwegians will be getting a generous handful of that, it turns out. Their new museum has even more exhibition space than Tate Modern, not to mention the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Chris adds, “We’d also worked at the V&A and the Norwegians liked that, too. Scandinavia is a part of the world which very much likes British cultural specialisms and takes them on board.”
The second thing in the firm’s favour, according to Chris, was the client’s unambiguous brief that quality was job one. He enthuses, “What’s absolutely amazing about this experience, and remarkable from our perspective, was to deal with a back-of-house culture which was ‘build the best you can’. It was money no object. I took people from the Tate and the V&A over to Oslo to see how the museum was taking shape and their jaws were dropping.”
Counterculture first came on board as project advisers with a brief to consult on strategy and planning, but in 2017 this expanded to include the management and development of the masterplan for the museum, and liaising with Statsbygg, the Norwegian public works department. A year later, the firm became project managers for the team overseeing the final delivery of the museum, while continuing to be strategic advisers.
Counterculture’s Alex Willett has been ‘embedded’ in the team in Norway. With experience of project manager roles as far afield as Venice and China, she stresses the importance of building relationships. ‘Our Woman in Oslo’ remarks on singularities in the way her Norwegian counterparts get things done. “They’re very democratic in how they work. The lines of hierarchy aren’t as deep or entrenched as I’ve sometimes found elsewhere, there’s not the sense of distance between directors and staff. This is a friendly and easy place to work. There’s a sharing of responsibility and knowledge, and the decision-making is inclusive.”
In an echo of the old TV commercial about the man who liked a razor so much he bought the company, Alex’s happy experience of her working environment has led her to set up home in the Norwegian capital. “It has an amazing amount to offer. There’s a great outdoor lifestyle: swimming and sailing in the summer, skiing and skating in winter. And the city is reinventing itself.” Copenhagen has long been the fashion capital of Scandinavia, and Stockholm celebrated for art and design, says Alex. “But now Oslo is claiming a very strong position too.”
The goal of a great, unified national museum of Norway, which would also be a world-class visitor attraction, has taken thirty years to realise. The Norwegians were determined to get it right, and the influx of serious riches from their country’s oil reserves has meant that they could do so without skimping. They already had a fine nineteenth century national gallery, but it couldn’t be extended to accommodate a growing collection and display it to best effect. “The new building has given them a different way to exhibit and explore the works,” says Chris. It also promises to be one of the most environmentally friendly arts centres around, with low greenhouse gas emissions. The candlepower of its Light Hall comes from 9,000 LED bulbs, and pumps will draw up sea water to keep the building cool in summer. The building materials have been chosen to last, rather than to need replacing after 20 years or so, and in time, the Nasjonalmuseet outer shell will be buried under the luxuriant spread of grasses and vines across its roofs and walls.
The harbour in Oslo was earmarked early on for the development, on the site of the port’s old railway terminus. This district is already home to the city hall, the opera house, the Nobel Peace Centre and a Munch museum which opened last year and contains another version of ‘The Scream’. Chris says, “It’s a tremendously exciting time for Oslo. The waterfront reminds me a bit of London Docklands in the 1990s, with old industrial buildings reflecting the city’s maritime history. It’s also very much in the centre of the city. You would expect everyone to come to Oslo to see what’s going on.” Others have been making for the docks in search of work: the museum will mean jobs for 300 people and is expected to be a major boost to the city’s economy.
If the new museum is a game-changer for Norway, the same might be said for Counterculture, too. To be in at the birth of such an outstanding and prestigious art world institution redounds well on the company and is a handsome showcase of what it can offer. Tom Watson, who was shadow secretary of state for Culture before joining Counterculture, and has toured a few museums in his time, believes that the Nasjonalmuseet is a great calling card for the firm. “Counterculture’s extensive involvement in the National Museum project in Oslo once again demonstrates our world class expertise in museums and galleries. Our work in the sector adds value to all scales of institution and in any location.”
Tom Wilcox, senior partner and founder of Counterculture, adds, “It’s a privilege for us to work on a project of such complexity, scale and importance. The Norwegian Government has shown great vision and ambition in investing in a landmark museum of international standing that will be enjoyed by many generations.”
It only remains for the last objet to be tenderly lifted into place, and the final surface of Norwegian wood to be buffed, before the official opening of the Nasjonalmuseet in June. This will be graced by the presence of the Queen of Norway, the prime minister and his culture secretary, among others. Rolf Yngve Uggen says that his rock band won’t be performing, though surely a few crashing chords from Glucifer are just what’s needed to announce to the world the Valhalla of Norwegian culture.
Article by Stephen Smith.