Methodology. Travel Guide. I am writing a book about a story-teller. Walter Christmas, the subject of my research, was not only the author of the famous Danish Peder-Most novels. He was also someone who told tales – to himself and about himself – throughout his adventurous life. Stuck with few archival resources helping to separate fact from fiction, I am challenged to figure out the person(a) of Walter Christmas from his writings – without relying too much on his own voice. In this predicament, it seems wise to take a look at how others have recently or generally approached the methodological conundrum of telling the tale of the story-teller.
Part one of this series deals with the museal representation of the fairytale life and world of Denmark’s greatest artist, H.C. Andersen, as it is presented in the brand-new H.C. Andersen’s House in Odense.
Experiencing Facets – Hans Christian Andersen’s House in Odense
H.C. Andersen’s House was a major building project which blocked the crossers of this idyllic hometown’s alleyways and streets for several years. In August 2021, the building was softly opened to visitors, among them myself. While the magic gardens were still in the process of being grown and while the magic media installations were still in the process of being tested, you could already grasp an idea of what this place was meant to be all about: Experience.
H. C. Andersen’s House is a museum that suits the senses of the post-modern museum visitor, who wants to know but not read much. Expecting nothing more than the everyday cultural references of the fairytale-reading child, it literally takes people on a journey into Andersen’s life and works. Visitors are gently guided down a softly spiraling ramp leading them to 6 separate, thematic rooms and culminating in a major hall featuring artistic interpretations of Andersen’s 12 best-known fairytales. Texts are kept to an absolute minimum. Instead, the atmospheric rooms and installations invite you to experience themes and facets from Andersen’s life, works and reception history. In the post-Covid future, headsets will tell the stories of this place in an Andersen-like fashion – that is: the author, the guide and the objects will be talking to you.
This twist of varying voices that re-create, deconstruct and re-appropriate the tale(s) of the story-teller runs through the entire museum. In the first room already (entitled “Duckling”), what we know about Andersen’s childhood in Odense is contrasted with the colourful and imaginative ways in which the author himself told his own story over and over again. The second room (“Migratory bird”) exhibits Andersen’s travel gear and souvenirs arguing over who is the most important. The installation called “Butterfly” contrasts Andersen’s claims and stories with the actual romantic relationships of his life, with letters and artefacts of passion speaking for themselves.
My favourite part was the room of “Mirrors”. Here, sculptural representations of the author are grouped with showcases that provide peepholes into different aspects of Andersen’s self-perception and self-fashioning, his public perception and afterlife: Letters written by contemporaries who loved or despised him, photos of the posing world star, locks of hair that he sent to his fans, or tickets for his funeral in 1875.
By covering the showcases with mirrors that inevitably force you to look at yourself while peeping in, the museum curators have managed to make the process of identity formation and the fashioning of a public persona even more accessible.
At the end of this post-modern tour de force, visitors are released to experience Andersen’s fantasy world through 12 magical artists’ takes on some of the best-loved fairytales of all times. Experience is mixed with interactive treats. Relax on stone cushions in the deep of the Little Mermaid’s sea, make the Nightingale sing by turning a crank, or become part of Clumsy Hans by stepping into a mirror…
The walls on the way back up to the museum shop and the yet unfinished gardens are covered by quotes and video installations showing contemporary views of the ancient author.
A collage of Voices
What I can take with me from this post-modern, artistic representation of Denmark’s favourite story-teller is the tasteful collage of voices. Rather than blending out the author completely, as today’s literary scholars often would, H.C. Andersen is still allowed to have his own say. Yet, his voice is masterfully contrasted with countless other voices. And there is an intimate connection with the inner voice of the museum visitor, building on the unparalleled, lingering presence of fairytales in our imaginative world. Now that’s something you can remember when writing a book about an adventure author.
Until the end of September 2021, you can visit H.C. Andersen’s House at a half-price rate, since parts of the museum and gardens are not finished yet. The entry ticket also gives you free access to Andersen’s Childhood Home as well as the Møntergården Museum – where grown-ups and children can experience life as it was in Andersen’s times. The more old-fashioned Andersen Museum is closing down this summer.
What other visitors of the House have written:
Sueddeutsche Zeitung (German)
If you like cinematic renditions of the storyteller, try out the Danish movie “Young Andersen” (“Unge Andersen”, 2005, available on Netflix), which tells us how Andersen came to writing fairytales.