Break! On the unpleasant, the marginal, the taboo, and the controversial in Norwegian museums

Liv Ramskjaer


This paper explores the programme entitled Break, which was launched within a grouping of Norwegian museums in 2003. Break emerged in the context of a more critical approach to museum practice and their ways of dealing with controversial pasts in the wake of the new museology. A central goal for Break has been to promote a shift from the presentation of conventionally treated narratives in order to focus on areas that are marginal, hidden, contested and regarded as unpleasant. The programme has aimed to strengthen museums as active social institutions that are able to engage successfully with current issues and to stimulate serious reflection among visitors. While the concern to avoid making waves or drawing negative publicity often hinders museums from tackling controversial issues, Break is distinctive in that the initiative came not from within the institutional setting of the museum but among certain authorities in Norway that served as its leading agents. In this short reflection on Break, I explore two key questions: How has Break encouraged new approaches to difficult and, in particular, marginalised histories; and what representations have ensued from it that may help to continue problematising museum collections in Norway and stimulating critical engagement.



Break, Norway, museum collections, challenge, controversy, taboo, publicity

Full text: Ramskjaer_p.73-83 (PDF, 1,119 KB)


Biographical note

Liv Ramskjaer is Secretary General of the Norwegian Museums Association. This article was written during her recently completed tenure as Senior Adviser in the museums division of Arts Council Norway. The author has contributed to historical studies on technology, business and industry. Her recent research, on the production and consumption of plastics in Norway, focuses on the early years of the country’s plastic boat industry.

An earlier version of this material was presented on the occasion of the project conference ‘Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity’ (20 -22 November 2012, Museum of Ethnology/Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna). To view the film footage on the Open Arts Archive,, follow this link: