Denmark’s long-snubbed third-largest city was once a byword for decline. Now a new museum dedicated to the city’s most famous son – Hans Christian Andersen – is helping to tell a more positive tale.
Odense, Denmark’s third largest city, has long been overshadowed by Copenhagen and the recent blossoming of Aarhus but a stunning new museum dedicated to its most famous son, fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, is looking to change that. The museum doesn’t just aim to encourage a new look at the author and his work but hopes to create a knock-on effect for this compact city of about 200,000.
“This is the big reboot,” says creative director Henrik Lübker, on a tour of the DEK400m (€54m) site as it nears completion. “We want something as much for adults as for children, for people to rediscover the Andersen they thought they knew but didn’t.” Much is riding on the new museum. Lübker says that it’s anticipated to bring some 200,000 visitors a year to the city, including – pandemic permitting – more Chinese tourists (Andersen has been big in China since Mao’s time).
The vast complex by architect Kengo Kuma and the firm’s partner Yuki Ikeguchi is as much landscape as building. Most of its exhibition spaces are below ground; above, a garden of meandering paths, hedges and trees undulates rather like the landscape of Funen (Denmark’s third largest island on which Odense sits).
Odense is 160km west of Copenhagen on the island of Funen. It’s two hours by car with Great Belt Bridge toll of about DEK325 (€45) return or an hour and 20 minutes by InterCityLyn train, which is DEK138 return (€18). Odense is roughly equidistant from Copenhagen Airport and Billund Airport. Decent accommodation is limited in Odense. The historic First Hotel Grand is the best choice for an overnight stay.
“Andersen’s stories are never just black and white; there is always a duality – natural and artificial, shadow and light,” says Ikeguchi. “That was the key to the architecture. Odense is on a very human scale, so we wanted to minimise the height and footprint of the building. And by opening up the grounds to include a light railway, we connect the old part of the city to the new.”
Fittingly for a man whose work expressed his non-conformist, disruptive approach to the world (not to mention his tormented sexuality), the museum avoids a linear retelling of Andersen’s life, instead immersing visitors in his morally ambiguous, frequently dark stories.
In one exhibit the visitor’s shadow is reflected on a screen before taking on a life of its own. T he Emperor’s New Clothes is represented by a two-way mirror and screen that superimposes a royal costume onto the main user, who is seen posing in their normal clothes by those looking from the other side. From its vantage point on a velvet cushion, the pea from The Princess and the Pea insists that it is the star of the story.
The interactive exhibits incorporate precision-location-specific technology. They have been written by artists and storytellers including Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler, animator Noah Harris and Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira, all overseen by British company, Event Communications.
Today, Odense honours Andersen much as Memphis does Elvis Presley or Liverpool The Beatles. But the awkward truth is that its best-known son simply could not wait to leave. In 1819, aged 14, Andersen slung his knapsack over his shoulder and went off to seek his fortune in Copenhagen.
Within his lifetime he would become one of the most famous people in the world, the inventor of the modern fairytale and a novelist, playwright, poet, travel writer and gifted visual artist – his elaborate paper cuttings feature heavily in the museum’s iconography.
But it was his often macabre, morally ambiguous tales that made his name and served as his calling card on his self-promoting visits to the great and good of Europe – Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and many kings and queens.
The museum is another of Odense’s attempts to join Copenhagen and Aarhus as an attractive place to visit and live, boosted by its recent rise as a global centre for robotics and other hi-tech industries. The light railway, which now passes through the museum’s grounds, will eventually connect to a new hospital and university buildings.
“In the past few years there have been some wonderful changes in Odense. But it has been developed with real care for the old city,” says Dina Vejling, owner of the city’s leading ceramics gallery that represents 70 Danish artists. Vejling’s gallery and event space is nextdoor to part of Brandts Klaedefabrik, a repurposed factory that is now a cultural centre with a contemporary art space and photography museum. Brandts has helped to broaden the appeal of Odense beyond the day-tripping Andersen fans. “In Denmark there used to be a saying – ‘It’s gone all Odense’ – which meant that a place was in a decline,” says Vejling. “But that’s totally changed now.” The historic city centre, with its medieval layout and a significant number of higgledy half-timbered buildings, is being spruced up with new pedestrian zones to end the dominance of cars. The new university hospital complex is adding to the city’s appeal to Danes in a country that has long struggled with the dominance of its capital.
First Ho tel Grand
There’s space for smaller, more interesting hotels in the market but this one works well for now.
Opened in 1987, Kunstmuseum Brandts is dedicated to visual culture.
A smart street-food market.
A craft gallery of Danish ceramics on Brandts Passage.
Helmer Design & Antik
Mia Helmer’s city-centre gallery is packed with vintage Danish furniture and lighting.
Founded by two Danish chefs with international pedigree after stints in Copenhagen, Sydney and New York. Book ahead.
The retail district, centred on Vestergade, has a growing number of interesting independent shops and restaurants. Among them is Helmer Design & Antik, Mia Helmer’s city-centre gallery specialising in museum-quality Danish furniture and lighting from the mid-20th century, with gorgeous Børge Mogensen, Poul Henningensen and De Sede pieces. Meanwhile, restaurant Aro is flying the New Nordic flag in Odense in an old industrial building to the north of the city centre. Chefs Bjørn Jacobsen and Christoffer Schärfe have impressive CVs that include stints at three Michelin-starred Geranium in Copenhagen, Tetsuya’s in Sydney and WD50 in New York. The venerable HJ Hansen Vin, with its beautiful copper-clad shop front, has been supplying locals with gourmet delicacies and wine since Andersen’s time (it opened in 1829) and Storms Pakhus, in a former warehouse, has brought indoor street food to the city with its 19 stalls and bars.
At the end of a tour of the new Hans Christian Andersen’s House museum, you arrive in the room where the man himself was born. It is what Lübker terms a “counter memorial” moment: the room is empty, the audio guide falls silent and, after all the spectacle of the museum and its architecture, there is just a simple plaque with the date of Andersen’s birth.
“The room is the most sacred object in our collection,” says Lübker, before cheerfully admitting that Andersen flatly denied it was his birthplace when he returned to Odense in 1867, aged 62, to be made an honorary citizen of the city he’d turned his back on. As with everything about Andersen, nothing at this museum is quite what it seems.