As the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75), Odense in Denmark is the natural home for a museum dedicated to the author and his work. The first such museum opened in the city in 1908 in the yellow corner house in which the author was born. The museum has been expanded several times since then and now has had a complete, multimillion-pound overhaul.
The new HC Andersen’s House places immersive experience at its heart, promising the largest and most coherent exploration of the master fairy-tale writer’s life and imagination to date. His best-known stories include the Emperor’s New Clothes and the Little Mermaid.
The museum’s exhibition design and development began ahead of architectural plans, allowing Eithne Owens, the creative director at design agency Event, to approach the project as a holistic experience. The space aims to place visitors at the centre of a fairy tale, pushing the boundaries of the traditional museum experience.
The museum’s curator, Sine Jensen Smed, describes the venue as one big organism. It covers 5,600 sq metres of mostly underground space, amid extensive gardens.
Here, Smed and Owens tell how they employed Andersen’s own artistic strategies in the curation of the museum, across art and installations, animations, music and light.
Why is it important that Andersen and his work continues to be honoured?
Sine Jensen Smed: He wrote fairy tales and stories like no one before or since. Even though there are more than 150 years between us and his words, they still touch people around the world, across different languages, cultures, genders and ages. Through his fairy tales we can explore the world and ourselves in it.
How has the museum experience changed?
SJS: For more than 100 years, people from all over the world have travelled to Odense to see Hans Christian Andersen’s birthplace and museum because they have been moved by his fairy tales.
However, the old museum was a classical biographical museum focusing on his life, with very little on his work. We wanted to create a new experience that took the author seriously as the fantastical storyteller and artistic genius he was.
What is the visitor experience like?
Eithne Owens: The idea was less a museum about fairy tales and more an immersive experience that happens to be set in a museum. I was very interested in creating lots of different levels and surprising visitors.
We use ramps, windows and wild and different things placed in unexpected areas to get that sense of surprise. There’s a layer of responsiveness – it’s very much about where you choose to go. The more time you spend in the space the more layers are revealed. We really tried to make it as childlike as we possibly could.
How does the museum represent the man and his work?
SJS: We often say that all the objects in the display cases are original objects from Andersen’s life, but there the similarity with a traditional museum stops. The new house not only speaks of him, but also speaks as him. An audioguide replaces traditional museum texts.
However, this is not a normal audioguide. Instead of a monologue with one interpretation, there are several voices that open up the story of the writer, just as he did in the tales he wrote.
What different environments are incorporated?
SJS: The house, the exhibition inside designed by Event and the wonderful garden outside, are all interwoven. The visitor is on a journey through an organic architecture that changes all the time, where you never know what to expect.
Installations and pieces of art, sensuous illustrations and animations, music and light, are all used to produce a fantastical universe and create unique meetings between each visitor and the exhibition.
What is your favourite part?
EO: When you’re in the garden, which is the entry point for visitors, there’s a sky pool that just looks like a beautiful pool of water. But, when you’re in the fairy-tale universe, it becomes a space where the Little Mermaid is looking up into the world, singing her song and longing to be in the world where people walk.
There are several opportunities like that where we played with the idea of the museum as this liminal space between our world and the world of fairy tales.
How does the museum contribute to Denmark’s wider cultural scene?
SJS: Hans Christian Andersen’s House is a museum unlike anything the country has seen before. It is a flagship example of modern museum interpretation and architecture. It challenges the premises of a traditional museum and offers a new framework for how to communicate.
The museum puts the individual in focus and allows the visitor to explore and examine the works and world of Andersen on their own terms. We hope that this approach can inspire other museums and cultural institutions.
Pippa Kelly is a freelance writer