Sometimes museums that don’t teach you anything are fun. I thoroughly enjoyed my 2011 visit to the natural history museum in Prague, which specialized in pretty things in glass cases. We spent hours going around, looking at beautiful fossils, minerals, and dead animals.
I suspect that’s what it’s like for some people at the Red Cross War Museum in Narvik, Norway.
If I were the kind of person who knew a lot about guns, uniforms, and battleships, I would have gotten a kick out of going around the museum making educated guesses about the objects. But, as a person who ranks looking at guns as slightly less exciting than cutting my toenails, I could have used some help understanding the big picture.
This makes perfect sense. The displays were put together years ago, for a Norwegian audience. (You can pick up a translation of the labels in your language at the entrance.) When the museum opened, a lot of visitors probably remembered the battles. I’d bet that few were from out of the country. Narvik is north of the Arctic Circle, more than 800 miles from Oslo. The only train connection is a line that was built to carry iron ore to the port from Sweden.
Unfortunately, I’m not that audience. I was born decades after the war. My only grandparent who went overseas was in the Pacific and wasn’t a war-stories kind of guy. I know a fair bit about the war in western Europe, but very little about Scandinavia.
The bad news is, I suspect I’m a typical visitor. As time goes by, I bet the number of foreign visitors has gone up and the number of well-informed visitors has gone down. The events described in the museum happened 73 years ago. Few visitors can be expected to have their own memories of the 1940s, and more and more will have only a vague sense of the war.
On the plus side, the museum has a lot of wonderful artifacts. There are uniforms from the time, and even the chasuble worn by a Polish chaplain. (A couple of Polish destroyers fought in the battles with the British navy.) I would’ve liked more information about how the Narvik class of German destroyers got their name, especially since someone put so much loving work into making a model of one. There’s artwork, a sword, a ship’s bell from a wrecked Swedish ship that carried iron ore, and even an anti-aircraft gun and some other very heavy pieces of equipment. I was particularly interested in reading the propaganda the Germans put out, about how they were in Norway to protect its neutrality and resistance would be a bad idea.
Divers retrieved this bronze eagle in 2011 from the wreck of a German destroyer.
Maybe someday someone will decide to put a lot of money into redoing the Narvik War Museum. If they do, I hope they put the battles of 1940 into context. Here are some questions I think a visitor might like to know the answers to: What was Germany doing invading Norway? Wasn’t Norway neutral? What does neutrality mean, anyway? Why Narvik? How did that work out for the people who lived there? What was happening at the time in the rest of Norway–and the world? And so on.