By Camille BAS-WOHLERT
ODENSE (AFP) — Denmark is honoring its most famous writer, Hans Christian Andersen, with a revamped museum that aims to immerse visitors in the fantasy worlds he created.
Visitors have expressed delight with the new museum, which reopened in the summer and saw renovation work completed this month before it was shut as part of Denmark’s efforts to fight a Covid resurgence.
From “The Little Mermaid” to “The Snow Queen”, Andersen’s works — which the author called his “children” — have inspired countless Disney films, ballets, songs and books.
The old Hans Christian Andersen museum in the writer’s hometown of Odense in central Denmark was a “traditional biographical museum” filled with “a lot of artifacts and text”, said Lone Weidemann, marketing coordinator for Odense museums.
But visitors “were looking for his fairytales, because that’s what they know”.
In a magical transformation that any fairy godmother would be proud of, city authorities have overseen a seven-year renovation of the museum into a sprawling complex above and below the cobbled streets of Odense’s old town.
After entering the redesigned museum, visitors move through the modest cottage where Andersen spent his childhood in the early 1800s, before being swept into a vast underground space devoted to his stories — filled with animations, interactive exhibits and music.
The museum “takes you to a complete other world”, said Ara Halici, a tourist from the Netherlands who made the trip to Odense especially for the museum.
“How fantastic it is to be taken away from your daily struggles in life,” he said.
Having arrived just days before Denmark shut down cultural venues to fight a resurgent coronavirus pandemic, his story at least had a happy ending.
‘Binds the senses’
Andersen’s life story is woven through the exhibits, which chart his humble beginnings as the child of an illiterate washerwoman and an impoverished shoemaker.
Born in 1805 and losing his father aged 11, Andersen left Odense three years later and headed for the capital, Copenhagen, where he dreamed of becoming an actor.
By the time of his death in 1875, Andersen had produced 158 fairytales and 800 poems, enjoying success in later life thanks to the popularity of tales including “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Thumbelina”.
Artifacts still have their place in the new exhibition, including the writer’s inkwell and a champagne glass given to him by Jenny Lind, Swedish singer who turned down his marriage proposal.
“The rooms, together with the architecture, the sound and music — it’s a whole experience,” said Danish teacher Jonna Vind, who was there with a group of her students.
“It binds together all the senses.”
‘A larger universe’
The new museum designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma — the man behind Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium — opened in the summer but work was only completed in early December.
From above, its circular structures and winding outdoor gardens resemble four green buttons supported on wooden stilts.
With two-thirds of the exhibition space below ground, the architect was inspired by “The Tinderbox”, Andersen’s story in which a hollow tree is a gateway to an underground world.
“The idea behind the architectural design is similar to Andersen’s method, where a small world suddenly transforms into a larger universe,” Kuma said.
The museum’s metamorphosis began in the early 2010s after Odense authorities drew up a plan to keep cars out of the center of the city of 205,000 inhabitants.
Work began in 2014 after the closure of a major road that left the space available for the new complex.
The old museum, which stood since 1930 in the house where Andersen was born, closed at the end of 2017.
Since the reopening, 40,000 people have passed through its doors. But the new Covid safety measures introduced in December meant it had to close once again, and the numbers had in any case been hit badly by the drop-off in foreign tourists.
The previous Hans Christian Andersen museum pulled in 100,000 visitors a year, the vast majority of them from abroad including 20,000 from China, where Andersen is very popular.