Sverresborg Folk Museum

I discovered the Trondheim Folk Museum pretty late in my Fulbright year, but have become somewhat enamored with it since then. Like most folk museums in Scandinavia, the one in Trondheim consists of a museum as well as grounds. Unfortunately the museum is a bit haphazardly done, or at least it felt that way because everything was in Norwegian, but it was still fun to quickly walk around. I enjoyed looking over a few of the historical displays, particularly the ones featuring Elvis and what appeared to be old punk rock clothing.

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While the museum wasn’t the best, the grounds were pretty great to walk around. There wasn’t an abundance of information for each of the ground’s buildings, but there was the odd sign post and the occasional human to answer questions. Thanks to them, I now have answers to two questions that have been bugging me since I arrived in Norway. The first involved wanting to know the reasoning behind Norwegian building’s grassy roofs. I was told that the benefit of the roofs were that they were cheap, long lasting (they last around 30 years or more), and they provide good insulation. The other question I had was why most of the buildings were red.* Turns out that one of the byproducts of iron is a red pigment. Because iron mines were in Norway and Sweden, getting the pigment was cheap, it was a byproduct which no one wanted, which made it cheaper, and it was also long lasting. The mystery of the red houses was officially solved.

The museum also has a few more well known places in the grounds. One of the most well known is the remains of King Sverre’s castle. The castle is in ruins now, but it was originally constructed in the winter of 1183-84. It was the first stone castle in Norway, although it was torn down and rebuilt twice. After the civil-war years, the castle didn’t serve a purpose and was abandoned and left to deteriorate. It was later reclaimed by the Germans during World War II due to its strategic significance, which I’m assuming was namely that it has a sweeping view of the city.

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Other highlights of the grounds included seeing an old catapult in action and following a few rogue lambs around the property. As for the buildings themselves, several of them were quite stunning, particularly one farmhouse that was redone and repainted.

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Nicole and I also had a lot of fun at a farmhouse where we were able to interact with a few Norwegians who decided to show us around in character. The farmhouse they gave us a tour of was from 1906, so we had a bit of fun playing along and saying that we had arrived in Norway by boat after many weeks at sea, and that while America’s streets were not paved in gold, they were paved in silver. They in turn had fun showing us around. I would say that the two biggest things that we learned were that most homes had a Sunday room, or a very special room only used on Sundays or for guests, and we also learned the proper way to sleep. Apparently it’s incorrect to sleep horizontally because angels flying overhead might mistake you as dead and come and take your soul. The proper way to sleep is to sleep upright, as if sleeping in a chair.

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We also paid a visit to the old town. The old town consists of buildings that used to be located in downtown Trondheim. There they have several exhibits featuring a dentist office, apothecary, and even a telephone operating room.

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My favorite spot was however the ski museum. I had never really thought too much about Norway’s favorite sport, so it was nice to gain some insight into it.

Skiing only started to take off in Norway in 1850. There were several factors that led to this, but they can be summarized by saying that an increase in wealth gave people the time and money to take up the sport. While more and more people were able to take up skiing, skiing only started to be closely linked to Norwegian identity after Fridtjof Nansen, a national hero and polar explorer, popularized his arctic explorations. This caused people to associate this hero, and Norwegians, with skiing.

Skiing was originally advertised as a masculine sport, and one that solely in the domain of men. The first organized ski trips in Norway used to be organized by groups of men, and they often ended in drinking. Women were allowed to go skiing for recreation, and it was common for small groups of men and women to go skiing together. Although women were encouraged to ski for leisure or for practical purposes, during this time they were largely kept away from competitive skiing, such as ski-jumping and cross-country ski racing. Women were only able to truly gain acceptance in competitive skiing in the 1970’s.

The Norwegian tradition of Sunday skiing started to gain popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but these days skiing has become less and less popular. Only about half of Norwegian children own skis, and an even smaller percentage actually use them. Some Norwegians worry that this downturn in skiing will cause it to fade out, eventually stopping the phrase “Norwegians are born with skis on their feet.”**

Overall, I really enjoyed going to the Folk Museum and would definitely recommend paying it a visit, especially on a nice sunny day.

*Generally speaking the houses in Norway are one of seven colors: red, green, blue, brown, yellow, black, or white.

**Alix can testify that she’s happy that this saying is inaccurate.

Munch Museum

I have to say that one of the coolest parts about being a Fulbrighter is getting to meet other Fulbrighters. One of the current Norwegian Fulbrighters, Alyssa, happens to be the only conservation scientist in Norway and works at the Munch Museum. Alyssa graciously agreed to take me and another visiting Fulbrighter, Kyle, on a tour of the Munch museum and show us what she’s been working on. I have to say that I never really considered myself a Munch fan, so while I was not particularly excited to go through the museum, I was very excited to catch up with Alyssa and learn more about her work.

Once Kyle and I checked into the museum’s staff entrance, Alyssa came out and brought us to her workspace. I have to say her office is probably the most exhilarating and terrifying places I’ve ever been. There were about a dozen Munchs that the conservationists were working on, and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever be to that many priceless paintings with no security in the immediate area. Needless to say, Kyle and I spent the whole time terrified that we’d end up accidentally damaging one of these paintings. Luckily we managed to be accident free.

I learned a ton from Alyssa about conservation and came away from her office pretty awed. For her Fulbright project, Alyssa is working on identifying what exactly went into the paint that Munch used, something that is very important from a conservation standpoint since it helps researchers better understand why and how Munch’s paintings are deteriorating. First, Alyssa told us a bit about some of their non-destructive methods for examining the paintings:

  • Sight: I was pretty impressed listening to Alyssa talk about how much you could tell by just looking at a painting. I for example could not quite see the difference between say cerulean blue and prussian blue, but am now impressed by those who can.
  • Lighting: Putting the paintings under UV or infrared light can give conservationists an idea of what metals or other elements are in the paint, helping them guess at what specific paints were used.
  • Other Instruments: We didn’t get to see this in action, but Alyssa says there are instruments they can use to can analyze the chemical composition of the paint without actually scraping any of the paint off.

As for destructive methods, this involves taking minuscule pieces of paint off of the painting and them analyzing them directly. Alyssa told us that overall it’s much easier to analyze paintings that don’t have flat surfaces and don’t have a matte finishes since it’s easier to get samples.

Alyssa also told us that Munch is a bit of a hassle to work with from a conservation standpoint, and that Munch provides them with a lot of interesting ethical questions. Munch believed in subjecting many of his painting to a “Kill or Cure” treatment, or leaving his paintings outdoors for a few years. If the paintings survived, Munch figured that they would last forever. But because these paintings underwent such harsh treatment, it leaves conservationists with the question of whether or not paintings should be restored to their original form, or left in their dilapidated post “Kill or Cure” state. There is even debate as to whether the bird droppings that have been left on these paintings are now part of the art or are something that should be removed.

Munch is also a finicky artist in other ways. Some of his paintings have been left looking unfinished, which calls into question whether or not the unfinished paintings are in fact finished, or whether they are actually works in progress. Additionally Munch loved experimenting with different types of materials. One of the paintings we saw is in a truly sorry state, partially because Munch painted the picture on cardboard. From Alyssa’s standpoint, Munch’s experimentation makes it much harder to figure out what exactly he put in his paint. Not only did Munch mix different ingredients into his paint, apparently the paint tubes that he used don’t always have accurate ingredients labels.

Things are also made more difficult for the conservationists because the museum often loans out Munch’s works. While sending Munch’s paintings out on tours helps generate money for the museum, it can be hard on the paintings since they can suffer damage when they are constantly moved about and put on display. In case you’re wondering why you aren’t allowed to take flash photography in museums, Alyssa told me that it’s because older paint tends to contain unstable chemicals. This means that they are reactive to light, so your flash photo is actually changing the color of the painting, and causing it damage.

Additionally, conservationists still don’t have a complete grasp on all the things that can damage a painting. Alyssa told us that she used to work with someone who has been working for almost eight years on why cadmium yellow occasionally darkens over time.

Alyssa also told us a bit about conservation philosophy and how it functions in Norway. Everything that conservationists do should be both reversible and visible. Things don’t necessarily have to be visible to the naked eye, but they should show up under UV light. Alyssa even showed us one of the paintings to demonstrate. To the naked eye the painting looked completely normal, but once it was put under UV light it was clear that a great section of the painting had been damaged and restored (unfortunately Kyle and I weren’t allowed to take pictures in Alyssa’s workspace so you’ll have to use your imagination for this). Furthermore, in Norway conservationists believe that paintings should not be restored. Conservationists simply try to prevent paintings from deteriorating further and try to preserve their current state.

As for what Alyssa does, she is working a lot with Munch’s old paint tubes. Munch left everything he owned to the city of Oslo, even his hats, and that included approximately 1200 paint tubes. While many of these are from the brand Windsor Newton, their ingredients labeling isn’t always accurate. Alyssa analyzes these paint tubes as well as bits from Munch’s paintings and uses special instruments to determine what exactly went into his paint. The picture below is some of modern day paint that Alyssa occasionally uses as a baseline sample in her work.

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After patiently answering all of our questions, Alyssa showed us around other parts of the building. Unfortunately, Alyssa doesn’t have access to the museum’s vault of Munch paintings, but Kyle and I were pretty happy just to stand in awe outside of the vault door and stare at the retinal scan. She also showed us a hidden exhibit of Munch’s printing stones. Apparently the exhibit isn’t on display (and can’t be photographed) because of their reproducible quality. Since the stones are meant to mass produce Munch’s work, it would be incredibly easy for someone to take a picture of them and do just that–in short they present a copyright issue that the museum would like to avoid.

Afterwards, we went to the museum itself. The museum currently has an exhibition of Munch’s work in conjunction with a natural history exhibit. The connection between the two wasn’t really well explained but I suppose it was still nice to see the two all at once. The museum itself is pretty small and took us less than an hour to go through, but I’m definitely glad that I went. Not only did I find Alyssa’s work pretty amazing but it was nice to get a better idea of what Munch’s work is like beyond The Scream.

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