The restoration and renovation of Sweden’s 19th century Nationalmuseum strikes a delicate balance between preservation and modernisation
WRITER: HARRIET THORPE | PHOTOGRAPHY: PIA ULIN
The ‘Atelier chair’ by TAF, manufactured by Artek
Table ware ”Sand" Carina Seth Andersson Manufacturer: Design House Stockholm
One of the new courtyard spaces with shadows cast from the new glass roof
Wingårdhs architects and Wikerstål Arkitekter have led the five-year renovation of Sweden’s 19th century Nationalmuseum originally designed in 1866 by Friedrich August Stüler, architect of the Neues Museum in Berlin, that brings the building and galleries up to date to contemporary standards – and expectations, while striking a delicate balance between preservation and modernisation. The remodelling, rethinking and reconceptualisation process led to uncovering windows, the repurposing of two courtyards, the installation of a glass roof, and a new sculptural lift shaft. While in the galleries, Joel Sanders Architect provided a ‘kit of parts’ for bringing a flexibility of display into the historic rooms of the museum.
The museum was founded even earlier than it’s building in 1792, one year before the Louvre, by King Gustav III who granted his art collection to the Swedish state. Originally taking up residence at the Royal Palace, the collection moved to its purpose-built premises in 1866. Yet from its architectural birth, to the late 19th century and until today, the idea of what a museum means to Sweden as a nation and community has continued to shift – and it’s been nearly 150 years since the museum has had a major update.
The restoration effort led by Josefin Larsson and Gert Wingårdh from Wingårdhs and Erik Wikerstål from Wikerstål Arkitekter returns the museum to its former glory with material choices loyal to the original design. The stone façade was refitted with the same local Borghamm stone Stüler commissioned, and the two newly covered courtyards lined with fresh limestone. Beneath the museum, exposed brick arches have been restored and revealed for the first time, opening up space for public cloakrooms and toilet facilities.
The ‘Chapeau’ chair by TAF, manufactured by Offecct
The restored facade of the museum
Installation of the ‘Design Stories’ exhibition
The respectful maintenance of the building reflects a continuation of its history, and the values of what a national museum means symbolically. In Europe of the 1820s, when plans for the museum building were being made, the museum was seen as an essential asset to a civilised nation. Later in the century, this developed further as art began to be considered beneficial to the population for industry and design education. Stüler captured these values through his original design, creating a Renaissance building that resembled a Venetian Palace on its own island, Blasieholmen, opposite the Swedish Royal Palace. Yet its construction in local limestone from Borghamm, granite from Huvudsta and Kolmarden marble, hailed it as a product of the country.
While upholding the national pride associated with its architecture, the newly renovated museum also celebrates its modernisation: the south courtyard now holds a capacious lift shaft, required to meet the contemporary demands of the museum. Its design brings warmth to the stone space with an exterior of woven brass strips assembled on site by craftsmen. Equally, the glass roof introduces new angles and materials to the building – reminiscent on a smaller scale to the Pompidou and British Museum interventions with glass – each dome is composed of 104 glass triangles creating a prism effect, within a series of small pyramids.
‘Mela’ lights by Matti Klenell, manufactured by Ateljé Lyktan
A new spiral staircase
The rules of museum display have evolved enormously since the 19th century. Architect Joel Sanders from New York-based Joel Sanders Architect, worked with two Sweden-based exhibition designers, Henrik Widenheim and Albert France-Leonard, to solve some 19th century interior problems. Stüler’s original design reflected how the collections were displayed by medium: paintings on the second floor, the Royal Library on the first floor, and the Royal Armoury, wardrobe and coin cabinet on the ground floor.
While the first floor gallery is a magnificent space, with its soaring ceiling heights, walls of windows overlooking Stockholm’s old town and internal windows over-looking the courtyard, it was a conundrum for contemporary display: ‘This room was designed to be a library, not a gallery – there’s no wall surface, and we are actually removing more walls because we opened up the windows for natural light,’says Joel Sanders.
Similarly on the third floor, the museum’s top-lit galleries were ill-equipped for presenting anything but paintings on the walls. Inspired by the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert museum) founded in 1852, the Swedish Nationalmuseum had expanded its applied arts collection with many pieces of furniture, design and textiles. During industrialisation it provided a place for people to see the highest quality examples of design, to use as templates for production.
This staircase lead from the museum entrance to the first floor
‘Ateljé’ extendable table by Matti Klenell, manufactured by Gärsnäs
Stacking stools by TAK for Artek
Modular sofa by Matti Klenell manufactured by Offecct
‘Unda‘ everyday glasses by Matti Klenell, manufactured by Design House Stockholm
‘Nisch Sofa’ love seat by TAF, manufactured by Fogia
The renovated first floor galleries
Sanders’ solution was ‘a kit of parts’: ‘a system that consists of walls, platforms, vitrines and podiums, that we deploy throughout the museum systematically, to show the works,’ he says. ‘The idea was to tell a narrative story three dimensionally, to create rooms within a room that would allow different mediums such as paintings, sculpture, objects and furniture, to be integrated together.’
Subtle design details brought the galleries up to date with cutting-edge technology, while preserving the original architectural spirit. Ingeniously, new ceiling rosettes combine original designs with sprinkler systems. Many other improvements are invisible including acoustic alterations and ventilation systems. While seawater cooling and updated LED lighting are just a few of the solutions reducing energy use across the museum.
The bronze lift shaft with new triangulated glass roof above
One major visible change is the strong colour palette applied throughout, which leaps out and surprises you when transitioning between rooms. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum was a source of inspiration for the museum directors and the architects with one of its defining features being the coloured walls, and a return to the 19th-century ‘salon’ approach to display. A strong colour scheme was also present in Stüler’s original designs presented to King Oscar I in 1849, such as a deep turquoise, magenta and bright blue. Combining this 19th-century palette with new colours eyedropped from the collection by the curators, a spectrum of shades were selected to reflect each epoch, with a consistent pale grey used on the display modules throughout the museum.
Height adjustable café table by Afterroom, manufactured by Källemo
Chandelier designed by Monica Backström, Matti Klenell, Ludvig Löfgren, Simon Klenell, Stina Löfgren, Mattias Ståhlbom, Åsa Jungnelius, Katja Pettersson, Carina Seth Andersson, Mattias Ståhlbom and manufactured by The Glass Factory
‘Stoff 1’ mobile by Stina Löfgren, manufactured by JR Work Shop
One of the restored courtyards with sculptures and new limestone flooring
Yet, of course, a museum isn’t about just looking about art anymore. It’s now a social space, meeting place, study spot, retail experience or restaurant. Internationally, the museum restaurant has even developed its own typology – an approachable, high-quality, canteen style space. Responding to this trend, the Swedish Nationalmuseum has opened NM& by chef Fredrik Eriksson which offers a menu of simple Swedish dishes, with plenty of twists in flavour and surprises.
The sophisticated yet informal restaurant space is filled with furniture pieces with strong Swedish provenance; bar stools are by Jens Fager for Edsbyn – a joinery workshop founded in 1899, which established a factory in the 1930s due to demand from the Swedish Armed forces for skis and office furniture. While stacking chairs by TAK for Artek are inspired by Sven Markelius’ functional chair of the 1930s that will remind many of the traditional Swedish chairs found in schools and community centres.
As well as dining, quiet spots inviting repose and contemplation are woven throughout the museum. Our favourite? The first floor reading room, created from a small renovated library space, with playful green lamps designed by Emma Olbers twisting up over the original timber from 1910. §