From idea to reality
The Nobel Peace Center opened in 2005, but the idea was born much earlier.
Skiing, Kon-Tiki and Viking ships. That’s what people abroad generally think of when they think of Norway. And they had all had their own museums in the Norwegian capital for many years. But one museum was missing. A museum that presented the Nobel Peace Prize and the Peace Prize laureates themselves. These were the thoughts of Geir Lundestad, then the still relatively new director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, at some point in the early 1990s. Of course, Oslo should have a museum dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize! The idea was so good that he was certain it would be realised.
With Gunnar Berge on the Norwegian Nobel Committee and Gro Harlem Brundtland as prime minister, he thought it would be plain sailing to get approval for the concept. But the Norwegian Labour Party were sceptical. They worried it would be a costly affair. Years passed, but nothing happened. Lundestad, who is a professor of political history and knows how the political game is played better than most, realised he would have to change tactics.
“So I decided to focus on the Christian Democratic Party,” says Lundestad. “They were even more in favour of peace than the Labour Party, and not quite as reluctant when it came to spending,” he chuckles, leaning back in a chair that seems dwarfed by this lanky, well-built northerner, who has made his characteristic mark on the Peace Prize awards for 20 years.
The chair sits in the café in the old Vestbane railway station. This was where he had always envisaged the Peace Prize museum being located. The disused but protected station building on the edge of the vast open space outside Oslo’s City Hall was just the right size, and its location was perfect.
But the late 1990s saw a fierce ideological debate about where to put the city’s new opera house, and plans for the peace museum were left up the air. Geir Lundestad was well enough acquainted with the head of the Norwegian Opera, Bjørn Simensen, to invite himself for coffee at Simensen’s Youngstorget office - after which Simensen began talking about a “Nobel Opera House”. There was room at the Vestbane for both institutions, he said. However, that particular idea never made it off the drawing board…
In November 2000, the parliamentary Cultural Affairs Committee was due to debate a wide-ranging proposal concerning the localisation of the National Library and the museums in Oslo. It was a huge jigsaw puzzle, with lots of pieces. So complex, in fact, that it was possible to insert a completely new piece – a museum dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize. Lundestad remembers well the day the proposal was debated.
“Ola T. Lånke, a Parliament (“Stortinget”) representative from the Christian Democratic Party, who was the parliamentary spokesperson for the proposal, called me and said I had to get down to the Parliament right away. ‘You will have to talk to plenty of people if we are going to succeed,’ he said. So there I sat in the Parliament’s restaurant, and Lånke brought over all the people I had to convince. In fact, I actually wrote the recommendation for the proposal right then and there, as well!”
The proposal voted through that day reads: ‘The Parliament asks the Government, in cooperation with the Norwegian Nobel Committee, to prepare the way for the establishment of a peace centre in the old Vestbane railway station, with a view to opening on 7 June 2005’.
The center did not actually open until four days later, on 11 June 2005. But Lundestad had won the day, after having waited many years for the right moment. The Parliament granted 87 million NOK for the renovation and modernisation of the Vestbane railway station.
When asked why it was decided that the new museum should be called a ‘center’ and not a ‘museum’, Lundestand replies: “Yes, that was a major discussion. We thought ‘museum’ sounded rather old-fashioned and not very dynamic. So when someone came up with the idea of calling it a “Peace Center”, that’s what it became.
“We had jettisoned the musty museum image. My biggest fear was, and still is, that people will think of the Nobel Peace Center as something rather dull. So the top marks that the tabloid newspaper VG gave us after the opening were worth their weight in gold! It meant much more than if we had been given the same score by the Dagbladet or Aftenposten newspapers. It meant we were reaching out to the people we wanted to come and visit us. The kind of people who read the papers’ arts & culture sections would come and visit anyway!”
Geir Lundestad interviewed by journalist Ingvill Bryn Rambøl in 2015, for the book Peace at Heart.