University rector says Viking ships may collapse in 5 or 50 years if new museum is delayed
The future is still uncertain for Norway’s Viking ships after budget agreement.
The tale of a new Viking Age Museum in Oslo, which will be the home of the country’s unique Viking ship collection, is turning into a farse. Or perhaps it has been so for a while, for the more than a decade that it has been hotly debated.
The potential consequences are, however, anything but farcical: “If we don’t do anything, these ships may still last another 50 years. Or they may only last 5 years,” rector of the University of Oslo, Svein Stølen, says to sciencenorway.no.
Having gone back and forth and up and down, a new museum was finally going to happen.
The old museum was closed last year, the Viking ships and artefacts have been carefully stored away, and contracts have been given to start preparing the grounds on August 1 this year. That’s in a month and a half.
It was so close.
Then all of a sudden, the brakes were pulled.
It seemed a cause for cheer
At the beginning of May, the Minister of Research and Higher Education Ola Borten Moe put a halt to the process due to the museum ending up going 1 billion NOK over budget (just over 100 million USD).
Revise the plans, he said, see if you can save money, write me a report. So done – and the answer is that it isn’t really possible to save a lot.
- Read more about this here: New report: Budget cuts put 1200 year old Viking ships at risk of being destroyed
The deadline for the deal was today, Friday, when the revised budget will be adopted by parliament.
It will be adopted by the support of the Socialist Left party, who in their negotiations made sure the Viking ships were included and taken care of through a statement that says there should be no unnecessary delays in the project (read the full statement in a fact box further down).
An excited rector at the University of Oslo, Svein Stølen, immediately tweeted a big thank you for the “incredibly important clarification”. This means we will avoid that the work has to stop, he tweeted.
We need that price tag
But then he met State Secretary Oddmund Løkensgard Hoel from the Centre party for a debate on the museum on NRK, the Norwegian National Broadcaster. The State Secretary it turned out, would not make any promises and rather suggested that pausing the museum was still necessary.
“We have to know what this is actually going to cost. We need that price tag before we can roll out the excavators,” he stated.
“We need to gain control over this, and we need to spend a few weeks or perhaps a few months before we can move on,” he said.
The report requested by Minister Ola Borten Moe however, found that there are only two alternative ways of proceeding that will secure the ships. Alternative 1 is to go ahead as planned. Alternative 2 makes some savings possible, though it is uncertain whether this will be true in the long run.
In any case, both alternatives require the same groundworks, which rector Svein Stølen emphasized in the debate.
“There is no reason to postpone the digging”, a visibly frustrated Stølen said.
The digging must begin
Freddy André Øvstegård from the Socialist Left party was also surprised to hear the comments from the State Secretary.
“We have insisted on this being part of our negotiations about the budget and we got this statement in there because we stand behind what it says. That there should be no unnecessary delays,” Øvstegård says to sciencenorway.no.
He assures that the intention behind the statement, according to the Socialist Left party, is that the groundworks start on August 1.
“Absolutely. The digging must begin,” he says.
“Alternatives 1 and 2 which are on the table, mean that the groundworks can start while at the same time considering the costs of the building. This means we avoid unnecessary delays, and we avoid increased costs due to pausing the project. It is pretty obvious that this is what the parliament is saying in this budget agreement,” Øvstegård says.
“If the State Secretary does not agree to this then we suggest he reads the statement one more time,” he says.
The statement in full:
“The parties refer to the fact that building a new Viking Age Museum is imperative in order to preserve a part of our most important cultural heritage, the Viking ships. As it is today, the ships are deteriorating, and the wood is cracking. They can only be secured in a new building. It is necessary to develop new cost- and management plans, but the parties believe this must happen without unnecessary delays in the project.”
They could all of a sudden implode
During that debate on NRK, the State Secretary ensured that the government will not sit by and watch the Viking ships fall apart.
The question is whether this is something that can actually be promised.
UiO-rector Svein Stølen is also a professor of chemistry. When he says that we don’t actually know how long the ships will hold up, maybe 50, or maybe just five, he’s basing that on some solid knowledge.
“The workings of these materials aren’t linear processes. This is my field of research, so I know a bit about this. These processes are ongoing, and ongoing, tension builds, the cracks increase, steadily - but then all of a sudden they may just as well implode,” he said.
“We’re not making this up, the urgency here is very real.”
The three Viking ships housed in the Viking Age Museum were discovered in 1867 and 1903.
If the sitting government does in fact insist on cutting costs, it will follow in the footsteps of previous governments that have done the same. The old museum was built as cheaply as possible. One of the reasons why the ships are in danger today is that they have been damaged by vibrations caused by inadequate floors which have been walked on by far too many visitors compared to what the building was intended to take.
Archaeologists in Scandinavia are so worried that this might happen again, that they have started a petition to “Save the Viking ships”.
Surprised and disappointed
Stølen admits he was very surprised by what the State Secretary said in the debate.
“Why make the statement in the revised budget if this wasn’t supposed to be positive news?” he asks.
“I was caught off guard, it’s very disappointing,” he says.
The UiO-rector acknowledges that the planning of the actual building might take some extra time, to ensure spending within limits. However, he repeats that whether the government goes for plan A, or resorts to a plan B – they both need groundworks, and these should not be delayed.
“Contractors have been given contracts; they are ready to start on August 1. There should be no question as to whether or not they should start digging,” he says, adding that “considerable amounts of money will be lost if this is in fact stopped.”
As soon as possible
Lise Selnes from the Labour party is a member of the The Standing Committee on Education and Research in parliament. The Labour party has formed today’s Norwegian government in collaboration with the Centre party.
When asked whether or not the groundworks for the museum will begin on August 1, she replies that the Ministry of Education and Research has to answer questions about such details.
“I am happy that we take a stand together with the Socialist Left party in this revised budget and say that this new Viking Age Museum is imperative in order to take good care of this important cultural heritage,” she writes in an email to sciencenorway.no.
“We are impatient. Now the government needs to put the pressure on the review of this process, and I expect that it will happen as soon as possible, in dialogue with the University of Oslo and the museum itself,” Selnes writes.
In other words, the digging may or may not start on August 1.
In a bid to try and settle the question, sciencenorway.no reached out once more to the Ministry of Research and Education. We specifically asked whether it would be possible to confirm that the groundworks will start on August 1, as many seem to believe the new statement entails.
Or is the agreement in fact not quite agreed upon?
“The government parties stand fully behind what was said in the revised budget agreement”, State Secretary Oddmund Løkensgard Hoel writes in an email.
“This is urgent, and we need a rapid progression in this project. We will now, based on the report we have been given, revise and consider how this project can become solid and safe, both financially as well as in project implementation, so that we can move on.”
A second quote repeats what was said in the debate. Must know price tag.
And so the story continues.