Religion in Museums – A New Approach in Northern Norway?

By Audun Torsteinsen, Project leader of the Gildeskål Museum´s Project, Nordlandsmuseet

A New Museum on Lived Religion is on its way

As the leader of the planning of a completely new museum, with lived religion as its core story, I would like to inform possible partners in this network of what we are aiming at. Our museum is planned to be finished within the year 2030, being part of the national 1000 years anniversary of the death of the saint king Olav of Norway.

Our aim is to establish a museum of religion, pointing at lived faith in its everyday cultural context of coastal Northern Norway, from Norse times through christening, catholic centuries, Lutheran Reformation, Lutheran state church Christendom and the last two centuries of religious diversity, secularization, and new ways of believing or not believing. In Northern Norway all this relates to at least two ethnic groups, the Norwegians, and the Sami. The Sami weren´t “properly” christened before the 18th century, although there were parts of the Sami population that had been christened before that.

Lots of possible core stories…

For the time being, our planning can be described as a thematic brainstorm. There is no lack of possible themes, and we are at the beginning of finding a more peaceful harbour of core stories to present for the visitors. What is clear, though, is our aim of showing lived religion, in its relation to all the other aspects of human existence. We hope to show religion as an integrated part of society, culture and being human, not as a merely cultural thing in one of the corners of one of the exhibition rooms.

I have become aware of the Religion & Museums´ Project in Denmark, in which some of you in the Religion, Collections and Heritage Group have contributed. In the coming days I will talk with our Danish colleges about cooperation and some kind of learning, on our side.

Gildeskål medieval Church, built 1130-1160

A “Thin place” for a Museum

Our museum will be situated one and a half hour´s drive out of the town of Bodø. The place is surrounded by sea and forest, mountains, and sky, with no houses nearby, and consists of the Gildeskål parsonage and two churches. The new church is a gothic wooden church from 1881 and the old one is a Romanesque stone church from the 12. century. Compared with many museums in Britain, our challenge has to do with the sparse population in the villages near the churches. This is, on the other hand, an advantage when it comes to attracting visitors who would like to use a day or two in a peaceful environment experiencing different things like fishing or walking in the mountains, far away from their everyday life in a city in Germany or England. It is also an advantage for people taking part in courses about history, church music or art, or staying here on a Christian retreat. We aim at building a combination of a museum, a café, seminary rooms and a hotel. The place, with all its buildings and surrounding meadows, forests, mountains, and sea, could then become a place for tourists in the summer months and a “thin place” for withdrawal for different groups or individuals in the rest of the year.

Connections to Britain and Ireland, and: Who was St. Thomas?

A great part of the christening of Norway, especially the west coast, was carried through by missionaries from Ireland, Scotland and England. When the Norwegian Church was organised, craftsmen from England took part in the construction of churches in Norway. Speaking of this, look at the altar cloth of the old Gildeskål church:

The words are Ora pro nobis beate Thoma, or Pray for us, Saint Thomas. Which Thomas is meant? It might be the apostle Thomas or Saint Thomas Aquinas. The cloth, which is replaced by a replica (the original one, from the late 15. century, disappeared in the confusing days of the Nazi occupation of Norway in 1940!), could also refer to St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury. The archbishop Eystein of Norway, around 1180, had his own struggle with his king, like St. Thomas Becket a few years before. These circumstances might have led the builders of the Gildeskål church to appoint St. Thomas Becket as a patron saint of the church. There is no evidence pointing clearly in this direction, but, on the other hand, nothing contradicts it either. Hence the question is open.

Cooperation in the Religion and Museums´ field?

We would very much like to learn from other museums which, like us, try to integrate lived religion in the other aspects of human life, culture and society. If you think your and our projects might have something in common, please don´t hesitate to contact us. Maybe you have been doing something, which has been a good experience in this or that respect. Then we would like to learn from you. Our contact and sharing of ideas and experiences can take place in different ways, and who knows: Maybe we could arrange a common workshop on the one or the other side of the North Sea.

By Mr Audun Torsteinsen

Project leader of the Gildeskål Museum´s Project



Mail address:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s