The Viking Ship Museum – A Cultural Cathedral

Where architecture and artefact are interdependent to form a whole, the Viking Ship Museum is an architectural manifestation of the Norwegian desire to identify as an autonomous nation. Designed in such a specific manner with the relics, the institution has become a cathedral of culture.

The preservation of medieval cultural heritage in Norway was an important method by which they established a nation of new found independence following the dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905. The institution sought to grasp one of the most important contributions to world heritage as a national symbol – the Viking ships, Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune.

Suitably in 1917, Arnstein Arnsberg, one of the most important Norwegian architects of that time was chosen to design the iconic The Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy. The result is a cultural cathedral where architecture and artefact are interdependent in a composition of oneness. Themes of procession, construction and spatial arrangement are interrogated to understand how a symbiotic relationship between space and object was established, and is still evident today.

Religious connotations of architecture in form and experience. Image: Nasjonalbiblioteket, Norway

“It is a simple, precious building that he has proposed, well adapted to the need and despite all its simplicity possessing the dignity and mood that must me required of a building for such great cultural values.”1

– Morten Ole Motch



Upon discovery of the three ships Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune between 1867 and 1904, each excavated fragment was brought to University Gardens in Christiania for restoration while an institution was built as a new home.2 To house such significant items, the architecture would have to exemplify an absolute Norway while drawing monumental attention to the Viking ships.

Plan of Oslo showing approximate route of procession of the Oseberg ship in 1926. Image: Author’s Original

In 1926, the fragile and most significant relic, the Oseberg ship, was ceremonially paraded through the streets of Oslo to Bygdøy as a powerful statement illustrating the celebration of pure Norwegian heritage. This event was an exhibition of a predominant socio-cultural figure of the country, for every citizen to enjoy. The archived photographs of this event depict the importance of the ship as an heirloom of cultural identity, where people line the streets to witness the objects moved by rail and boat. The procession of the Oseberg ship connotes a religious ceremony, where a relic is moved to permanent shelter for exhibition as a tangible memorial for the citizens. The building is waiting for the relic to become complete so it may become culturally sacred in exhibiting the collection.

Procession of the Oseberg ship as a tangible experience for society. Images: Oslo Bilder



The prolonged sequence of construction of the Viking Ship Museum reveals the notion that the architecture cannot exist without the artefact. The procession of Oseberg concluded with the ship being lifted into place inside the barrel-vaulted wing, and the building then enclosed around it. It was at this moment the architectural composition became unified, the monument and artefact balanced in all aspects of design. Soon after, in 1932, the Gokstad and Tune wings of the museum were completed and occupied respectively, before construction came to a halt due to the First World War. The South wing was completed in 1957 and the Viking Ship Museum eventually finished. The perseverance and ambition to complete the building across 30 years personifies the yearning of a nation to define an authentic Norwegian culture.

“Everything is focused on just highlighting these powerful discoveries, the ships’ lines, construction and decorative equipment. Here we have an architectural restraint and pace that could hardly have achieved greater impact.”3

– Morten Ole Motch

Construction sequence of the Viking Ship Museum. Image: Author’s Original

Construction of the museum around the ship, a process of symbiosis. Images: Nasjonalbiblioteket



The Viking Ship Museum quickly became a pilgrimage for Norwegians and has continued to be to date, with over 400,000 people visiting per annum.4 The architecture and artefact are consolidated and interdependent to each other through the spatial layout of the plan and the use of material and volume to influence the space and cast great significance onto the collection itself. The dark, worn timber of the ships is offset by clean, white-washed walls to capture the object and centralise it within each wing. The barrel vault reflects the elegance of the ships hull, completing a composition between space and object. The low placement of nave-like windows along each wing focuses light upon the underside of the hull, revealing the qualities in age and grain of the timber. The three wings, intimate in scale, meet in the centre of the plan where the space rises high above the vaults to reveal the collection in it’s whole, sublime state. The cumulation of these architectural gestures instil a sense of awe as observers are presented with such a monumental exhibition of objects. The architecture is a sanctuary to boast such items of national, cultural significance.

“The museum seems to have achieved a very coherent exhibition concept in which great attention is paid to the materiality of the ships and their importance in Norwegian culture.”5

– Peter Dalsgaard

1 Oseberg Ship, 2 Gokstad Ship, 3 Tune Ship, 4 Oseberg Collection. Image: Authors Original

Volume encompassing ship in a compositional balance. Images: Nasjonalbiblioteket

A Cultural Cathedral

The Viking Ship Museum is a national symbol that houses what is probably Norway’s most important contribution to world cultural heritage. At a time when Norway sought independence from diluted cultures, Arnstein Arnsberg designed an incredible vessel for such authentic national pieces. Through purity in plan and simple spatial arrangement, the building symbolises the significance of Nordic identity within the country – it is a claim to an independent culture.

The procession of the ship depicts a celebration and accessibility of the antiques for the people of Norway, while the sequence of construction signifies the idea of the architecture capturing culture and the interdependency of the space and collection within.

As a new era approaches for the life of the Viking Ship Museum, and proposals to expand the institution are moving forward,6 it is vital that attention to protect the exhibition’s simplicity is given, so the connection between a national architecture and national relic is not lost only then will the building remain true to Arnstein Arneberg’s vision and the integrity of the architecture preserved.





1. Morten Ole Morch, “Arnstein Arneberg,” 141.

2. “Success From Day One,” UioO Museum of Cultural History, last modified October 1, 2018,

3. Morten Ole Morch, “Arnstein Arneberg,” 143.

4. Harry Fett, “Continuity,” Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism,Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter 2010)

5. Peter Dalsgaard, “Designing for Participation in Public Knowledge Institutions,” NordiCHI (October 2008)

6. “Aart Architects Competition Extension,” Dezeen, last modified April 14, 2016,



“Success From Day One,” UioO Museum of Cultural History, last modified October 1, 2018,

Peter Dalsgaard, “Designing for Participation in Public Knowledge Institutions,” NordiCHI (October 2008)

Morten Ole Morch, “Arnstein Arneberg”

Harry Fett, “Continuity,” Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism,Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter 2010)

Kristin B. Aavitsland, “From Nationalism to Cosmopolitan Classicism Harry Fett’s Concept of Cultural Capital,” Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism,Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter 2010)

“Aart Architects Competition Extension,” Dezeen, last modified April 14, 2016,