by Sofie B. Ringstad (2021, Kunsthochschule Weißensee)


In 2016, American designer and curator Jérémie McGowan was hired as director for Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum (The Northern Norwegian Museum of Art). After four years in the position, the museum boasted record visitor numbers and enjoyed a growing international and national recognition, manifested through a series of renowned awards such as Norwegian Museum of the Year (Moxnes 2021). McGowan’s tenure was extended by two years, to December 2021.

And then, just as the first COVID-19 lockdown was implemented in Norway in late March 2020, McGowan was asked by the museum board to leave his position immediately, with no given reason for his sudden firing. A majority of the museum staff published a letter in support to their director, parts of the board withdrew in protest, and among pandemic press conferences the media ran stories of shock waves through the national art scene.

During four days in February 2021, the spectacle made its way to Norwegian courts, as McGowan sued the museum and its board for incorrect dismissal. While the parties and public await the court’s final decision, we will utilize this paper to explore some of the underlying dynamics that led to McGowan’s sudden job termination.  

Northern Norway and the role of the museum

Because of the warm Gulf stream which runs along its coast, some of the northernmost cities in the world are found in Norway. One of them is Tromsø, which with its just over 70,000 inhabitants is the municipality capital of the area. It serves as administrative and cultural hub for Northern Norway, and houses the region’s most important art museum, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum.

The north of the country is also where Norway’s most known[1] colonial history took place: Through residential schools, mission and industrializing, the Norwegian government secured a near eradication of identity, language and land for the Sámi, a multifaceted indigenous community found in Russia and the Nordic countries. Oblivious to many living side by side with the Sámi, though, are the remnants of imposed internal colonization which remains deeps rooted in the society today: 

The vast majority of the people in the countries where Saami live know little about the Saami, and what they think they know is frequently wrong. Ignorance about the Saami is often matched with a sympathetic attitude toward them and the recognition that they have been mistreated by the colonial powers; however, this mistreatment is thought to be something that occurred long ago. Few people understand that some of the most blatant injustices committed against the Saami are quite recent and are, in fact, ongoing. Matters of injustice and discrimination regarding the Saami have been subject to legal contests in both national and international courts of law.
(Beach 2000:233)

With a relatively high Sámi population, Tromsø serves as the urban center for the Norwegian branch of the indigenous community. It holds many important Sámi institutions, offers bilingual services at all official offices, keeps dedicated Sámi schools and so on (Nyseth, Pedersen 2014:140). These so called ‘City Sámi’s’ (of which there today are more than ‘homeland’ ones), like indigenous people all over the globe, often “struggle to reformulate institutions and practices to support their cultures and identities so that [they] can continue to survive as distinct peoples in contemporary societies. […] To become alive, […] a Sámi urban society needs institutions that are permanent, materialized and visualized expressions of ‘Sáminess’” (Nyseth, Pedersen 2014:132).

So as Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum was established in 1985 with a mission to “create interest for and increase the knowledge of visual arts and crafts from Northern Norway” (Brønnøysundregistrene 1995), the demand for a dedicated Sámi art museum grew: Despite its mandate and 20 million Norwegian kroner (just below 2 million Euros) in government funding every year, the museum only sporadically showcased Sámi art specifically. And as the Norwegian Sámi Parliament was founded in 1989, its representatives started calling for a permanent institution where their artists could find continuity and support, in addition to representation in the national arenas for visual art (Larsen, Sandberg 2021).

Decolonizing as curatorial method

In his time as museum director for Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, Jérémie McGowan hit – and perhaps helped create – a nerve: In line with the international interest surge in indigenous artists, Sámi art and artists has taken central stage in the Norwegian art scene in the past few years. So much so, that Norway’s government created foundation Office for Contemporary Art (OCA), after years of focusing on indigeneity in the far north, recently announced that the Nordic Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 would be renamed Sámi Pavilion, amidst a boost of Sámi oriented exhibitions, such as an extensive Nils-Aslak Valkeapää retrospective at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter outside Oslo.

McGowan could therefore not match the zeitgeist more when he together with the Karasjok based museum RidduDuottarMuseat temporarily renamed and rebranded Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum as Sámi Dáiddamusea (Sámi Art Museum) in 2017. Baked in to the ‘museum performance’ was the exhibition titled ‘There is no’, alluding to the lack of a Sámi art museum in Norway (Sámi Dáiddamusea 2017). And this curatorial strategy (for we must be able to call it such) – explicitly ‘de-colonializing’ the museum and fronting the Sámi community in a cultural hub in the far north - is now at the heart of the conflict in Tromsø.  

McGowan was smartly following what Wayne Modest has called “the overwhelming shift in museological practices in relationship to colonialism” (Modest 2020:67) – and the tension this created with the museum board, seems to illustrate the difficulties of how “[…] colonialism continues to work in the present, its racialising logics that continue to structure humanity as differentially deserving of care, of even life itself” (Modest 2020:68), as McGowan’s work with the Sámi community was met with skepticism by parts of the museum board.

McGowan himself recently stated in both the press and in court that the director of the board, Grete Ellingsen (a conservative politician who has formerly served as Mayor and Secretary of State) was “rude” to him because “[…] Silje Karine Muotka (Sámi politician) would hold the opening speech at an exhibition. I was told that the Sámi Parliament should not have a platform in Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum” (Larsen, Sandberg 2021) and was asked to “tread carefully, because the museum could risk ending up under administration of the Sámi Parliament” (Dybvig 2021).

Architect and artist Joar Nango was constituted as a museum board member in January 2020, and subsequently withdrew from the board in protest when McGowan was fired two months later. He has frequently been quoted on his experience with Ellingsen, who was constituted at the same time. Weekly newspaper Morgenbladet recounted his statement in court:

I had some experiences with the director of the board that were a bit peculiar. When I introduced myself in the meeting, I mentioned I was proud to be chosen as a board member, that it was only right that the Sámi art community had a permanent position in the board, and that perhaps it should even be included in the foundation’s articles. I was then interrupted by the director, who clearly disagreed with my statement, and said that if Sámi’s would have a permanent position in the board, all other minorities would want one too – I don’t remember if she referred to Pakistani’s or other groups, but I immediately reacted to it. (Dybvig 2021)

Politicians from the Sámi community, on their side, has noted that the case only amplifies the need for a dedicated Sámi art museum, “to secure freedom of speech” (Larsen, Sandberg 2021).

There’s no smoke without fire

Whether or not the museum board fired its director for his decolonial tendencies, it would be unfair not to mention the criticism Jérémie McGowan faced before theatrical departure. His seeming disinterest in written strategy and accounts paired with a floating organizational structure would annoy any board; a popular leader, it was a report on an intimidating working environment from a museum staffer that would tip the scale. And although he appears to have the general support of the Norwegian Sámi community, the museum had indeed – as former museum director Knut Ljågodt found it necessary to clarify in a public letter following the court case (Ljågodt 2021) – already presented several efforts on the indigenous field.

What makes the sudden leaving of Jérémie McGowan interesting, then, is not the specifics of his firing, but how the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum case serves as an example for the awkward recognition of history within museums and the spaces they operate in. Since the museum we are dealing with here is fairly young and has focused its collection on visual arts, it does not bear the heavy load of dubiously acquired objects, artifacts and human remains[2], like many other museums do. But the conflict that has played out on its stage, illustrates the lurking controversies and complexities of ‘decolonizing the museum’, even when it takes the form of poignant, but exterior curatorial strategies.

Just like the court case between McGowan and the museum, the legal system has the final word in many actions under the umbrella of ‘decolonizing the museum’. Restitution of looted objects is one such example, where questions like in what legal system a claim is valid, and how and to whom the object should be restituted, slows – if not prevents – the eventual settlement. Usually, there is a challenge of clarity: Of ongoing history and process that seemingly must be resolved by absolute transparency, but that wades so deep in the mud of time that a cathartic solution for all parties seems optimistic, at best.

The question to ask, is if the decolonizing of museums inevitably must happen in the same opaque fashion that the history it is dealing with came to be in the first place. And if this is the case, there appears to be a need for rethinking the structures of the museum itself and how its conflicts are resolved – as legal systems usually serve as the very demolisher of opaqueness.


Beach, H., 2000. ‘The Saami’, in Freeman, M.M.R. (ed.)Endangered Peoples of the Arctic: Struggles to Thrive and Survive, p. 223-246, Greenwood Press, Westport.

Brønnøysundregistrene, 1995, Enhetsregisteret: Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, retrieved 25 February 2021, from:

Dybvig, E., 2021, ‘Kontroversiell oppsigelse prøves for retten’, Morgenbladet, published 19 February 2021, retrieved 23 February 2021, from:

Larsen, D.R., Sandberg, M.G., 2021, ‘Museumsdirektør hevder han ble avskjediget fordi han satset på samisk kunst’, NRK, published 17 February 2021, retrieved 23 February 2021, from:

Ljøgodt, K., 2021, ‘Feilaktige påstander fra McGowan om Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum’, iTromsø, published 23 February 2021, retrieved 23 February 2021, from:

Løken, R., 2020, De dansk-norske tropekoloniene. Sukker, krydder, slaver og misjon, Solum Bokvennen, Oslo.

Modest, W., 2020. ‘A Conversation with Wayne Modest’, in von Oswald, M., Tinius, J. (eds.) Across Anthropology
: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial, p. 65-74, Leuven University Press, Leuven.

Moxnes, A., 2021, ‘Et lærestykke i manglende balansekunst’, NRK, published 22 February 2021, retrieved 24 February 2021, from:

Måsø, J.R., Verstad, A.B., 2020, ‘Hodeskallejegerne’, NRK, 7 June 2020, retrieved 1 March 2021, from:

Nyseth, T., Pedersen, P., 2014, ‘Urban Sámi Identities in Scandinavia: Hybridities, Ambivalences and Cultural Innovation’, Acta Borealia 31(2), p. 131-151, retrieved 16 December 2019, doi: 10.1080/08003831.2014.967976.

Sámi Dáiddamusea, 2017, About, retrieved 24 February 2021, from:


All translations (Norwegian to English) are the author’s own.

[1] It’s worth noting that many would say ‘Norway’s only colonial history’, as the role of Norwegians in the global colonial history is largely unknown to the wider public. It was however substantial and brutal, as illuminated in Roar Løken’s recent book De dansk-norske tropekoloniene. Sukker, krydder, slaver og misjon (Løken 2020).

[2] A large number of Sámi human remains are kept in various institutions in Norway and abroad to this day, many of whom were dug up posthumously for anatomical skull studies (Måsø, Verstad 2020).