When building the new H.C. Andersen’s House in Odense, Denmark, we were constantly confronted with one question: How do we recreate the sentiment and experience of his fairytales in a museum setting? The question was more than merely solving how to transform literature’s linearity into the exhibition format’s spatiality. It was also at a deeper level: museums are places of authority, exampling man’s dominance over time and place, whereas the fairytales of Andersen challenge the very same form of authority and throw the readers into a world filled with different perspectives – a world where even things are given a sort of agency and argue for their point of view.
To succeed, we knew we had to use every technological trick available and employ it in a certain way to reflect the world of Andersen truly. Because most often, it seems that technology in new museums is used to create a spectacle – to instil a sense of awe over the technological feat in the visitor and give them an experience that surpasses what they have tried elsewhere. It becomes techno-magic rather than a tool for deeper storytelling.
Relations rather than “the big show”
Our aim was slightly different because Andersen’s stories are rarely spectacles – they are quirky, intimate, and downplayed, finding drama, poetry, and magic in the mundane or the well-known. Furthermore, Hans Christian Andersen often tells stories about how you cannot trust your eyes. Stories that question appearances and show that there might be beauty where we expect none – if only we look at things the right way or see them in a particular light.
Instead of creating “the big show”, we aimed for an experience that breathed life into the world around the visitor and created relations between visitors and the world of Andersen. In this way, technology was not something in itself but a part of the combined toolbox – digital and analogue working together to create a sense of being in a world which at the same time was both foreign and familiar – the world of Andersen and his fairytales.
Abandoning the CGI race
One of the main challenges was how to represent the world of fairytales. His literary universe has not been fixed into iconography like the world of Harry Potter or Pippi Longstockings or Moomins, and the literature does not contain overly detailed descriptions either. Instead, he has evoked different imagery across cultures and in the minds of all his readers. At the same time, we wanted to avoid the CGI race because it would point to the technological feat rather than the fairytales and look dated very quickly. Instead, we chose a style of representation much more inspired by theatre settings, collages like the ones Andersen made himself, and stop-motion animation.
A world of gaps
Part of this was also because we wanted to represent using what Hans-Thies Lehmann in “Postdramatic Theatre” has called “low-density signs”. Signs with less complete information than, for example, a photograph or a hyperrealistic computer-generated image. The idea is that literature and the theatre work with these low-density signs to create forms of representation that require the spectator or reader to use their fantasy to complete the image. For example, we did this when we brought Andersen to life based on archival material. Instead of hiding all the gaps in the collection, they are part of the communication, demonstrating how our representation of Andersen is literally pieced together.
A world of here and now
It was also essential for us to stage Andersen’s world as an immersive experience of the here and now of the museum visit. Far too often, the museum experience points to another place and another time rather than making the place and time come alive. Consequently, we emphasized audio over text, dialogue over narration, and digitally projected overlays rather than screens. An example of this is in the way we depicted Andersen’s manor house stays. Instead of a textual-based description of his life at the manor houses, we build miniature manor houses where you, as a visitor, could peek in through the windows and see what he did.
Using an advanced audio system capable of tracking the movement of the visitors, we made the exhibition objects come alive. Walk up to a showcase, and you will hear them talk about their part of the story of Andersen, often disagreeing with the other objects and Andersen’s depiction of the story because each sees themselves as the hero of the story – just like in the fairytales. In the photo above, visitors can walk up to his travelling gear and souvenirs from all his travels – and hear the objects argue about who is the most important of them all.
Such a world of many voices and opinions shatters the idea of one grand narrative. The exhibition instead encourages the visitor to explore and piece their opinion together of the man and poet Hans Christian Andersen and his fairytales by listening to the stories of others. Besides this being a central element in Andersen’s fairytales, we also created the world this way to wrestle his universe free of the historical and of the curatorial: His world is all about the relation between his work and the reader – or in this case between his work and the visitor. Because it is a world filled with ambiguity, where everyone must determine the meaning for themselves, it is not about either historical truth or the truth of the learned scholar/curator.
The performative Encounter
What is at play at the museum is, to a large extent, a redistribution of power from the institution to the visitors, but mainly to the actual world of Andersen. We wanted to facilitate ways for his fairytales and stories to create an impact on the visitors. Therefore, we also tried as much as possible to stage meetings between visitors and parts of Andersen’s world as performative encounters: Meetings where the scene is not passively there to be taken in by the visitor, but at the same time, both a saying and doing. An example of this is when we accompany a heather Andersen plucked from the Jutland moor with the beautiful sound of a girl choir singing Andersen’s song lamenting how the heather will disappear from the moor in the name of progress and the coming of modern agriculture – and at the same time turning the light down in the showcase, making it an actual disappearance rather than a story of it. Or it is in the space of The Little Mermaid, where you can look up at the sky through a glass ceiling with a small pool of water above it – put in the place of the mermaid, with the haunting siren song full of longing in your ears, you can gaze up at the sky and perhaps see clouds passing by and maybe, just maybe, the story of the mermaid becomes a repository for the sense of longing inside of yourself.