Interior with giant sculpture and audience.

From the exhibition She – A Cathedral, Moderna Museet, 1966 Photo: Hans Hammarskiöld / Moderna Museet © Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Per Olof Ultvedt / Bildupphovsrätt 2018

4.1 2015


When Moderna Museet opened in the drill hall on Skeppsholmen, Stockholm, on 9 May 1958, discussions about starting a new museum for 20th century art had been going on for decades.
"The national art collection emanates from the Royal Collection and from King Gustaf III's collection of antiquities, which was declared a public art collection by His Royal Majesty already in 1792 - making it the first public art museum in Europe outside Italy. When the Nationalmuseum building on Blasieholmen was ready to house the collection in 1866, after 20 years of construction work, the storage conditions were a problem from day one. In 1908, the problem of displaying new art was discussed more seriously, and the idea was broached of building a new museum for that 'collection'."

In 1950, the artist Otte Sköld took over as senior curator of the Nationalmuseum. The above quote is from his inaugural speech for Moderna Museet. Otte Sköld’s commitment to creating a new museum was decisive. Together with the Friends of Moderna Museet, formed in 1953, and other interested parties, he strove to give the Nationalmuseum collection of 20th century art a home of its own. Otte Sköld was the founder of Moderna Museet, but he died only a few months after opening in 1958.

Already in 1956, while the old drill hall was still being rebuilt, Picasso’s Guernica and the 93 sketches that go with the painting were displayed there. This sensational exhibition – arranged by Pontus Hultén and the head of the modern collection at Nationalmuseum – gave the new museum a flying start. Looking back, in a book about Moderna Museet published in 1983, Hultén writes: “Picasso’s Guernica with the accompanying 93 sketches was touring the museums of Europe at the time, and we decided the rebuilding should be interrupted for a few months so it could be shown in the first hall while refurbishment continued in the inner regions. The roof had been removed, so the hall was covered with tarpaulins. The result was a dramatic setting well-suited to the painting and the entire project.”

In the 1950s, Pontus Hultén and a few friends had run a studio for experimental film, and this was now incorporated with Moderna Museet’s activities. The members formed a wide cultural network, and thus, the new museum gained a core audience which, along with the curious general public, made Moderna Museet the centre of new art in Stockholm. Over the following decade, Moderna Museet developed into an international platform for the latest art trends. The first solo exhibition – after Guernica – dealt with the architect and painter Le Corbusier.

Interior of gallery at Nationalmuseum.
Photo from the Nationalmueum's modern gallery, 1932

Legendary era

Pontus Hultén succeeded Bo Wennberg in 1960, and this was the start of a legendary era for the institution. Exhibitions alternated between early modern artists such as van Gogh, modernists like Léger, Klee, Arp, Magritte, Pollock and Kandinsky, and Swedish artists such as Sven Erixson, Carl Kylberg, Bror Hjorth and Sigrid Hjertén. The biggest splash, however, was made by a few of the theme exhibitions, for instance, “Movement in Art” (1961), “4 Americans” (1962), “American Pop Art – 106 Forms of Love and Despair” (1965), “Inner and Outer Space” (1965), “She” (Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, P.O. Ultvedt), and by contemporary solo exhibitions with Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Edward Kienholz. Events of various kinds – from film screenings of New American Cinema, to happenings such as “5 New York Evenings” in 1964, with Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, Öyvind Fahlström, Merce Cunningham and others – contributed to the museum’s repute.

The exhibition “Önskemuseet” (The Dream Museum) in the winter of 1963-64 was initiated by the Friends of Moderna Museet, based on a concept by Ulf Linde. A large number of works that he believed ought to be part of the museum collection were borrowed, and a miracle took place: Moderna Museet was granted a one-off allocation from the government of five million kronor. Suddenly, the collection could expand into one of the best of its kind in western Europe. The exhibition set the tone for the future of Moderna Museet. It led to works by Kirchner, Max Ernst, Balla, de Chirico, Miró, Dalí, Mondrian and Picasso being incorporated in the collection. The purchase of international art encountered strong opposition from the art world at the time. But the museum continued to collect, not least thanks to various donations, including one by Rolf de Maré involving three paintings by Georges Braque and five by Fernand Léger; more recent donations include one from Grace and Philip Sandblom, Picasso’s Spring and two paintings by Hilding Linnqvist; and the Gerhard Bonnier donation in 1989: a veritable treasure consisting of works by Picasso, Léger, Mondrian, Chagall, Miró, Giacometti, Gris, Dubuffet, Laurens and Yves Klein. Added to this, the Friends have contributed a large number of valuable gifts to the museum collection since the start.

Interior with giant sculpture and audience.
From the exhibition She – A Cathedral, Moderna Museet, 1966 Photo: Hans Hammarskiöld / Moderna Museet © Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Per Olof Ultvedt / Bildupphovsrätt 2018

A broad concept

If the museum’s first decade was characterised by 1960s optimism, its future fate has been equally influenced by the moods of subsequent decades. The turbulence around 1968 impacted on operations and gave rise to the idea of a museum with a broad spectrum of activities. In addition to happenings, dance, films and concerts, the exhibition tours for children – thanks to Carlo Derkert’s unique educational input – were always a special feature of Moderna Museet. Derkert’s idea was to keep up a dialogue with the museum’s youngest visitors, an approach that has been seminal to the children’s activities ever since the 1960s.

The “Model” experiment of 1968 was a room filled with rubber foam for wild games and other physical exercises. Starting in the pioneering 1960s, the Workshop has helped children and teenagers feel at home in the museum exhibitions and in the world of art.

The photographic collection was founded in 1971, when the Friends of Fotografiska Museet donated their collection to the Nationalmuseum. In 1973, FM became a department of Moderna Museet. The collection is complemented by an excellent library and an archive that are open to the public.

New York Collection for Stockholm was Pontus Hultén’s final brainwave for the museum – and his parting gift, before moving to Paris in 1974, where he was head of Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Georges Pompidou. He was succeeded at Moderna Museet by the Swedish painter Philip von Schantz.

Black and white photo of child painting outdoors.
Photo from the exhibition "The Model", 1968 © Photo: Moderna Museet


After a few exhibitions in the early 1970s, including Joseph Beuys, 1971 and Salvador Dalí, 1974, the museum was closed for rebuilding on 20 October, 1974. The refurbished Moderna Museet premises were reopened on 7 November, 1975. In the course of the refurbishment, the plans had been radically downsized.

In 1976, the museum staged “ARARAT” (Alternative Research in Architecture, Resources, Art and Technology), a continuation of a theme based on 1960s experiments with art and technology, but in an updated, alternative version. A few of the artists shown in the 1970s were Sidney Nolan, Carl Kylberg, Adolf Wölfli, Alberto Giacometti, Claes Oldenburg, Olle Kåks, Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd and Rolf Börjlind.

Karin Lindegren, who had worked at Moderna Museet for many years, had a short stint as head of the museum in 1979. Some of the artists featured during her directorship were Renato Guttuso and the true naivist Lim-Johan. In 1980, Lindegren was succeeded by Olle Granath.

The Eighties

The eighties involved a broad and varied programme, featuring both contemporary art (neo-expressionist works from Germany, Mario Merz, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren) and large, popular classics such as Marc Chagall, “Russian avant-garde from the Georg Costakis collection”, Henri Matisse and Francis Picabia, not to mention the greatest success, Pablo Picasso. Postmodernism was presented in “Implosion – A Postmodern Perspective” in 1987.

Olle Granath headed the museum throughout the 1980s. In his final years at the museum he was involved in planning a new museum building. In late 1989, he was appointed senior curator of the National Art Museums, but continued to work on the plans. That autumn, Björn Springfeldt took over as director of Moderna Museet.

A design competition was launched in winter 1990-91, attracting 211 drafts for a new Moderna Museet. Five internationally renowned architects were also invited to participate, funded by the Eddie Figge Foundation. On 10 April, 1991, it was announced that Rafael Moneo from Spain had won the competition with his proposal, “Telemachos”.

In the 1990s, the museum hosted exhibitions by Per Kirkeby, Lee Jaffe, Kiki Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe and Bill Viola, Arne Jones, Lage Lindell and others, in addition to continuous shows of works from the collection, Nordic contemporary art and new acquisitions. In early spring 1994, the old drill hall on Skeppsholmen closed with an extensive exhibition of works by the German painter Gerhard Richter.

While the new museum building was being built, Moderna Museet was relocated to the tram sheds on Birger Jarlsgatan in central Stockholm. As Moneo’s new construction began to take shape on Skeppsholmen and the temporary activities in the tram sheds were drawing to an end, Björn Springfeldt resigned as museum director. One of his last contributions to the museum was to successfully finalise the negotiations with Irving Penn concerning the photographer’s donation of 100 photographs to the museum. This donation was exhibited in the winter of 1995-96.

In November 1996, David Elliott was appointed director of the museum. Elliott, who had previously headed the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, was Moderna Museet’s first foreign director. The activities at the tram sheds ended in May 1997 with an exhibition on Picasso and the myths of the Mediterranean.

People and cars in line.
Queue to the Pablo Picasso exhibition, 1988 © Photo: Moderna Museet

The new Moderna Museet

At last, in the 40th year of Moderna Museet’s existence, the new museum was inaugurated on 12 February, 1998, by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia. The first exhibition, “Wounds: Between Democracy and Redemption in Contemporary Art”, dealt with developments in Europe and America from the 1960s up until today, bridging the gap between the frantic and visionary activities of the museum’s first years and the equally dynamic potential of the now and the future. Other noteworthy exhibitions are “After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe” (1999), “Utopia and Reality – Swedish Modernism 1900-1960” (2000), “What If – Art on the Verge of Architecture and Design” (2000), and “In Visible Light” (1998). The museum also hosted several solo exhibitions, including David Bailey (2000), Vera Nilsson (2001), Rosemarie Trockel (2001) and Fernando Botero in 2001.

A magazine, an installation of IKEA furniture, a digital film and a series of seminars. These are but a few of the 29 disparate art projects pursued under the umbrella of Moderna Museet Projekt, a scheme that existed between 1998 and 2001. Swedish and international artists were invited to produce new work, either in the large hall of the Vicarage, or wherever the artist in question preferred.

Only a few years after opening, it was discovered that the new building had a problem with mould and damp, and plans were made to evacuate the staff and art collection. Meanwhile, in November 2001, Lars Nittve joined as head of the museum. Nittve, who had been a senior curator of Moderna Museet in the 1980s, had previously headed Louisiana, Denmark, and Tate Modern in London.

Four people in exhibition hall.
Queen Silvia and King Karl XVI Gustav at the opening ceremony, 1998 © Photo: Moderna Museet

Moderna Museet c/o

While the museum on Skeppsholmen was being refurbished in 2002-2003, activities moved to the former post office terminal at Klarabergsviadukten 61 in Stockholm. The exhibition activities during that period presented an entirely new concept, which proved to be a success. Art was shown via other art institutions and other sites throughout Sweden, in addition to the museum’s own premises: Moderna Museet c/o. A few examples are c/o Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, 2002, c/o Waldemarsudde, 2002, c/o BoStad 2002, c/o Malmö Konsthall, 2003, and c/o BildMuseet in Umeå.

Odd Weeks was a series of exhibitions designed specifically for Moderna Museet c/o Klarabergsviadukten 61. Shows opened every other Monday at 6 pm, odd weeks, and presented a wide variety of oeuvres. The parameters were defined by the 70 sqm space, and the idea was to look at different, unexpected aspects of the artists’ work. Artists exhibited included: Eva Koch, Martha Rosler, Torsten Renqvist, Charlotte Gyllenhammar, Jan Håfström and Eva Löfdahl.

The new refurbished Moderna Museet

On 14 February, 2004, the museum building was reopened with festivities. In addition to repairs, the opportunity had been taken to improve some of the spaces, partly to make it easier for visitors to move through the museum, and partly to utilise the upper entrance space more adequately. At the same time, the museum’s graphic profile was updated.

Alongside the opening exhibitions, the Pontus Hultén Collection and Anna Riwkin, major efforts were devoted to the presentation of Moderna Museet’s own collection. Works from the turn of the previous century up to now are presented in reverse chronological order, so that visitors see contemporary art first and are then taken back in time a hundred years by the time they reach the far end of the museum. The title of the exhibition is In Our Time, and will be shown until further notice, with minor changes occasionally.

Another major new feature at the reopening was the introduction of museum hosts – people who have a variety of skills, from life-saving to being able to tell visitors about the works of art in both the permanent and temporary exhibitions. The reason for introducing new hosts was to cater for the large increase in visitor numbers since the admission fee was abolished.

In 2007, admission fees were reintroduced at Moderna Museet.

Moderna Museet Malmö

In 1901 architect John Smedberg established a beautiful electricity plant building on Gasverksgatan 22, whose glowing gasholder long insured Malmö residents that electricity was guaranteed. A little over a hundred years later, the building – and neighbourhood – had changed. Following the closure of successful art museum Rooseum, Moderna Museet was approached as new tenants. In 2008 it became clear that the Moderna Museet Malmö would open as a subsidiary to Stockholm, in one of Sweden’s most beautiful exhibition halls. It would be time to re-fill the old electricity plant building with art.

The mission to transform the building into a more appropriate museum went to the award-winning architect firm Tham & Videgård Hansson Arkitekter. They chose to establish a new annex – a contemporary addition to the historic building. And give the interior an entirely new spatial order. The construction process, which began in spring 2009, was taking place in full speed in order to be ready for the inauguration of the Moderna Museet Malmö, on December 26, 2009.

In November 2010, Daniel Birnbaum became the new chief curator and director of Moderna Museet. Daniel Birnbaum was formerly the rector and a professor at Städelschule in Frankfurt, Germany, and a curator in charge of numerous major international exhibitions and biennials, including the Venice Biennale in 2009

Published 4 January 2015 · Updated 9 February 2016