It all started in 1990 with a difficult question: how do you make the invisible visible? 25 years later, the answers were honoured with the prize Museum of the Year 2015 in Norway. The Centre for Norwegian Language and Literature “is an unusually vivid, ambitious and systematic communicator and manager of intangible cultural heritage”, the jury said. The award was not given for a single project, but the work undertaken over many years in two museums, two festivals, one online encyclopedia and eight web sites.
The idea in 1990 was to renew the Ivar Aasen Museum, opened in 1898 as a memory place at the homestead of the Norwegian language researcher and poet Ivar Aasen (1813–96). He was the man who changed the future of Norwegian language history. Only 22 years old, Aasen claimed that all Norwegian dialects should be the starting point for a written standard of Norwegian. The linguist travelled 27 000 km within the borders of Norway to find the Norwegian language – a journey longer than that of Marco Polo. Aasen also wrote songs and other poems that still are among the most popular in Norway.
The Norwegian parliament decided in 1885 that Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmal should be two equal languages in Norway. That makes Norway one of the first formally bilingual states in the world. Today Bokmal dominates, but Nynorsk has become a natural part of everyday life, and is the first language of at least 550,000 Norwegians. That makes Nynorsk a major language in the world; 5,000 out of 7,000 languages are used by less than 100,000 people.
A story about this development demanded innovation, being our own pathfinder, making our own solutions.
The foundation of the Centre for Norwegian Language and Literature (Nynorsk kultursentrum) dates from 1993 and documents, preserves and promotes oral traditions, written culture, the written standard of Norwegian Nynorsk, all Norwegian dialects, and the life and work of Ivar Aasen. Our collections cover all parts of Norway, both oral and written culture.
The outstanding Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn created the new Ivar Aasen Centre in 2000, with a design inviting guests to walk along the road of language. Museums tend to hide away the great questions of life, Fehn said, so the exhibition at the Aasen Centre opens with the front page of a newspaper from 1896 announcing that Aasen died today. Such a beginning gives an open end and pinpoints the difference between memory and history.
Along the road of language, the visitor meets the individual story of Ivar Aasen and other users of language, and the collective story of Nynorsk and other languages in international and historical perspectives. The exhibition encourages the use of many senses, with installations on language and literature that visitors can look at, listen to and touch. They can have a look at the sheets of rough paper that Ivar Aasen never got around to using, listen to authors talking about writing, and spin a globe that shows the spread of different alphabets around the world.
We believe that no language is defined only linguistically. History, culture, economics and politics always matter. Norwegian Nynorsk is more than a language, we say. To make the language visible in all aspects, we live by the rule “context is king”. Intangible cultural heritage needs to be interpreted in its context. We tell a never-ending story, and our institution has become a part of that story. Every single day something new is put on exhibition in the Aasen Centre.
This is also the case in the Olav H. Hauge Centre. In 2014, this new museum opened in the village where the very popular Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge lived (1908–94). We always look for the broadest perspective, a space for possibilities without being limited to the story of one author. Too many author’s museums are limited to one person, often in some kind of splendid isolation from other parts of written culture and society in whole. The Hauge Centre is an author’s museum, as is the Aasen Centre, but it is also a museum dealing with poetry of all kinds across the borders of languages, from the poems of Homer to Goethe’s classics and the newest hit by Adele. As intangible cultural heritage, poems were sung before they were written, and our museums follow the pre-romantic understanding of literature.
Our strategy for Internet use was developed at a time when one in ten Norwegians had access to the web. Today, the users of our web sites can choose between 35,000 text documents about language, literature, current affairs, or they may select some of the 900 items in the online shop. Our digital service is available all over the world – the guest is always only a few clicks away. Situated in the countryside, hours away from the cities, our centres travel throughout the country with exhibitions and events like concerts, lectures and theatre productions. The young ones are our specialty; one out of three guests are children or teenagers.
As confirmed by many studies, the digital arena provides new opportunities for lesser-used languages. In 2009, we opened the online encyclopedia Allkunne as an edited alternative to Wikipedia. In this way, we are able to offer reliable and well written information in Nynorsk on every matter of daily life and history, language and literature.
In our exhibitions, however, our slogan is to be analogue wherever we can and digital only when we have to. The personal touch of history adds a value to the memory. All guests will meet knowledgeable guides who show them around the exhibition and tell stories of wonder and contemplation. For us, nothing compares to the oldest technique of communication, the basic form of language as intangible cultural heritage; oral story telling. More than many other cultural institutions in Norway, we have insisted on our position as an independent institution. An outdoor amphitheatre is a part of the Aasen Centre. People have gathered here since the 1880s, enjoying music, song, dance and the spoken word. This was an early arena for the development of democracy in Norway. Today, our foundation eagerly joins discussions about language and language politics, and we add the perspective of language meetings to the migration through Europe these days. We look for the imagined community of the users of Nynorsk, and we try to strengthen it.
There is even more. We try to influence the decisions on language politics by parliament and government. After an initiative from our foundation, the Norwegian Parliament in 2014 decided the Norwegian constitution should be written in both Norwegian Bokmal and Norwegian Nynorsk. In July 2016, we established the International Network of Language Museums during the ICOM General Conference in Milan. So far, 11 museums from many countries in Asia, Europe and America have joined the network.
With an unbroken history from 1898, the Aasen Centre is the oldest language museum in the world and the only language museum in the Nordic countries in Europe. The Hauge Centre is the only literary museum in Norway with a classic understanding of the broad spectrum of poetry. Our idea is to be useful for someone. Documents for information or discussion, experiences for sharing, connecting people, telling stories that someday themselves may become intangible cultural heritage by crossing the borders of memory, museums and languages.
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