- The Nordic Museum was first opened in 1873 under the name ‘Scandinavian Ethnographic Collection’
- It is Sweden’s largest cultural museum
- The present-day building of the museum was inaugurated in 1907
I am sure every Stockholmer and likely most travellers who ever visited the Swedish capital recognise the monumental building of the Nordic Museum (Nordiska Museet) standing near Djurgårdsbron Bridge at the Royal Djurgården. How often do you think about where the museum’s enormous collection of artefacts came from or who stood behind its creation, though?
In this post, you will find the most interesting bits of the Nordic Museum’s story which began almost 150 years ago. Right at the beginning, we must understand that the circumstances in the 1870s were very different from today when it came to the cultural lives of the masses.
Although Stockholm, just like other major European cities, already housed numerous museums and theatres, for example, the cultural scene was still very much being shaped. The societal changes of the late 19th century were not overlooked by academic Artur Hazelius who came to a realisation during his trip to Dalarna, a region north-west of Stockholm.
Thanks to the industrialisation, people were increasingly moving to cities, and their former traditions were slowly giving way to the modern way of living. Unlike many, Hazelius recognised the importance of preserving the culture and traditions of the past for future generations and started collecting valuable artefacts immediately.
Proving that you should not underestimate simplicity, the first item in Hazelius’ collection was a woollen skirt from the town of Stora Tuna. From there, the collection grew and was displayed to the public as soon as the next year, in 1873.
At the time, visitors could get to know the Scandinavian culture at Drottninggatan 71 where the newly established institution known as the ‘Scandinavian Ethnographic Collection’ (Skandinavisk-etnografiska samlingen) resided.
The growth of the collection, both in size and popularity, was unprecedented and soon, a foundation was established around the museum which changed its name to the Nordic Museum in 1880. Only seven years after the museum first opened its gates, it had some 30,000 items on display and was truly worth its name since they did not only come from Sweden but also other neighbouring countries.
As the founder of the Nordic Museum and later also the Open-Air Museum (Skansen), which was the first of its kind, Artur Hazelius was a man with a grand vision. It is fair to say that at least in some instances he also planned accordingly. In the early years of the museum, he established a fund meant to help finance the future expansion of the institution.
Plans for a new dedicated building started taking concrete shape in the 1880s. Although an architectural contest was announced early in the decade, the designated committee was not impressed with any of the submissions enough to move forward with them despite having awarded prizes to the participating architects.
To put things in perspective, it is fascinating to learn that only 16 design proposals were submitted in the international contest. In comparison, the contest for the design of the Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet) which took place roughly a hundred years later, attracted 300 unique designs.
The reason why the authorities decided not to execute any of the designs was that they did not consider the proposals ‘Nordic enough.’ They came up with a plan B rather quickly and appointed architect Magnus Isæus, the author of several well-known structures from the period located in the city centre.
However, Isæus passed away before he could finish the design. Isak Gustav Clason picked up where his predecessor left off and the architect, who is well-regarded for his buildings standing on the nearby Strandvägen, eventually became the one who carried out the construction.
Not only did the collection of the Nordic Museum contain items from other Nordic countries, but the appearance of its home was also largely inspired by famous Danish structures. Although Vasa-era castles including Gripsholm and Vadstena influenced the design of the massive structure, too, it was primarily Kronborg and Fredriksborg that helped Clason find the right direction for his work.
Truth be told, though, the architect might have gone too far. The original proposal consisted of a building with four wings, two inner yards, and four large corner towers. All combined, it was about four times as large as the building you can now meet at Djurgården.
As you can understand from the previous paragraph, the design proposal was never realised in its entirety. Perhaps unusually, this change of plans was only partially caused by the lack of funds. Another reason was that the museum lost part of its plot of land in connection to the 1897 Stockholm Exhibition when the state authorities decided they had a better use for it.
The Stockholm Exhibition in 1897 was the largest international exhibition in Sweden in an era when such exhibitions were organised in all major European capitals starting in 1851 in London. You can see then, why this was a big deal.
There was no way, though, that the construction of the Nordic Museum could proceed fast enough to be completed by 1897. A creative solution to this issue was found. While the northern part of the building was ready from the outside, the southern part was built from wood to make up for the missing half.
Let’s pause here for a while and talk about what it is that makes the building of the Nordic Museum so extraordinary. Is it its size, the materials, shape, décor, or perhaps something else? Well, I would argue that none of these things would work without the others.
The massive sandstone and limestone façade fits the large structure well while the castle-like shape and décor add a somewhat mysterious and noble appeal to it. Once you enter the building, you quickly realise what its dominant is.
The 126.5-metre-long and 24-metre-wide Big Hall, originally meant to host national ceremonies and other festivities, is one of the largest rooms in Sweden that are not part of a church. When you see the room, your attention is likely to be redirected from the limestone floors and marble columns to the sizeable statue of Gustav Vasa.
The current statue is, in fact, the second statue of the legendary king made by the same author, Carl Milles, sitting in its place. Originally, the museum displayed Vasa as an old and tired leader of a nation while the present-day statue shows him as a powerful and dominant figure. The style of the statue changed, too. While the former one was made of plaster, the current statue is made of oak, and it is said that the king’s forehead was made from a tree that he himself had planted.
Although, personally, I enjoy standing under the staircase leading to the main entrance of the museum, some consider this part to be the least appealing. They argue that the statue of King Karl X Gustav is too large and not in proportion. The entrance itself is also criticised for not being well thought out.
You can, of course, make your own opinion and decide whether you find the entrance to the Nordic Museum impressive or unattractive.
I have mentioned earlier that the original proposal for the building was not executed in part because of the lack of funding. When Artur Hazelius decided to execute an idea, he was not easily discouraged. Despite the lack of a solid financial plan, he moved forward with the construction of an extraordinary structure.
One way in which the museum collected money for the construction was via lotteries. Between 1898 and 1901, they carried out six lotteries where 90,000 lottery tickets were sold for 10 SEK each. With the first prize being 50,000 SEK and the total payout 540,000 SEK, the museum turned a nice profit each time.
However, per the architect’s calculations, the total cost reached 3.4 million SEK which is far more than the museum made from the lotteries or had in its earlier-established fund.
The big project reached a successful end nevertheless, and the new home of the Nordic Museum was inaugurated in 1907. Although some would call it old-fashioned already on the day of completion, few have ever dared to question the museum building’s quality and meaning for the Swedish architecture.
I trust you that you will find some time to go and explore not only the impressive building whose story we just explored but also the numerous artefacts on display in its interior.
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Nordiska museet. [nordiskamuseet.se].
Nordiska museet, 1998. Nordiska museet under 125 år.