Nationalmuseum, view from the Royal Palace

The history of the building

The history of Nationalmuseum is a testament to the fact that a museum is hardly a static establishment – on the contrary, it functions (and has functioned) as a highly changeable entity.

As early as the 1810s, the question was raised as to whether what was then called the Royal. Museum ought to be given new premises. In the ensuing decades, new attempts to accomplish this were made. It was not until 1845 that the Riksdag decided that a new museum building would be erected.

Today it is difficult to understand what a huge investment the new museum entailed, but it was one of the most expensive projects to which the Riksdag granted funds during the first half of the 19th century.

Once the decision was made to construct Nationalmuseum, a building committee was established. In June 1846, it presented a programme for a museum spread across three floors. The entrance floor would accommodate the Antiquities Collections, the Royal Coin Cabinet, the Royal Wardrobe, and the Royal Armoury. The middle floor was intended to include the Royal Library and an auditorium where the public could attend popular science lectures. The top floor was dedicated entirely to sculpture and painting.

The sculptures adorning the entrance façade announce the contents of each floor. Art, literature and science are represented by famous Swedes: Tessin the Younger, Ehrenstrahl, Sergel, and Fogelberg on the upper floor and Linnaeus, Berzelius, Tegnér and Wallin are featured on the middle floor.

The German architect Friedrich August Stüler was hired to examine the various proposals for a new museum building. In 1847 Stüler took over Scholander’s role as head architect, as Stüler was involved in the process of erecting Neues Museum in Berlin.

Over the course of the 20 years it took to complete, the nature of the project changed. The vision of a national cultural centre became more specific and transformed into that of a museum with an emphasis on visual art. For example, by 1861 it had become clear that the Royal Library would not move into the building, but there were no resources to change the façade or install stone floors (rather than wooden parquet) in the halls that had been intended for books but that would now accommodate sculpture.

In the years that followed, more space was freed up when the Royal Armoury and the Royal Wardrobe moved back to the Royal Palace in 1884; the Egyptian collections moved out in 1928; the historical collections and the Royal Coin Cabinet moved to their own museum at Narvavägen in 1940; in 1958, contemporary art received its own premises in Moderna Museet on Skeppsholmen; the same year the antique plasters were moved out of the museum and used to establish Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities in the Royal Palace; the East Asian collections moved out in 1963 and formed the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.

Both the building and the museum have undergone numerous changes over the years. In 1961 an annex for workshops was built, while one of the atria was renovated to include an auditorium and a warehouse. Over time, an increasingly large part of the building was occupied by offices, archives and storage. Walls and ceiling decorations were painted over, the windows in the exhibition rooms were long concealed, and ventilation and heating systems were worn out.

The museum building on Blasieholmen peninsula represents a bygone era. Consider that in the 1840s, Sweden was still a poor nation of peasants, and public construction was very limited. After the first 150 years, we can now visit one of Europe's best preserved museum buildings from the 19th century, but also one of the most modern ones. This bodes well for the next 150 years.

Facts:

  • When the building was completed in 1863, a total of 427 drawings were submitted to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Buildings – 270 building plans and 157 decoration drawings.
  • The glass panes used in the windows surpassed any that had previously been used in the country. At this time, the largest window panes used for housing normally measured 45x45 cm. The largest window panes in Nationalmuseum were 170x200 cm in size. They were manufactured at a factory in Aachen, Germany.
  • The condensed water from the lanterns had to be carried down from the attic. In a single night in 1864, this condensation filled 370 jugs.
  • At the top of the building, where the vaults cannot brace each other as they do in the plan below, the vaults were constructed out of a total of 59,000 hollow clay jars, so-called vault pots. Through immediate pressurisation, the vaults became strong as well as light and thin.
  • The masonry work for the façades took six years, although the two steam-powered planes in Borghamn worked around the clock (except on Sundays) throughout that period.
  • The building also lacked toilets, but a workaround was developed in the form of the granite urinals designed in 1868 to be built adjacent to the Strömmen canal. Until 1915, the ladies simply had to ‘hold it’.
  • Nationalmuseum's 349 ceiling roses have ten variants – enough to create the illusion that each one is unique.
  • The museum long lacked electricity, which was not installed until 1931.
  • In the early years, the expense of keeping the building warm in the wintertime was the museum's biggest operating cost. Doing so required 2,000 barrels of coal, at an annual cost of 4,000 rixdollars. This can be compared with the attendant's annual salary of 500 rixdollars.

Sources: Nationalmuseum i nytt ljus (Nationalmuseum in a New Light), editors: Helena Kåberg, Anders Bodin, Ulf Cederlöf, Ingrid Lindell, Magnus Olausson, Johan Rosell, Rasmus Waern; foreword: Susanna Pettersson. Stockholm 2018.

Nationalmuseum : 1792-1992, Per Bjurström, Stockholm 1992