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Holocaust Centre at Villa Grande, Oslo

  
  - darkometer rating:  5 -
 
A stately mansion in Oslo, Norway, that during WWII was the residence of Vidkun Quisling, the head of the collaborationist puppet regime in the years of Norway's occupation by Nazi Germany. Today, the building houses a research and education centre with a special focus on the Holocaust. Its permanent exhibition on the topic is thus one of Oslo's darkest offerings, well worth checking out for this website too. 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

   
More background info: For general topical background info see also under Holocaust, and cf. Falstad Centre, Norway, Bergen Resistance Museum, and the relevant entries in the glossary as well as various entries under Germany, Poland, etc.
 
Here's a bit of specific background information on this particular site:
 
The full official name of the institution is "HL-senteret – Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities", which already indicates that its mission is kind of twofold. For our purposes it is of course the first one, the coverage of Holocaust studies, that is of greater relevance. The centre's permanent exhibition is described in detail in the following section.
 
Another crucial argument for including the HL Centre in these pages is its location: the centre is housed in what used to be Quisling's residence!
 
It is called Villa Grande and it is indeed grand, though in the sort of Nordic restrained way of the early 20th century. Construction of the edifice was begun in 1917. It was originally intended for Sam Eyde, founder of the Norsk Hydro company (see Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum Vemork!), but work dragged on and the construction remained unfinished up until the outbreak of WWII.
 
Shortly after, in 1941 the site was appropriated by Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian right-wing founder of the Nasjonal Samling fascist party who later headed the Norwegian regime that came to power through a coup backed by Nazi Germany. He kept on collaborating with the occupying power until the end of WWII. During the time of Quisling's and his wife's residency in the Villa Grande mansion they renamed it "Gimle", in reference to an abode for gods in Norse mythology … how humble!
 
As a result of Quisling's subservient dealings with the Nazis, his name even became synonymous with 'traitor' in English! Other "quisling" regimes that sided with Nazi Germany during WWII included e.g. those in Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia or the Vichy regime of the German occupied part of France.
 
After the end of the war Quisling was kicked out of the Villa Grande, tried, sentenced to death and executed at Akershus Fortress in Oslo. The Villa Grande then served as home to Allied officers for a while before being returned to civilian use, in particular as part of a hospital, later as a medical school.
 
After the building was vacated and put on the market in 1999, it was decided to preserve the site as a memorial and to found a Holocaust Study Centre to be housed in it. Thus the HL-senteret was finally opened at Villa Grande in 2005.
 
 
What there is to see: As you approach the Villa Grande you can spare a moment contemplating the question: why is it that "leaders" such as Quisling always seem to "need" so much more space than normal people? Such a huge mansion for just one person and his wife … plus staff and servants, of course, but still. Size-wise it could be the home for several dozens of (large) families. But anyway, we're not here for envying the Quislings of this world …
 
Before entering the building take note of the large sculpture on the outside wall that looks like a huge mirror, until you see that it has figures etched into the surface and LED-backlit words flicker about under the outer glass surface. In shape it has the form of a giant punch card – as an allusion to the bureaucratic registration system employed by the Nazis (and its quisling allies) in the persecution of Jews and other minorities. The words flickering about include such simple items as "birthdate", "spouse", "nationality", "criminal record", etc. – this is what gives the sculpture its name: "innocent questions". Innocent on the linguistic surface but still they were questions that formed part of the persecution machine … As such, the sculpture sets the scene, albeit subtly, for what's inside.
 
For the regular visitor, the core of the centre is the permanent exhibition. This starts with some arty image projections onto walls, then leads into a gloomy room with illuminated little boxes on sticks picking out some images of the Holocaust. Up to this point, the exhibition has more the feel of an elaborate art installation, rather than a primarily informative one. But this soon changes.
 
The first proper thematic part of the exhibition is about one of the key ideological foundations of Nazism, namely eugenics (see e.g. Hartheim) and the stigmatization and downright racism derived from it. Reference is made to the colonial exhibitions such as in Paris in 1931 (see Immigration Museum Paris).
 
With the Nazis' rise to power in Germany in 1933, this took on altogether more sinister developments, culminating in the more covert euthanasia programmes on the one hand, and the increasingly overt demonization and persecution of Jews, i.e. the precursors of the Holocaust.
 
Exhibits include copies of the NSDAP party manifesto, the Nuremberg Laws in which the Nazis' anti-Semitism and racism became codified, as well as propaganda posters and such like. Otherwise, the exhibition utilizes text-and-photo combinations, grouped thematically and chronologically, such as in timelines, and also vividly overlaying slide shows of images projected onto walls. There are also a few audio stations and interactive screens.
 
Written explanatory texts on the panels, by the way, are mostly in Norwegian only, but at the reception desk you can borrow audio-guides that provide a narrative in English, grouped into chapters that follow the exhibition's subdivisions in parallel. Some of the screens employed later on in the exhibition also feature English translations themselves.  
 
After the initial, rather more preparatory sections of the exhibition on the ground floor level, visitors then descend stairs to the basement level. Aptly, this lowest, darkest part is reserved for the topic of the Holocaust proper, i.e. the mass extermination of Jews in Europe.
 
The section that focuses especially on the Holocaust within Norway is naturally the most illuminating here, given that the comparatively smaller-scale part of the Holocaust in Scandinavia is generally less well known. Smaller in scale it may have been, but the personal stories of tragedy of Norwegian Jews who got caught in the Nazis' terror machine are of course not to be belittled.
 
One separate section is set aside to focus on Auschwitz and the other death camps in particular. In addition to the more familiar images, there are also a few artefacts on display here, such as a former inmate's rosary or tiny children's shoes from Auschwitz (on loan). A specimen of the typical striped concentration camp inmate's clothing is in evidence too, as one would expect.
 
The aftermath of the Holocaust following the end of WWII is the theme of the next room – with a particular emphasis on the struggle for recognition and compensation that Norwegian Holocaust survivors faced. In fact, the very existence of the HL-senteret is in part a consequence of a restitution bill that was passed by the Norwegian Parliament as late as 1999. The post-war trials of Norwegian perpetrators (beyond Quisling himself) is also topicalized in this section.
 
A final separate room is a pure remembrance hall – with nothing but names of Norwegian victims of the Holocaust written in plain black on white walls.
 
After this, two flights of stairs lead up to the second floor (alternatively, next to the Auschwitz room in the basement there is an elevator that can take less mobile visitors up). Emerging on this level, one walks through another large installation that has more the character of a walk-through sculpture than of a regular museum exhibit. The section is entitled "Contemporary Reflections" and indeed features as its main characteristic a kind of Hall of Mirrors, which can in fact feel quite disorienting. Also on this level connections to modern themes of prejudice and persecution are touched upon.
 
A final room is set aside for temporary exhibitions. When I was there (in August 2012) this featured the display of works by the winners and runners-up of an international poster competition with the theme "keeping the memory alive", so that was quite fitting (if often somewhat less convincing in detail).  
 
The same room is clearly also intended to host receptions or seminars, as it had furniture and even a grand piano near the bay window. The adjacent canteen-like Villa Grande Cafe was closed at the time of my visit. It looked quite large, so I can only presume that the centre must receive rather sizeable group visits at times.  
 
You can also explore the gardens on the other side of the mansion. Paths would lead all the way down to the waterfront level of Bygdøy on Oslo fjord. The remainder of the interior of the Villa Grande itself, on the other hand, is not normally accessible to casual visitors. It contains administration offices as well as a library for research. The latter is naturally a specialized library on the centre's two themes, Holocaust and (religious) minorities.
 
On balance: the permanent exhibition of the HL-senteret may not be totally convincing on all levels, but is surely impressive enough to warrant a trip out here for dark tourists when they are in Oslo.
 
I found parts of the exhibition a bit too "arty", which on several occasions carried the risk of diverting attention away from its topic rather than enhancing it. But that may be a matter of personal taste. The core function of educating visitors about the Norwegian side of the Holocaust is certainly fulfilled.
 
The other main reason for coming here is to actually step inside a building of this historical significance. On the surface it may look quite innocent, grand as it definitely is all the same. But there is a certain disconcerting aura about nevertheless … I'm not a believer in anything paranormal, otherwise I could have ventured the suspicion that Quisling's spirit may still be wandering the corridors of this mansion …
 
 
Location: at the edge of Oslo, on Bygdøy peninsula, at Villa Grande; address: Huk Aveny 56 (email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).
 
Google maps locator: [59.89902,10.67825]
 
 
Access and costs: A bit off the beaten track, but not too tricky to get to; a mid-range (for Norway) admission fee is charged.
 
Details: To get to the Holocaust Centre, or 'HL-senteret' as it is locally referred to more commonly, you first need to get to Bygdøy peninsula. As this is home to several high-profile museums it's well served by public transport. The most convenient way of getting here is by bus, line 30, from the city centre – e.g. from the stop at the National Theatre or the Central Train Station ('Sentralstasjon') going all the way to Bygdøyhus, from where it's just a few minute's walk (see below).
 
A much more scenic initial part of the approach can be had by taking a boat instead, namely ferry line 91. Go to its second stop, Bygdøynes (not Dronningen!). This is right by the Fram Museum (see under Oslo). From there it's a walk of ca. one mile (1.6 km). First follow Bygdøynesveien in a south-westerly direction. The road curves right, then left, then sharp right again, until you come to the intersection with Fredriksborgveien, where you turn left. Some 250 yards further on, the street Huk Aveny branches off to the right and takes you (bending slightly to the right) straight to the gate to the approach track to the villa, another 200 yards or so on. Bus line 30 can take you a bit closer, namely to the intersection of Huk Aveny and Fredriksborgveien (stop Bygdøyhus).  
 
Opening times: daily, from mid-June to mid-August between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.; during the rest of the year it closes earlier, namely at 4 p.m. and at weekends opens an hour later (11 a.m.).
 
Admission: 50 NOK (students/seniors: 40 NOK)
 
 
Time required: I spent just under one hour in total at the Villa Grande, but it's difficult to make a general prediction. How long you might need here will very much depend on your level of previous knowledge. If you're already familiar with the basic background about the rise of Nazism and its ideology as well as with the Holocaust's history elsewhere, then you can concentrate on the more Norway-specific sections. That way you probably need less than an hour to go through the exhibition. If the whole subject matter is more or less unfamiliar to you (though that's probably unlikely), then you'd probably need as much as two hours to take everything in, if not longer.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: If you take the ferry boat (line 91) back to the mainland and central Oslo, you'd be within walking distance of the city's other two main dark sights, both part of the Akershus Fortress, namely the Norwegian Resistance Museum and the Armed Forces Museum.
 
Closer to the Holocaust Centre, the Fram Museum, also located on Bygdøy peninsula includes sections on a very different kind of hardship and tragedy, namely that of polar explorers Scott and Amundsen (and more) – see under Oslo in general.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The various other museums on Bygdøy peninsula are all within fairly easy reach, either on foot (15-30 minutes) or partly by bus (line 30), which can also take you back to the city centre – see under Oslo for more details.
   
 
 
  • Villa Grande 1 - once the home of QuislingVilla Grande 1 - once the home of Quisling
  • Villa Grande 2 - access to the drivewayVilla Grande 2 - access to the driveway
  • Villa Grande 3 - modern exhibition insideVilla Grande 3 - modern exhibition inside
  • Villa Grande 4 - lots of background infoVilla Grande 4 - lots of background info
  • Villa Grande 5 - Auschwitz exhibitsVilla Grande 5 - Auschwitz exhibits
  • Villa Grande 6 - namesVilla Grande 6 - names
  • Villa Grande 7 - reflective upstairsVilla Grande 7 - reflective upstairs
  • Villa Grande 8 - grand staircaseVilla Grande 8 - grand staircase
  • Villa Grande 9 - the garden sideVilla Grande 9 - the garden side

 
 

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