Oslo's Nobel Peace Center: It's dynamite

In 1969, when John Lennon composed the anti-war anthem, Give peace a chance, I doubt he thought Norway would be the country to take up the challenge. Not with handclaps and tambourines, but with negotiators and mediators.

Norway's predilection for peacemaking has been well-played over the last three decades, from promoting stability in Mali and Guatemala, to assisting in the peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC leftist rebels, for which Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos received the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.

The foundation for the prize was laid in 1896, when Alfred Nobel, Swedish engineer, inventor of dynamite and philanthropist, left the bulk of his estate to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes. Due to family and legal squabbles it took until 1901 for the first prizes to be awarded.

When setting the ground rules for his dynamite-funded award-scheme Nobel decreed that four of the prizes – chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, and literature – should be given out by his native Sweden, but the prize for peace would be chosen by Norway.

"No explanation was ever given as to why he stipulated Norway," says Kiki Fallet, guide and educator at Oslo's Nobel Peace Center.

Housed in a re-purposed railway terminal the Nobel Peace Center tells the story of Alfred Nobel, the Peace Prize, and the Peace Prize laureates through permanent and temporary exhibitions, guided tours and family activities. An independent foundation, it is financed by both private donations and government grants.

The provocative nature of the museum starts outside with Unknown Numbers, a 60-metre long, open-air Peace Wall painted with portraits of people who have made sacrifices in their fight for freedom of speech.

Created by Oslo artist Johannes Hoie, a portrait painter who specialises in monumental drawings, and Shwan Dler Qaradaki, an Iraqi who came to Norway 16 years ago as a Kurdish refugee, the display is a stark reminder to passers-by that freedom of speech is a right that must be protected.

The link between free speech and peace continues inside with the temporary exhibit – The Dangerous Zone – about German journalist Carl von Ossietzky who exposed the Nazis through his newspaper writings. Stopping to view the walls plastered in pages from Ossietzky's weekly newspaper, Die Weltbühne (The World Stage), Fallet challenges us to think about the concept of heroes and villains. "In 1931, Ossietzky was convicted of treason, imprisoned and sent to a concentration camp," she says. "In 1936 he was awarded the Peace Prize."

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More a series of contemporary installations than a museum the next room houses The Nobel Field, a permanent exhibition honouring every Peace Prize laureate since 1901. A moody space, where individual information screens stand about like petals planted in a garden of fibre-optic fronds.

From Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi to Barack Obama, these are the kind of people Alfred Nobel had in mind when he set out his last will and testament – "Those who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

The story of Nobel's life is told through an interactive book where a giant volume of blank pages comes to life through projected images. Fallet explains it was Nobel's decree that the Peace Prize be selected by a five-member committee chosen by the Parliament of Norway. "The prize is awarded annually on the 10th of December in the Oslo City Hall," she says. "The recipient receives a Nobel Medal, Nobel Diploma and a sum of 8 million Swedish Krona ($1.19 million)."

Next is the temporary exhibition – Syria is my only home – a photographic display about life as a refugee as seen through the eyes of children, an attempt to put a face to some of the 2.4 million Syrian children living as refugees.

In 2013, a joint project between UNICEF Lebanon and the Lebanese organisation Zakira handed out 500 disposable cameras to Syrian children in a camp in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. What did the children choose to photograph? The cramped conditions, the biting snow, the scraps they burn to keep warm? No. They photographed each other – smiling, playing with sticks, and giving piggybacks.

The children's quotes, printed on the walls, are equally moving. "I wish I could go back to Syria and learn all of the alphabet, " said Hiba, aged 9. "I would eat dirt if it could bring me back to Syria," said Rewan, aged 9. A longing for home is the common theme, reinforcing the notion that no one becomes a refugee by choice.

The newest display is Hope over Fear, a photographic exhibition dedicated to 2016 Peace Prize Laureate President Manual Santos, the Colombian people and the promise of peace after 52 years of civil war. By my reckoning if the world has witnessed the end of just one war, then this is the most potent prize of all.

TRIP NOTES

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VISIT

Guided tours (2pm in English and 3pm in Norwegian) are included with the entry ticket of NOK100. Tours operate daily over the summer season, but only on weekends during winter. Centre is closed on Mondays during winter. Phone +47 48 30 10 00. See nobelpeacecenter.org

FLY

Thai Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Oslo via Bangkok. See thaiairways.comSTAY

The Thon Hotel Bristol is an elegant hotel in the heart of downtown Oslo within walking distance of all major attractions. See thonhotels.com

Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Lindblad Expeditions

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