The National Museum, Norway

15th August 2022

The newly-opened National Museum in Oslo highlights the history of Norway in the country’s largest art exhibition. Henning Larsen and Massimo Iarussi designed the architectural and exhibition lighting respectively, to showcase this grand collection.

Opened in June of this year, Oslo’s National Museum showcases the full breadth and history of Norway with the largest and most valuable art collection in the country.

Bringing together extensive collections of classical, modern and contemporary Norwegian art, as well as architecture and design, the new museum has instantly become a landmark for Oslo, sitting on the scenic harbour of the Scandinavian city.

Designed by architect Klaus Schuwerk of Kleihues + Schuwerk, the museum was commissioned by Statsbygg, the Norwegian Directorate of Public Construction and Property, and merges four pre-existing museums – the Museum of Architecture, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, and the National Gallery of Norway.

The new National Museum spans 54,600sqm, with 10,000sqm of exhibition space. Materials such as slate, limestone, glass, marble, bronze, and brass, as well as light and dark oak contribute to the radiance of the facility, which blends natural and artificial light to create a bright, welcoming aura.

A melding of classical and contemporary architecture, one of the defining features of the exterior is the vast “Light Hall” that tops the building. Made of backlit layers of glass and marble, the Light Hall is the largest backlit façade in Norway, and instantly helps make the new landmark museum stand out.

Given the size and scope of the museum, the lighting design was split into two different teams, with Henning Larsen (formerly Rambøll) designing the architectural lighting for the exterior and outdoor spaces, as well as general lighting for the museum’s public spaces, offices, and cafeteria; meanwhile Italian designer Massimo Iarussi designed the lighting for the 86 galleries and exhibition spaces.

Kathrine Hjelmeset, Senior Lighting Designer at Henning Larsen, explained the design concept: “Designed with the perspective of housing artworks for centuries, the museum is built with clean and robust materials that will age with dignity, like oak, bronze, and marble. The same intentions were set for the lighting design – to be timeless and still relevant many years after the opening.

“The concept of the lighting was a balanced design with a focus on light quality and experience, with a luminance hierarchy. The lighting level in the area in front of exhibitions is therefore toned down according to this hierarchy. We wanted the lighting to emphasise the architecture and be a natural part of the environment. Visual comfort, readability and luminance are the main elements; both technical and aesthetic solutions are emphasised.”

As part of this, Henning Larsen considered placement and luminaire types that would provide a balanced, homogenous lighting throughout. “The light was placed where it was needed and with the shielding necessary to provide the experience that was desired, as well as the required light level for performing the task in the specific room,” Hjelmeset explained. 

“Three types of ceilings were chosen in the project: metal, textile and fixed; these lighting concepts are used throughout the museum. For the outdoor areas, the concept was to make this museum an integrated and natural part of the city by choosing solutions used in surrounding areas. The historic buildings in front of the museum received lighting that reflected original fixtures and locations reproduced from old images.”

The historic buildings stand in direct contrast to the illuminated Light Hall that sits behind. Lighting for this feature was developed in close cooperation with the architects. Hjelmeset explained further: “The design goal was to create a calm and monumental façade with a lighting design that emphasises the materiality, with possibilities to slightly change the appearance.

“The lighting concept was to create an ice feeling, with allusions to ice flake layers in the façade. The original material was alabaster, but changed to recycled glass in the detail phase. Unfortunately, this couldn’t handle the differences in temperature the façade faces and the material had to change. There was a lot of testing of new materials on site, and the final solution was to use a 4mm thick layer of marble stone.

“The lighting was designed and programmed with 10 scenarios, designed in dialogue with the architect and the lighting staff of the museum. The scenarios vary from warm to cold, with slow movements of shadow, colour temperature changes and dimming variations. These are programmed in a wheel of the year, and the idea was to use warmer light in wintertime, slowly turning cooler in the summer. Our goal was to emphasise the marble material and give the light environment a sober and delicate visual appearance despite its enormous dimensions. The lighting levels are also balanced with the visual environment of the surrounding buildings.”

Inside the museum, lighting comes via a series of artificial skylights, in both the exhibition and general spaces. The decision behind this came from the architects, but Hjelmeset explained how the lighting designers “had an important role in the design and result”. 

“We did a full-scale mock-up and tested out many different solutions. The result was a double layer of textile in front of a grid of LEDs, varying from 2700K to 6500K,” she said. “The boxes are custom-made by Zumtobel, and there are many different sizes in the project. The architect wanted the artificial skylights to have a visual depth and for the textile to be partially translucent. We did a lot of testing to get the right textile, the combinations of textiles and the placements of the LEDs, to have the desired translucent effect, while at the same time not seeing the LED dots.

“Due to restrictions for artificial lighting towards paintings, the skylight is significantly dimmed down in most of the exhibition rooms. We performed measurements of the amount of light and quality in one of the sample rooms, before ordering the solution for the rest of the museum. The test also included a spectral distribution measurement and focus on the dimming quality without flicker.”

Throughout Henning Larsen’s work on the museum, collaboration and cooperation were essential factors – from working closely with the architects on some elements, to liaising with exhibition lighting designer, Massimo Iarussi.

“There was close cooperation between all disciplines in the project, and the architect was in lead of the aesthetic choices that were made,” Hjelmeset explained. “All luminaires and locations were discussed and reviewed with the architect, with some special-made luminaires that were designed for this project in cooperation with the architect.

“Henning Larsen already set the infrastructure for the lighting tracks in the museum by the time Massimo Iarussi became engaged for the exhibition lighting design. We worked closely with him when deciding the light levels for the artificial skylight. Henning Larsen were also commissioned by Statsbygg to lead the process of providing all spotlights for the exhibition areas, and we were responsible for setting the demands for the light quality. We worked both with the museum lighting staff and Massimo in the specification process, coming to us with thier professional input.”

Iarussi added: “There was an excellent communication with Henning Larsen on the themes for which we were both involved, such as the skylights and the exhibition halls, or the transition areas between exhibition and non-exhibition spaces, or in lighting some of the external courtyard where contemporary art installations are exhibited. There was also a very good collaboration in the phase of fine-tuning the tender procedures for the supply of lighting fixtures for the exhibition, which was taken care of by Henning Larsen, with our collaboration for the drafting of technical specifications of the lighting.”

Iarussi joined the project in 2016, following an international competition for the exhibition design, which included lighting design, graphics and multimedia installation. Part of a collaborative that included Guicciardini & Magni Architect for the exhibition design, Rovai and Weber for graphics and InnoVision for multimedia installations, Iarussi hoped to use lighting to reinforce the experience of the visit within the museum.

“The museum has enormous dimensions, with several thousand artworks on display, and is housed in a grandiose, rigorous architecture. It was necessary to keep the visitors’ attention on the exhibition; variation became the key word,” he said.

“We wanted the light to accompany the visitor, reinforcing the experience of the visit. The light had to appear innate with the set-up, it did not have to be intrusive, nor become the protagonist. We wanted the focus to be on the artworks. The set-up and the light both contribute to this goal, reinforcing each other.

“Developing around the unique collection, the exhibition design emphasises both the precious individuality and the choral value of the artefacts, through a fruitful journey of ideas and solutions created in close collaboration with the museum curators, conservators, educators and technical experts. To enrich the exhibition for visitors, the arrangement of the main exhibition sections has been diversified by the use of different solutions, colours and tones. In various ways, the exhibition elements aim to shape the galleries by creating installations evoking classical archetypes or modern abstractions. Materials, colour and light contribute to creating environments where the artworks are exhibited and highlighted.”

Iarussi shared some examples where this variation in lighting approach helped to differentiate the many exhibits. “In the first room, the faces of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures turn their gaze towards the visitor, who is invited to place themselves at the centre of the scene, marked by a bright spot of very warm colour. The shadows of the sculptures on their pedestals draw a star on the floor, which evokes the propagation of ancient civilisations in all directions, towards the whole world. The next four rooms describe the cultural relations between the Scandinavian states and the rest of Europe, between 1100 and 1600, through the exhibition of works of sacred and profane art. This section is characterised by the vivid red colour of the walls and dark grey platforms. The chiaroscuro tone, generated by a strongly contrasted lighting, gives greater richness to the objects on display.

“Once again, in Room 7, dedicated to East Asia, the bronze panel coverings of the display case evoke the richness and mystery of the Far East under a golden light. Unusually warm, it accentuates the charm, together with the texture of the backlit panels that evoke rice paper. These are just a few examples – throughout the exhibition, where the lighting and the set-up always go hand in hand, in a constant dialogue, which reinforces each other.”

This constant dialogue of the lighting and set-up spans across the 10,000sqm exhibition space, and Iarussi believes that the variation helps to create a feeling of narrative and flow throughout.

He continued: “We treated the 86 rooms as if they were the chapters of a novel. The consistency in a novel is given by the style, by the hand of the writer, by the language. In our case, it is given by the touch, by the light hand, by the discretion in manipulating the objects we use to create a light scene. But each chapter tells a different part of the story, with inevitably different words, with the infinite, small variations that from time to time, we bring to all the attributes of light: intensity, contrast, hue, direction, and so on.”

Iarussi looked to use the balance of contrasts and modelling to bring each room to life, while sticking true to the concept of light as a narrative tool: “The first rooms are extremely contrasted, with punctual lights with precise and narrow light beams, which generate very strong contrasts, with almost theatrical effects. The exhibition unfolds on a chronological criterion; the light becomes a kind of metaphor of a journey through time. The rooms of antiquity, characterised by very strong contrasts, are gradually followed by rooms characterised by lighter colours and softer contrasts that represent the unfolding of time. As we approach the present day, light becomes more and more ‘democratic’, less focused on individual objects, more pervasive.

“The transition to the modern era is marked by Room 20, where the journey into modern design begins and in which the massive use of diffused light combined with the punctual light of spotlights is introduced. The multitude of objects offered by industrial production is underlined by a light of greater intensity and, above all, more diffused, symbolising the availability of such objects for all. It was necessary here to create a custom system that combines the soft and diffused light of extended luminous panels with that of point projectors, housed in the same system.”

Across the museum’s extensive, diverse range of exhibitions, there is a wide range of artefacts on display – many of which are, due to their history, very delicate. This means that Iarussi and the wider exhibition design team had to be very considerate in their approach, to preserve the objects on display, while still providing effective illumination.

As someone who has worked on a number of museum projects in his career, this was a challenge he has become used to. He explained: “We know that conservation is one of the top two priorities for museums. However, this must always be balanced with the need for the best enjoyment of the artworks, which is the other major priority of the museum, without which the museum itself would have no sense of existence. In many cases, compliance with the best requirements for conservation can have a negative impact on the perception of the artworks, if it is not carried out with great care. For example, if in a room we only have very precious objects that must be lit at a very low level, we can illuminate only those in a focused way, keeping the whole room at an even lower level to make them stand out. However this is not possible if delicate objects cannot be isolated and are displayed close to less delicate objects.

“We have done a lot of work in this regard, organising during the design process workshops with curators, so that they could become aware of the perceptual effects, as well as the conservative ones, of the different solutions. In some cases we suggested simple solutions, such as a faster rotation of exposed objects to reduce their exposure time. In others, we have proposed more complex solutions. For example, in the beautiful royal costumes gallery, we proposed a dynamic lighting system: the light on the clothes is very low most of the time, but from time to time, a dynamic sequence follows, in which the costumes are illuminated one at a time, at a higher level, for a short time. This has no negative effects on the conservation, because the total luminous exposure is kept within the allowed limits, but at the same time it allows visitors to fully enjoy the preciousness of the Queen’s clothes, even if for a few minutes.”

With the sheer size of the museum and the delicate nature of the artefacts on display all factors, the biggest challenge that Iarussi faced on the National Museum is perhaps not what you might expect it to be. “It may seem paradoxical to tell, especially for a project like this, which required such a long preparation time, but the biggest challenge was to close the project on time.

“From our experience in museum lighting design, we know that a huge part of the job takes place in the field, in the final stages of installation and tuning. It is the phase in which the last details, the aiming and the adjustments, are decided, which are what makes the difference, even when everything has gone smoothly until then.”

Iarussi added that the size of the museum, and the fact that it was all brand new, was also a factor to consider: “We have worked in museums even larger than this, such as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. But these were always existing museums, which were renewed one section at a time. Never have we had to manage these dimensions and this amount of artwork exhibited all together, to have to stick to a single completion date for the whole museum. And we could not accept compromises on quality. We managed to get out of it, simply by putting all our resources into play and using all the time we had, until the last minute.”

That being said, now that the museum is open to the public, Iarussi and his team of collaborators are “very satisfied with the result”.

“As we completed the last adjustments in the galleries, it was exciting to see how much of what was taking shape responded to what we had imagined for some years now,” he said. “This is even more true for some aspects that we had not fully foreseen. For example, what struck me most in the final result was how much the museum really succeeded to represent the identity of a nation. It was an aspect expected and pursued by everyone from the very beginning, but I did not realise its success until I saw the final result.”

This is a view echoed by Hjelmeset, who feels the lighting adds to the visitor experience of the National Museum. “The lighting design is united with the architecture, and we are very pleased with the result,” she said. “We are very pleased with the light quality, especially in the exhibition areas, and the downlights in between the textile ceilings. We think the public areas work visually very well, and that the carefully planned solutions work well in practice. The lighting is an important part of the design and experience of the museum.”

The National Museum in Oslo is the result of wide-scale collaboration among a number of different teams and studios from a myriad of fields, and Iarussi concluded that the strong cohesion among the various partners is what led to the project’s success.

“The process of collaboration is always a fundamental element for us, and perhaps in this project it has been even more so,” he said.

“Being a lighting designer, by its very nature, is a job that only makes sense within a team. Lighting designers are used to dealing with different skills – architects, interior designers, curators and so on. The interpersonal dynamics of the work group are as decisive as the individual skills and specialisations. When the perfect harmony of the group is added to the experience of each one, the results can only be exceptional.”

Image: Iwan Baan