This year’s European Design Festival will be happening in Oslo. On that occasion we’ve had a chat with two of Norway’s foremost thinkers in the art & design field; Stein Olav Henrichsen, director at the The Munch Museum and Henrik Haugan, senior brand designer at Snøhetta. Together they’ve created a prize-winning exhibition series, which presented the artist Edvard Munch (the artist behind the iconic painting The Scream) in a bold, colourful and sometimes provoking way. It marked a paradigm shift at the museum and attention and visiting numbers hit the roof.

Text and portrait-photo: Christina Skreiberg

The +Munch exhibition series marked a shift at The Munch Museum in Oslo. Suddenly the traditional museum was on everybody’s lips, at times visiting numbers from the local community increased by tenfold. Snøhetta did the exhibition design. How did this collaboration come about?  

Stein Olav Henrichsen: When I became the director of the museum in late 2010, one of our main challenges was that the local audience rarely visited the museum. The locals viewed Munch as a historical icon that belonged to the past. I realized that we needed to re-enliven him as an artist and change the Norwegian’s perspective on their grand old master. We needed to be relevant to the society around us. I got in touch with Snøhetta and asked if they wanted to throw ideas with us. A group from the museum – curators, art historians, conservators, communicators – went down to their place, by the seaside in Oslo, and spent a full day throwing ideas and discussing how we could present Edvard Munch in new ways.  We had immediate chemistry, and worked together as a team, as if we were one. And importantly, we had fun! Together we realized that we could throw new light on Edvard Munch by creating dialogue exhibitions, exhibiting him alongside other artists. 

+Munch was a series of six exhibitions over two years, exploring the work of Edvard Munch side by side the works of first Bjarne Melgaard, then Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Vigeland, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jasper Johns and Asger Jorn. Henrik, what was your main goal when designing these exhibitions?   

Henrik Haugan: Our goal is to be communicative with the audience, and treat the space with focused attention and a fresh approach, so the people who visit have a valuable experience. We aim to have an element of surprise, and give the audience unexpected experiences, hoping they will want to come back next time, to see what’s going on then. We like to create a shift in temperature and energy-level from exhibition to exhibition. From rebellious and challenging to delicate and sensuous – or contemplative to playful. It was important to see the series as a whole, but we also had maximum contrast: starting with Melgaard and moving on to Van Gogh. 

I like to bring the knowledge and experience we have from commercial clients into our cultural projects. The branding deals with much more than making the museum nice and beautiful, it is also something that changes people’s perception. Perhaps we have changed people’s perception of what a museum can offer, and also of what’s “allowed” to do with a national treasure like Munch.

Bjarne Melgaard, one of Norway’s best-known contemporary artists, was the first to exhibit alongside Edvard Munch. He is provoking to many; in 2014 his artwork Chair, a chair in the form of a black woman in S&M gear sparked controversy and Twitter-storms, he has current plans of building a U.F.O. Next to Edvard Munch’s former studio, and the +Munch exhibition received massive attention in Norwegian media, especially since Melgaard’s videowork All Gym Queens Deserve to Die, showing a man sucking the finger of a an eight year old girl, faced police charges (all claims were dropped). Why was Melgaard chosen as the one to launch the exhibition series?  

Stein Olav Henrichsen: In choosing him we marked a paradigm shift, which we were eager to do. We shook up the whole museum and got to show the city that from now on we’ll also exhibit contemporary art and we will be part of the contemporary discussion. Many were provoked because up until then the museum had only exhibited Edvard Munch, and some thought it should stay that way. Many thought Bjarne Melgaard wasn’t on Munch’s level; how could we degrade Munch in this way, and show him next to this enfant terrible? Melgaard is provoking to some, but if you look into the work of Edvard Munch, he can also provoke. 

Henrik Haugan: It wasn’t just Melgaard that provoked, but our choice of colours and also in the way we presented the artworks next to each other, and even stacked on top of each other. In the catalogue we infiltrated Melgaard’s work into Munch’s work, and that created a lot of controversy. Being bold and perhaps radical with the first exhibition paved the way; we could do almost anything after that. But I was slightly concerned that it would be hard to maintain the temperature in the following exhibitions. 

Stein Olav Henrichsen: I believe that it is important to take a few risks. When you work with art, you never know what comes next. We managed to keep up the steam, and the public’s and media’s expectations grew with every exhibition. In these two years we sometimes ten doubled, and never less than seven doubled, the number of visitors we had from the local community. 

Snøhetta has done the exhibition design, but also the catalogue design and the logo design for all six exhibitions. You’ve won prizes such as the DOGA Award for Design and Architecture and Grafill’s Visuelt prize, the National Norwegian Graphic Design Awards for the work. Henrik, could you give us some insight into the design process?  

Henrik Haugan: We started the +Munch series with a couple of large workshops where the foundation for the whole series was conceived. For the different exhibitions it was really important to get as much information from the curators as possible before starting to work on concrete ideas. The concept for the exhibition could come from these meetings or a museum visit with the team, or it could come from starting to prototype rough ideas. The fact that we had 6 exhibitions in a row demanded simple and communicative ideas for each exhibition. Each exhibition was a dialogue between an artist and Edvard Munch, but it was also equally important dialogue between the previous and next exhibitions in the series. 

I was a visual artist before I became a designer, so I have read a lot of the biographies and literature about Munch. Later on I became a designer, but with my background I might have seen some possibilities that aren’t obvious to all, since I have an insight into Munch’s lesser known works. We have placed artworks next to each other, unsure if they would stand well together. Sometimes it was the works that we were unsure of that were the ones that worked best together. What you think might work, and what you feel when you see it on the wall, isn’t always the same thing. As you stand in front of two works of art, presented together, the result can be unpredictable. So we just let the snowball roll, and we never really knew where it would land. But as long as the initial ideas are good the result is usually good too. I like it when the process is slightly unpredictable. We encouraged each other to go further every time, and that leads to results. 

Usually the museum had worked on the curation, and the majority of works had already been selected before Snøhetta entered the process. The influence we had on the final placement of works changed a lot from one exhibition to the next depending on a lot of factors. But with the most rigidly fixed exhibitions we had to concentrate on the parts of the museum we could change. And since the time between exhibitions was limited, we had a high level of improvisation and we needed to trust the collected intuition of the exhibition design team.

What were the very first things you did at the museum?  

Henrik Haugan: The very first thing we did was paint the ceiling black, and we kept it black throughout all six exhibitions, to remove all the clutter in the ceiling, like ventilation tubes, acoustic elements and the lighting systems. The security level at The Munch Museum is higher than in most museum. At the entrance it is almost like coming into the security gates at an airport. Then there is a passage between the security gates and the exhibition spaces, and we decided to make this space into a wash room, which is a well known concept in the architectural world; it’s a transitional area that takes you from one state to another, from the outside and into the exhibition. At the same time we could brand the six different exhibitions and give the visitors a new entrance and experience each time. We thought of building a new museum front each time, but that was too expensive, but this proved to be a great solution.

Can you please describe the choice of presentation and use of colours in a few of the exhibitions?  

Henrik Haugan: We tried to use the entrance area in different ways for each new opening, using a different approaches each time. With the Melgaard show we received a palette of about 15 Pantone colours that he liked, but apart from that we had a lot of freedom and almost no instructions. Our work on the exhibition catalogue started some time prior to the exhibition design, and much of the experimentation we did in the catalogue became a test laboratory for the exhibition design.

In other exhibitions we used perspective or texture as the basis for the concepts. In the Van Gogh exhibition for instance, we used a gradation of only blue colours for the entrance and all the walls in the galleries. In the Vigeland exhibition we were inspired by the neoclassical colours so typical of Oslo at the time of the two artists as mature men. And for the Asger Jorn exhibition, which was thematically linked to gestural painting, we invited young art students to take part in a gigantic "colour by numbers"-project to decorate the entrance. In other shows we could use colour to emulate a more home-like situation for instance. 

Stein Olav Henrichsen: Before becoming the museum’s director, I came from the theatre world, and have a background in music, so I’m used to presenting art in a vibrant way. Perhaps I have a different approach. My main focus is that the exhibitions has its own dramaturgy and temperature, and is presented in a way that is intriguing, relevant and enjoyable. There is always different curators behind each exhibition, and every exhibition tells a different story. I compare an art exhibition to storytelling. It consists of individual artworks but it also tells a story that goes beyond the works. It also needs to work aesthetically. If Snøhetta and the museum didn’t have the same aesthetic, this collaboration would have never worked. 

How many people at Snøhetta has been involved in the +Munch series?  

Henrik Haugan: 15-20 people altogether has been involved. Exhibition design is nobody’s home turf, so we worked across the office, involving architects, graphic designers and interior architects. We have been changing participants on each exhibition. We kept somebody familiar on-board to secure continuity, but also brought new people onto each project, to bring in fresh ideas. I love to work as diverse as possible, therefore I think it is great to have a collaboration that activates so many of our disciplines.

The name and the logo, how did that come about?  

Stein Olav Henrichsen: We thought +Munch was a good name for presenting the guest exhibitor. When you have a guest with you, a + 1, you place your guest first and your name after. 

Henrik Haugan: Since the museum already has a logo, we came up with a system, rather than a regular identity, so we decided that each exhibition would have a different font. We made a wheel with the names of the six artists presented in their "own" font in a circle and the plus-sign in the centre. The wheel was like a clock placing the current artist at the top throughout the series. Subtle, but it did the job. The +Munch, as a concept, was something the public and the media caught onto straight away, which was great. 

A new Munch-museum opens in 2020. It will become a landmark building, stretching over thirteen floors and 26 000 square meters. What are the prospects for the new museum?  

Stein Olav Henrichsen: We have a huge collection of 28 000 Edvard Munch artworks. It creates endless opportunities for exchange of works. We have around 60 invitations every year to launch Munch exhibitions around the globe, and we can do several exhibitions at the same time around the world, which gives us the opportunity to show great artist here, as an exchange. Therefore it’s possible for us to bring for example Vincent van Gogh and Jasper Johns to the museum, and many more to come. 

That’s why it has been so very important to us to show that Munch and the museum is still relevant, and that we’re part of public discussion. With the +Munch series we wanted to show the public which possibilities we’ll have in the new museum. It’s going to be exciting!

Each year, the European Design Awards presents an arena for the most prevalent trends and themes currently impacting European design and illustration. The festival program this year is about new connections - about how change and truly great design often evolve at intersections of seemingly incompatible perspectives or mind-sets. Sometimes just playing around with things that normally do not go together is what opens a whole new world of possibilities. At other times the powerful impact of conflicting points of view will communicate a new idea or expose the need for supported change and social responsibility. This year’s program and events are all designed from a desire to challenge and change perspectives - for creatives from all over Europe to meet and expand their personal and professional networks while being inspired to think new thoughts. Come play with us in Oslo, 1 - 3 June! By bringing together new people and new perspectives we’ll have a ton of fun and create new connections that make a difference.

European Design Festival Oslo 2018