Hans Christian Andersen and His Museum – 100 Years of Promoting an Author

This article was published in the Spanish periodical 'Nerter', No. 12 2008, which bears the title 'Museos Literarios Internacionale'.


by Senior Curator Ejnar Stig Askgaard and Curator Ane Grum-Schwensen

There is hardly any doubt that changes in the political landscape leave marks on the understanding of the past. The past is understood by the present interpretation, and the cultural heritage is reproduced in new versions of continued interpretation. What may at first sight appear as new and modern by and by reveals itself as poor and limiting. Museums, trying to present and mediate the cultural heritage, rarely are able to live up to the speedy retelling and interpretation. Exhibitions are expensive and it is hard to envisage ever changing and freshly interpreting ways of exhibiting the permanent collections. Consequently, the museums are permanently in peril of being old fashioned and outdated – the museums being institutions and thus forming the cornerstones of a constantly moving society with media setting the agenda and dominating the ideas of our culture and the past.

This year is the 100th anniversary for the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, making it one of Europe’s oldest literary museums. In this period the museum has changed its physical appearance and permanent exhibitions four times, and each of the manifestations of these exhibitions has their own individual background and history. This article aims at giving an account of the basic views presented by the museum during those 100 years.

The Establishing of the Hans Christian Andersen Museum 1908.

In 1905, when celebrating Hans Christian Andersen’s 100th anniversary, one of the houses in Odense – the poet’s native town – drew special attention: The house considered to be the Andersen’s birth place. When this house was revealed in 1868 as the poet’s birth place, Andersen himself was not at all pleased at this piece of news. The old poet told the newspapers that he was not at all certain of the place where he was born. He said that it might have been in that area, but his parents had never pointed out the birth place itself for him. Hans Christian Andersen did not like the attachment to this humble abode in the middle of Odense’s slum where 30% of all children were illegitimate. To a young friend, the poet angrily expressed: “I was not born in such a hovel!”

In 1905 the house was still placed in the middle of the slum, and as it was decided to erect a museum for the fellow-townsman, the birth place was considered to be the best setting of it. But in fact this was not the only interesting place for a museum in the city. Also in Odense, but in a finer area with far less social problems, the poet’s childhood home was situated. Here Hans Christian Andersen had lived the majority of his boyhood before he left his native town. Although the childhood home was historically far more interesting and had a much more important story to tell than the birth place, in 1905 the childhood home was not nearly as attractive as the birth place.

Photograph taken at the opening of The Hans Christian Andersen Museum, April 2nd 1908. Copyright The Hans Christian Andersen Museum/Odense City Museums.

It was considered a plus that this house, this hovel was situated in the poor slum – thus forming an effective setting of the poet’s world fame. The intention was that the museum should give an impression of the poet’s character and make this possible by an illustration of his “wonderful life” from poverty to world fame with the belonging “exquisite circle of friends”. In other words, the intention was to tell the story of the poor child who hard-working and talented had risen from the bottom of society and won fame, honour and room at the top of society. Hans Christian Andersen thus formed a brilliant example of an admirable social mobility, the poor exterior of the museum contrasted with the rich interior – the poet was an example of the “People’s son” and a meritocratic role model in a society which had introduced parliamentarianism only a few years earlier, in 1901.

Heading at the poet’s 125th anniversary in 1930.

In the years after the inauguration of the museum in 1908, the devotion for the poet grew to a level nearly grotesque. “The fairy tales carry Denmark’s and the poet’s name still further out [into the big world]”, were the bombastical words in a description of the museum from 1926. A national string seems to have been struck in the elevation of Andersen into a representative of the State, the mass and the folk art [folklore].
Characteristic of that period, the rhetorical question from the above description sounds: “Did not Andersen then from a time long past give us traits from the people’s character, beliefs, thoughts and literal speech in his own characteristic way? Consequently, the great fairy tale writer must also be called a zealous preserver of the memories of his native home and through his characteristic poetry put many a memory of our peasant culture in print”.
In the newspapers, the many tourists on pilgrim tours to the museum are described, and we hear how at the foot of the poet’s statue, they leave votive offerings, i.e. visit cards and their national flags. In 1924, a Scottish tourist exclaimed, “All the treasures of a royal family are poor in comparison with his [Hans Christian Andersen’s] whom all children sing praises,” and the same year, a Japanese tourist declared during a visit to the museum, that this was the greatest day in his life.

Picture to the left: Hero. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum 1932; the domed hall is visible in the background. Copyright Odense City Museums.

Picture to the right: “The Boy Seizing the Eagle’s Flight”. In the background Museums Director Chr. M.K. Petersen with a guest. Copyright Odense City Museums.

With an attendance of 7,000 visitors a year at the end of the 1920’ies, and with a continued growing collection of Anderseniana, it was gradually clear to everyone, that the museum was too small and was unable to give room for the new acquisitions that ought to be exhibited. Neither could it be ignored that the birth place and the neighbouring houses – indeed the whole area could be described as highly inflammable. It was evident that something had to be done in view of the fact that the 125th anniversary was approaching, and plans were made to give a proper celebration.
Consequently it was decided to mark the jubilee for times to come by the erection of a new museum for the poet. This new museum raised next door to the birth place was a very grandiose building in Greek-Roman exterior aimed at looking like one of the distinguished buildings from the beginning of the 18th century, but it contrasted sharply to the neighbouring low and poor dwelling houses. The grandiose temple was referred to as The Memorial Hall, and also acted as such. In the centre of the new building was the still existing domed hall: it’s only function was to let the visitors perform their devotion. From this church-like room, the visitor could enter a Greek atrium – a nature’s church – with a Roman style bronze sculpture, “The Boy Seizing the Eagle’s Flight”.

Postcard of the Hans Christian Andersen Museum (1941). Copyright The Hans Christian Andersen Museum

The new museum building – The Memorial Hall – expressed a cult of Hans Christian Andersen, a hero cult. In 1932, the dome hall was decorated with frescos, the last of them picturing the monumental culmination: Hans Christian Andersen receiving the people’s homage at the honorary citizen festivity in Odense, 1867. The artist, Niels Larsen Stevns, for the painting of this scene had been inspired by contemporary paper cuttings showing mass processions – including pictures of crowds saluting the Danish king and Hitler in Berlin.

(See http://www.museum.odense.dk/andersen/rundtur/index.aspx?l=0&lang=uk)

The Memorial Hall functioned as a mausoleum in homage and honour of the genius of the nation, Hans Christian Andersen.

Towards New Times

After World War II the expression that the museum gave of Hans Christian Andersen changed. The museum still had the grandiose architectural space and monumental decorations but the attitude towards the Danish author was rearticulated. In the museum guide for 1957 the formulation is: ”Quite early on in his life, Hans Christian Andersen came to look upon the course of his life as something out of the ordinary, and it appears natural that his great autobiography was given the title The Story of My Life. He wished that his contemporaries and also later generations should be able to follow, in detail, the remarkable course of his life. This should be effected, not only through his autobiographical work, his diaries, his innumerable letters, but also through the comprehensive collection of articles of a more visible nature, which the poet had accumulated and kept during his lifetime, and which, in his will, he entrusted to the Collin family.”
In other words, the museum now based its activities on the assertion that it was actually the poet’s own wish that posterity should be able not only to study his authorship but also his personal papers and belongings. This odd allegation disarmed not only the past political use of the poet but also the meritocratic idea of the poet as an ideal or a hero. The disarmament was underlined by the focus of Hans Christian Andersen as the ambassador of innocence and children and by the fact that he was presented a universal character – a humanist.
On Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday, during the 1950’ies and 1960’ies the museum broadcast live on radio and TV (Eurovision). Popular Danish and foreign actors then sat at the poet’s writing desk and read the fairy tales aloud – to all of Europe. A large number of Andersen’s fairy tales were rewritten for ballet or acts and performed by children. And the museum obtained the status of a natural place of pilgrimage for those paying homage to charity, the child’s universe, and political humanism. Consequently the museum also obtained status of being standard feature for the state’s guests, such as civil rights campaigner, Josephine Baker, the astronaut Juri Gagarin, the superpower USSR’s Krustjev. The annual number of visitors was rising from 29,000 during the 1930’ies, increasing over the 40’ies to peak at 117,000 annually during the 50’ies and 60’ies.

”I cannot go home without having seen the Hans Christian Andersen Museum”, the world famous Juri Gagarin (1934-68) said during his visit in Denmark in September 1962. Copyright Stadsarkivet, Odense

Rebuilding the museum 1974-76

During the 1960’ies an extremely broad street was established across the western part of the area in which the Hans Christian Andersen Museum is situated. Consequently, central Odense was divided in two. At the same time it was decided to make a “preserving” slum clearance of the so called Hans Christian Andersen neighbourhood which surrounds the museum and consists of small dwellings from around 1800. The slum clearance was executed early in the 1970’ies, and was an expression of the romanticizing of the neighbourhood that took place in this period. The small houses which in Andersen’s childhood were part of Odense’s worst slum and had remained to be poor quarters were now modernized. Ironically, this had the effect that they became too expensive for the previous inhabitants who had to move to the suburbs whereas the upper middle classes moved in.

In continuation of the slum clearance The Hans Christian Andersen Museum was rebuild from 1974 to 1976. The monumental entrance and the temple-like buildings surrounding the domed hall were torn down and new buildings – adapted to fit the surrounding small houses in the former slum – were erected. The area of the museum was doubled while at the other hand the exterior expression became more modest. The new and in appearance much more humble buildings mirror both tendencies in contemporary architecture and in the perception of the poet. Whereas in the 30’ies, the idea of the hero Andersen’s genius underlining and promoting the sense of nationality was prevailing, in the 70’ies, however, as a result of the youth rebellion in 1968 the understanding of society’s influence on the individual was emphasized.

In the new museum buildings a new permanent exhibition was established – being strictly biographical and chronological, very educational and not imaginative. Although this new exhibition was probably more affected by the aesthetics of the period than by the political influences from the youth rebellion, it still mirrored the contemporary idea of disseminating: “Knowledge to and for the people.”

Objectivity and an aim at historic purity or neutrality was prevailing in this new exhibition, and also in the precise reconstruction of the poet’s study in his last stay in Nyhavn 18 – a reconstruction which is still a strong and central part of the museum presentation (see: /andersen/nyhavn/nyhavnuk.asp).  

The library – the poet’s oeuvre – had a more central and voluminous placing in the new buildings, and also the fate of the oeuvre (especially the fairy tales) in Andersen’s posterity was highlighted by book presentations and by examples of the comprehensive history of illustrations. Earlier on, only contemporary illustrations by Vilhelm Pedersen and Lorenz Frølich had been exhibited. Andersen’s own visual art, the paper cuts and the drawings got their own place in the new buildings as well. In other words the work’s impact and influence on us today was stressed – and even though the cult of Hans Christian Andersen as an individual has always been strong, a little less weight was now put on the personality cult. A so-called Souvenir guide from the museum in 1988 states: ”The Hans Christian Andersen Museum is a biographical museum as well as a museum of literature” (author’s italics), and it is also stressed that the museum includes ”a Hans Christian Andersen archive and a Hans Christian Andersen library.” During this period, the museum consequently changed its status from being solely an exhibition to also being a centre of information about the poet.

From the library in the rebuild museum, 1977. Copyright Odense City Museums.

Cultural tourism became very popular in this period and in the museum world, focus was put on tourists. Consequently a new, large shop for all the Hans Christian Andersen merchandise, the souvenir sale, and a Cafeteria with a machine for beverages and table and chairs to allow the guests to enjoy their packed lunch was installed. As a radically new invention – and a premonition of the Media Age to come – a video room was established. Here the tourists were able watch movies based on the poet’s fairy tales; new, contemporary interpretations of the poet’s oeuvre.

The Media Explosion of the 90’ies, Andersen’s Bicentenary, and New Horizons.

From then on, digital media would develop with great haste. During the 80’ies, PCs were widely distributed, and in 1994, the first Danish web site was presented on the internet. Consequently, and also aiming at the bicentenary in 2005, new ways of presenting the poet were elaborated during the 90’ies, both in the museum and in the digital medias that were popping up. With the easy access to information it became obvious to present the most possible of the enormous number of data on Hans Christian Andersen. On the basis of diaries, autobiographies, letters, and the oeuvre itself you can claim that compared to his contemporaries, Hans Christian Andersen is the most thoroughly documented author at all.

It is difficult to ascertain if it was the political agenda or the explosion in development of the possibilities of digital medias that were ruling the development of communication in this period – also due to the fact that it is difficult to analyse your own time. But it is a fact that the digitizing of the collections of the Hans Christian Andersen Museum began at the end of the 1990’ies, simultaneously with plans of rebuilding the museum and opening brand new permanent exhibitions. By presenting neutral data on the poet – open archives without promotion or mediators – you had the opportunity to give the audience the possibility of making their own interpretation of the past. That opportunity was in this case embraced – as a counter reaction to the large number of obstinate myths about the poet: He was a homosexual, a parasite, dyslectic, hypochondriac – and an illegitimate son of the later king Christian VIII.  The open archives allowed everyone to make up their own mind about these myths.

One of the first and gradually most cemented myths about Hans Christian Andersen is the theory about him being a royal son – first put in writing in 1987 by Jens Jørgensen. The theory may be seen as a reaction to the financial crisis during the 70’ies and 80’ies – and the generally dearly bought experience that though the social mobility for centuries had generally risen – it can also fall. Social inheritance had proven to be more difficult to break and furthermore social mobility could also be attached to human vanity and collapse:  It may have been a consequence of this that the urge arose to deny the meritocratic element in Andersen’s fate and instead install another explanation: the rather illogical that the poet’s status as an illegitimate royal son had caused both the person and the oeuvre to success with unusual privileges – and due to the immanent talent of the blue blood.

Royal visit to the museum celebrating Hans Christian Andersen’s bicentennial birthday, April 2 2005. Copyright Jørgen Hansen, Odense.

In 2002-04, the Hans Christian Andersen Museum opened rebuilds and new permanent exhibitions as part of the prelude to the bicentenary in 2005. The form of new exhibitions aimed at a neutral presentation of the poet’s life story and at the same time, it was avoided to decide upon the above mentioned myths – in an attempt of letting the public make up their own mind.

The new exhibitions present far more documents than before as our main purpose was to create accessibility – not only by respecting to the visitors’ possible physical and psychic dysfunctions but also by increasing accessibility and focus on the historic part of the subject. One might say that the new exhibition expressed the idea that the historic space – the historic context in which Hans Christian Andersen was situated – was now so remote from present time that it was necessary to include that past in the exhibition in order to allow the visitor to grasp Hans Christian Andersen’s life.

”The Age 1805-1875”, introduction room in the rebuild museum, 2003. Copyright Odense City Museums.

Since the millennium, neoconservative currents have characterized the political landscape in Denmark and have activated a debate on values and culture to the effect that the cultural institutions in Denmark has to an increasing extent subjugated their activities to the market mechanisms. The cultural institutions should be run like firms, the number of visitors became a criterion of success, and the presentation of the cultural inheritance was weighted according to how attractive it was. It was no longer allowed to be bored during a museum visit, and the museums had to subjugate their activities to the norms of the adventure- and entertainment industry.
On a small scale, this demand is fulfilled by the instalment of touch screens, audio guiding or other electronic devices, mainly appealing to the young. But this development raises the question if this is the right direction to head at. If you see an exhibition with only two elements, a bog body and a modern computer, the young audience will undoubtedly be attracted to the computer in stead of the bog body – the computer inviting to activity and being familiar – in contrast to the bog body representing the unknown. One should clearly bear the discussion in mind whether the most modern communication device is really necessary in that situation – whether a museum really has to install appealing electronic devices in the contact between the artefact and the visitor – or whether those electronic devices are more applicable for the museums when outside the walls.

From ”The Life”, the new biographical exhibition in The Hans Christian Andersen Museum, 2004. Copyright Odense City Museums.

In the Hans Christian Andersen Museum we have chosen not to focus on the electronic devices and only use them in the situations where they are really necessary. The electronic medias are being used to allow the visitor a virtual access to the artefacts that are not included in the exhibition. On the other hand we can see a great potential in using the electronic medias outside the museum. A digital presentation of all existing documents connected to Hans Christian Andersen allows the creation of a virtual space around the author and his oeuvre – using an extremely small-meshed infra structure. The author was very productive and an unusually diligent writer of letters and diaries and this allows us to follow the person from day to day during his whole adult life. By digitizing all these data in combination with the digitizing of the poet’s drawings, photos, paper cuts and artefacts it is possible to allow the visitor to move around in a huge virtual room. This task is a laborious one initiated by the museum – a task which we do not see as a means to compete with a real visit to the museum itself.
Hans Christian Andersen has always been part of mass culture – and on the internet you can within 0,2 seconds find some 2 million hits about the author. The museum presentation of the poet will of course also take place in this field but in a way where we see our own role as a kind of hidden hand which nearly without words and texts allows the user of the media to compare the poet’s documents, literary and private manuscripts, cuts, drawings, and artefacts from the collections – and see them in new surprising, spectacular and thought-provoking constellations. 



Odense City Museums
Overgade 48
DK-5000 Odense C
Tel +45 6551 4601
CVR: 39156040
EAN: 5790002433825


Get updated with news and offers (Only available in danish)
Sign Up