Nationalism and Diversity

Problematic nationalism

With an increasing awareness of Norway as a multicultural society, many have been reluctant to speak about the aspect of “Norwegian”. Nationalism has become synonymous with a self-exalting and exclusionary ideology. Can museums turn this around and on the contrary take up the categories of national and “Norwegian” as part of our struggle for an inclusive society?

Nation building

Norwegian Museum of Cultural History  was established in 1894 during a period when the desire for an independent Norwegian nation was strong and when a movement for Norwegian-ness constituted an important national trend. The wish to identify and make visible a Norwegian national identity which could support the process of nation building made its mark on the formation of the museum. This understanding of the museum which grew out of special historical circumstances can, in retrospect, be seen as less relevant in the complexity and diversity of Norway today. The relationship between what is considered “Norwegian” and national on the one hand, and a multicultural society on the other has been regarded as problematic by many.

Cultural diversity in the museum

In the last few years, the approach by authorities to cultural diversity within the cultural sphere has been characterized by an almost strained relationship to “Norwegian” as something which a museum of national culture should document and impart knowledge about. There is concern that making Norwegian a theme will strengthen the divide between “us” and “them” – between those who feel themselves included within “Norwegian” and those who regard any references to the national as something shared, as exclusionary. The work on cultural diversity in museums is affected by this, and is to a large extent expressed by projects and exhibitions which narrate stories and cultural distinctiveness from  selected ethnic minorities. The intention is well meant; to expand our understanding of what we consider “Norwegian” by including new groups and new narratives. The aim, however, should be precisely that, to broaden our understanding of what is Norwegian, not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In my opinion we make a mistake if we use the historically conditioned nationalism of the past to reject the value of the “national” in our work for an inclusive society. On the contrary, I think that museums have an important function in making Norwegian cultural history available to a diverse population, including that which predates the presence of different minority groups in Norwegian society.

Norway after July 22

After the terror attacks in the centre of Oslo and on the island of Utøya the debate about what is national has gained renewed actuality. Many, who previously regarded “national” as a problematic expression for the power of the majority, have pointed out that the reactions and the solidarity which followed in the wake of July 22 spoke of a positive nationalism which managed to include a diverse population. People with a minority background stated that they saw the attacks as an attack on their Norway. I do not believe that this is a feeling of belonging which arose after July 22, but that there was room for it to come to expression publicly. In a survey about the use of museums by minorities carried out by the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History  and Oslo Museum in the spring of 2011, “Norwegian history and culture” was something which most wanted to know more about, precisely because Norway is where they live. We need to learn from and about each other, but what we all have in common is that we live in a country which has been formed by special historical processes.

The history of Norwegian culture is a narrative which concerns us all and it is the task of museums to make this story relevant for as many as possible.   


Thomas Michael Walle
Senior Curator and social anthropologist
Norwegian Museum of Cultural History  


Translated by Pauline Ann Hoath

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