“S ome of the changes are quite remarkable,” says Susanna Pettersson, the director general of the museum, who arrives having led the Ateneum Museum of Art in Helsinki, the Finnish Institute in London and Alvar Aalto Foundation and Museum in Jyväskylä, Finland. She joined at the Nationalmuseum after the project had already begun, but has been closely involved in preparations for its major new phase.
“Visitors who know the Nationalmuseum will see how the building has been transformed from being slightly tired, if I may say so, to something which is strong and colourful.” This has seen a team including Swedish architects Wingårdhs and Wikerstål and American exhibition designer Joel Sanders “paying homage” to the original architecture. Key elements of the project include the removal of shutters on the windows, allowing natural light to pour into the galleries, and the walls being repainted in fresh colours inspired by 19th-century interiors. The museum is also introducing a new sculpture courtyard and restaurant.
The enhancements made to the building are designed to help the public “visualise the collection better than ever before”, Pettersson explains. Paintings, prints, sculptures and applied arts from the 15th century to present day will be organised within The Timeline, a new rotating permanent display set over two floors, with highlights including the world’s largest collection of miniatures, an 18th-century sculpture by Swedish artist Johan Tobias Sergel depicting the classical love story of Cupid and Psyche, and The Last Ray of Sunshine by the Finnish painter Julia Beck. “It’s a simply fantastic piece of art,” Pettersson says of Beck’s work, painted in 1888. “It is kind of a combination of early Impressionism and the influences that she got from Japonisme.”
The temporary exhibition programme reflects this international focus, with one of the opening shows dedicated to American painter John Singer Sargent. It also pays tribute to the region’s rich history in the fields of design, as seen in Design Stories and A&E Design, which offer an overview of contemporary Swedish design and a closer look at donations from local design company A&E design respectively. “The Nationalmuseum is not only about fine art, but also craft and design. [The] design collection comes to the present day, and there’s huge potential,” says Pettersson.
Pettersson is fully aware of the responsibility the Nationalmuseum holds both in Sweden and further afield. “We have to earn our place in the society every single day,” she says. “We need to be able to bring to light the kinds of topics that are important and sometimes even difficult.” At the heart of this is a need to share knowledge, and the director wants to “strengthen national visibility” through loaning works across the country, as well as organising worldwide touring exhibitions and taking part in collaborative, far-reaching research projects. “This museum has the biggest collection of fine art and design in the Nordic countries. We can establish even stronger ties with the universities [in these regions] but also internationally.”
Through these attempts she hopes to emulate the experiences she’s had in some of her favourite museums across the world – Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, the Neues Museum in Berlin, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich to name a few – and create a museum capable of more than just displaying art. “We need places that really make you forget everything else in life and just focus on what you are experiencing in that moment,” she says. “Because that is always magical.”
John Singer Sargent runs 13 October–13 January 2019