A new perspective on the past

Peter Williamson, 18 January, 2022
Several monumental cultural projects have emerged in recent months across Europe, now ready to take their place on the world stage and welcome visitors for the first time. We open the doors on a few new contenders for ‘Museum of the Year’...    
In the French city of Narbonne, once the capital of the first Roman colony in Gaul, a new museum dedicated to the city’s Roman past has now officially opened. The Narbo Via was designed by Norman Foster and brings together several collections of Roman artefacts from around the city into one vast and very modern display and research facility. It stands in a park beside the Canal de la Robine, which links Narbonne to the sea on our Canal du Midi cycling holiday.

As the former Roman capital, Narbo Martius (Narbonne) can justly lay claim to being the centre of Roman civilization in France. However, unlike nearby Nîmes and Arles, there are, sadly, almost no extant Roman remains to remind us of the city’s illustrious history. This museum, therefore, was created to highlight and revive the importance of the town's Roman origins. Enter Narbo Via today, and you can follow the story of the Roman Empire in Gaul as you 'travel through time' from one gallery to the next.

At its heart stands the Lapidary Wall, which separates the public galleries from the more private restoration areas. However, visitors are able to glimpse the work of the archaeologists and researchers behind through a ‘mosaic of stone and light’. The wall is comprised of hundreds of open box-like recesses, each of which contains one of 760 Roman carved stones that have been found in the city over the centuries and were later incorporated into the city walls in the 16th century. When, in the 1860s, the walls were taken down, no-one knew what to do with the blocks and so they were all stored in the church of Notre Dame de Lamourguier. Here, they stayed in their quirky home until 2021 when they were removed to the Narbo Via.

Narbo Via is just one of a series of magnificent modern museums designed by some of the world’s greatest architects to house historic treasures across Europe. Two more can be found on Oslo’s historic waterfront, while Berlin has, once again, produced a building that is both ultra-modern yet harking back to the city’s fascinating past. 
Oslo 1
In October 2021, the Oslo waterfront also saw the opening of brand-new museum, this one paying homage to possibly Norway’s greatest artist. The Munchmuseet was designed to bring together the largest collection of art by Edvard Munch in the world and to replace a smaller museum built in 1963. If you wish to know anything about the life and work of this enigmatic painter, the ‘Munch’, as it is called, is the place to visit while in the city.

The towering 13-storey complex was designed by Spanish architect Juan Herreros, who wanted to create "a welcoming vertical symbol", insisting that the astonishing work of Edvard Munch needed an equally astonishing home. And, of course, it is here that you can see his most famous composition, the haunting and somewhat unnerving figure in The Scream. But not just one – he did, in fact, create several versions of The Scream: paintings, drawings, prints, sketches and studies. Eight of these are in the Munch collection today (one painting, one crayon drawing and six lithographs) with one always on show – the images are displayed in rotation and kept in darkness for preservation at other times. The museum was opened by King Harald V in October 2021.
Oslo 2
However, this is not the only art gallery in Oslo to hold a version of The Scream. Just along the waterfront off Rådhusplassen (town hall square), stands another new museum, the revamped National Museum of Norway, which will be the largest cultural centre in Scandinavia once it opens its doors in 2022. In its vast collection is probably the most famous incarnation of The Scream, the earliest painted version of 1893, which was dramatically stolen in 1994 but recovered undamaged three months later. The new National Museum is part of a major project to develop the city’s fjordside area which you can visit as part of our Grand Norwegian Explorer holiday by rail. Both museums are now included on our city walking trail.

The museum was built by architects Kleihues & Schuwerk. Behind its historic entrance stands the massive Light Hall, a truly spectacular exhibition venue and the first of its kind in Norway. It contains some 9,000 adjustable LED lights within the walls which provide muted illumination for exhibitions, whilst also creating a golden glow over Oslo’s night-time cityscape.

Now officially called The National Museum of Art, Architecture & Design, the museum's collections include paintings, sculptures, drawings, arts & crafts objects, design objects, architectural models and installations. Over 100,000 objects are currently being documented, conserved and packed for the big move to the new museum, ready for its grand opening later this year. It will open on 11 June 2022 after a seven-year build, though it is possible to book a guided tour before that date to see the art being installed – if you just happen to be in Oslo.
Standing on Museum Island on the site where Berlin Palace had stood for over 500 years, the Humboldt Forum is set to become one of Germany’s leading museums and cultural centres. It was designed by Italian architect Franco Stella who has contrasted the modern east-facing façade with three reconstructed baroque palace façades on the Forum’s north, south and west sides. These echoes to the site's regal past continue inside, where a huge exhibition space explores three core themes – the history of the site, the Humboldt Brothers after whom it is named, and colonialism and coloniality – as well as providing a venue for other artistic, cultural and educational exhibitions.

In the 16th century the Berlin Palace housed a Kunstkammer, or 'Cabinet of Curiosities', which developed into a museum after WWI. Having been badly damaged during WWII, the ruins were eventually knocked down in the 1950s and East Germany’s Palace of the Republic built in its place. In 2008, that edifice was also demolished and work began on the current building. The thousands of objects from around the globe that made up the original Kunstkammer collection now form the nucleus of today’s museum. 

The Forum also pays homage to the von Humboldt brothers, two remarkable men of their era – amongst his many accomplishments, Wilhelm founded the University of Berlin, while younger brother Alexander was a naturalist and prolific explorer who had many geographical features named after him, including a current! The impressive 30-metre high foyer not only features the reconstructed Eosander Portal, designed by architect Eosander von Göthe in the early 18th century, but also a hi-tech Media Tower with details of the daily programme, another fabulous juxtaposition of the ultra-modern and classical tradition.
The upper floors house the Asian Art Museum (founded 1906) and the Ethnological Museum (founded 1873), with holdings comprising around over 500,000 ethnographic, archaeological and cultural historical objects from Africa, Asia, America, Australia and Oceania.

The complex also includes two shops and five restaurants, cafés and bistros and a roof terrace offering panoramic views over the city, while the surrounding green areas have been planted to follow Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt’s travels. When it is fully open, all the public areas will be accessible for visitors seven days a week around the clock. Take a trip Beyond the Iron Curtain, which begins in Berlin, to experience the Humboldt Forum.


After all the lockdowns and travel restrictions, it’s time to get out there for a new perspective on the past – there’s a lot to take in...

City touring holidays by rail

The museums mentioned here are just some of Europe's newest. There is the chance to visit many other fascinating museums on our other city touring holidays.
Our city touring holidays by rail >
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