Copenhagen Museum – in the best possible light


Revitalising this blog with a rather grumpy post – sorry!

The Museum of Copenhagen (FB) has recently reopened in a newly refurbished building on the corner of Vester Voldgade and Stormgade, a short hop from the National Museum and at the heart of the newly branded cultural district. City museums as curators of the narrative of place are a particular interest of mine, and I always make a point of visiting them.

Given the massive change Copenhagen has undergone since the museum closed as part of the relocation process I was keen to take an early look, however the opening event (Københavneråbningen) in February had Not For Me written all over it. You want free entry, perhaps some talks and guided tours round the new museum, pointers to activities of interest and ways to get involved? Nope. With half term kicking off the same day it was Toddler Time, just like most of the time, with heritage as entertainment and the museum at best the background for hygge and a coffee. I put my inspection on hold.

I finally made it with a 50% coronavirus discount on 25 July – with combined admission to Thorvaldsens Museum this was a rare Danish bargain. (It’s worth noting that both museums are free on Wednesdays.)

Let’s start with a look back. From 1956 the museum, founded in 1901, occupied the home of Det Kongelige Københavnske Skydeselskab, built in 1787 and taken over by the council in 1953. This historic setting very much set the tone for the museum as a whole, and the exhibitions felt a bit thin. On the plus side the city walks programme was vibrant and the rather hokey website was at least supplemented by Væggen (The Wall; now serving an error), a collection of photos, both historic and current, some uploaded by the public, also available as a 12m touchscreen in various key sites around the city.

The museum closed in October 2015, and the fate of the building remains uncertain. While the council could do with the money a sale would generate, there are tentative plans for a musikhus (2021 update: Musikhuset København to use the building before restoration work starts in 2022, bankrolled by suprprise! Readania; more). Meanwhile. the last time I looked the CPH miniby still stood in front of the building at Vesterbrogade 59.

Facebook updates during the four year interim focused on new archaeological finds, the refurbishment of the building and Storm20, a temporary makerspace next door. Somewhat surprisingly history, so often overlooked in CPH’s ultra-modern cityscape, was dominant, and seems to be the museum’s focus, with its new location close to the streets of the fairytale Middeladerbyen offering an alternative iteration of the Wonderful Copenhagen narrative to BLOX, itself adjacent to the waterfront.

The museum’s new home at Stormgade 18 exchanges the 18th century for the 19th. Built in 1894 by Hans Jørgen Holm, it’s a typically stolid brick building of the period, built for Overformynderiet, a civil authority which managed and distributed money to the needy. In existence from 1868 to 1982, Overformynderiet ended its days at Holmens Kanal 20, a modernist gem dating from 1937, with Stormgade 18 used by range of other communal institutions over the years.

The building is beautifully restored, but my first impression was how church-like it was, and so dimly lit! The 21st century facilities are an awkward fit, not least an uncomfortable-looking lounge and the obligatory candlelit cafe. What of the content? Early publicity made much of the objects on show, including a new interactive model (is it? there is an award-winning digital display behind, apparently, which passed me by), and early reviewers have been relentlessly positive. The permanent exhibition, arranged chronologically from 12000 BCE before coming to an abrupt halt in 1950, is not yet complete, with several doors closed and marked ‘history in the making’. There’s LOoneTS of text – and I like text – and not many objects. A panel on Nørreport is shoved into a corner by the lift; is the building dictating layout? The English text is in unidiomatic flat prose that reads like a machine translation or Wikipedia entry.

Better: a digital display of eight figures from the ‘modern’ age, accompanied by a handful of objects, which would work well online; as it is there is only room for a couple of people to view it at a time. I paged through the display for the flaneur (thx Danish Design Review) – this could usefully have been taken forward right up to the present day.

Also well done was a room on Bispebjerg, part of the city’s 1901 landgrab, and one of few forays out of Indre By and the brokvartere. This display has been produced by pupils from Tagensbo Skole (1938; previously Grundtvigs Skole) and Bureau Detours, and highlights ‘new forms of welfare’ such as Utterslev Daghjem, the first nursery in Denmark designed by an architect. More of this, please.

My visit was saved by the temporary exhibition on the paintings of Paul Fischer, entitled ‘The city in the best possible light’. whicih sliced up the city in different ways from the straightforwardly chronological and offered some alternative perspectives to bare facts. It was particularly good on public space in the evolving cityscape, with the flaneur making another appearance.

What is the role of the city museum in 2020? A relocation offers the perfect opportunity for a rethink and a refresh, but in this case the museum feels as stuck in a previous century as the building, and seems to have gone backwards in terms of content. Whereas its previous iteration had Becoming a Copenhagener, an exhibition on migration to the city, culminating with the iconic Superflex poster (now also an event), the new museum completely ignores anything edgy which might make visitors uncomfortable. It feels staid and one dimensional, exclusive, unambitious and conservative. It lacks dynamism and any reflection of diversity, space for dialogue or engagement, presenting instead an unambiguous view of history. The leaflet tagline is ‘for city lovers’, but any urbanist critique is missing. It really is all in the best possible light.

(Note: Farum, a Greater Copenhagen municipality, hosts an Immigrant Museum (FB), with an excellent online presence to boot.)

CAMOC, ICOM’s city museum committee, notes changing attitudes to city museums, from museums of history and guardians of treasures to reflecting the living city, reaching beyond the museum’s walls and inviting participation. Copenhagen’s museum feels anchored in the former, so rooted in an uncritical presentation of History that it almost feels like an anachronism. Is this under-ambition due to budget constraints? I’d expected more from a major European capital city than an overgrown local museum, miniby and all.

By way of contrast, the latest city museum I visited, Bristol’s M Shed, conveys the warmth and vibrancy of that city while at the same time provoking debate and critique. Opened in 2011 with the tagline Explore the city through time: its places, its people and their stories, many displays offer a choice of object or story to take you further. Highlights included Joining and leaving Bristol, a graphic showing migration as a two-way flow, You Make Bristol, part of a nationwide programme placing communities at the heart of what museums do, and the iconic quayside cranes. Unlike its Copenhagen cousin, you’d be unlikely to feel like you’d ‘done’ the museum, plus it’s free, encouraging multiple visits.

HT also to Manchester Museum for celebrating diversity (more; Director: “The multi-lingual museum in the multi-lingual city”.

More on:

The 2007 prospectus (PDF, dansk) sheds some light on the thinking behind the museum, not all of which has come to fruition. It also makes no mention of digital, so here’s my lightning website/digital audit:

  • old school; site content is unambitious and largely promotional, copy from pre-opening not updated
  • no opportunities for interaction; social the standard Danish combo of FB and Instagram, plus YouTube
  • research: strategy? mainly links to employees’ PhDs
  • Historier fra byen: well-hidden and somewhat random selection of articles, inc on historic and lost buildings
  • no virtual museum/online version of displays, eg the 11 minute “poetic representation” of Copenhagen 2019
  • English site = barest of bones/culled from a formal report

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