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Stunning new museum brings Hans Christian Andersen’s stories to life

The H.C. Andersen House uses the author’s playful storytelling style as a lens to view his life and work.

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To design a new museum about Hans Christian Andersen, known for fairy tales like The Little Mermaid and The Emperor’s New Clothes, a certain amount of make-believe was required.

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Opening today in the Danish city of Odense, where Andersen was born in 1805, the new H.C. Andersen House uses Andersen’s playful storytelling style as a lens to view his life and work. With immersive exhibits that bring inanimate objects to life, a heavy dose of whimsy, and a fairy tale-like blurring of reality, the museum is less a historical overview than a trip inside Andersen’s mind.

[Rendering: Kengo Kuma & Associates/Cornelius+Vöge/Masu planning/mir.no]
Designed by Tokyo-based architects Kengo Kuma and Associates, with exhibition design by London-based Event Communications, the $62 million museum features a series of galleries in oval-shaped rooms. They interpret Andersen’s life and some of his many fairy tales through specially commissioned new works from a dozen artists, including illustrators, a composer, and a sculptor. With most of the museum’s spaces below ground, the buildings are accessed through a large garden that gradually draws visitors down a meandering ramp into the exhibition spaces. One is a sunken bowl covered in water-topped glass, giving visitors below the experience of living underwater, like the Little Mermaid. Instead of a straightforward biography, the museum tries to create an all-encompassing experience that blends the story of Andersen’s life with the fanciful stories he wrote.

[Rendering: Kengo Kuma & Associates/Cornelius+Vöge/Masu planning]
“This was an opportunity to make something that is more in the vein of how Andersen tells his fairy tales. Classical museums are all about delivering truth to the visitors, saying ‘this is how it happened.’ But Andersen’s fairy tales are the complete opposite,” says Henrik Lübker, the museum’s creative director.

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One example is The Princess and the Pea, a tale about a princess whose claim of royalty is tested by her ability to sense the discomfort of a pea hidden beneath 20 mattresses. Andersen ends the story by writing “There, that is a true story.”

“He leaves it up to the reader to figure out whether he means a true story or a true story,” Lübker says. “He pulls the rug out from underneath the authenticity of his own tales to create this place between fact and fiction.”

[Photo: Laerke Beck Johansen/H.C. Andersen’s House]
The 60,000-square-foot museum aims to create a similarly ambiguous space. Lübker says the museum team started first with the exhibition design, focusing on how it could provide a historical record of a world-famous author as well as a physical manifestation of the imaginative worlds he created. Skewed perception and malleable facts became major themes, largely because Andersen himself played so loose with what qualified as truth. “We have three and a half autobiographies by him and they’re not the same. At different point in life he presented himself in different manners because he wanted people to see him in different ways,” Lübker says. “Authors, often they can’t be trusted. Especially fairy tale authors, because they’re making stuff up. So there’s no true version of Andersen.”

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The varying ways Andersen presented himself mirrored the multiple vantage points evident in his stories, which sometimes offer contradicting views of what is happening. Lübker says his stories often focused on the relationships between characters and their perceptions of each other rather than deep psychological portraits from one all-knowing narrator. That ended up guiding the development of the exhibitions. Visitors to the museum don headphones that play dialog from Andersen, voices of characters from his stories, and even personified objects in the galleries. Precise location-sensing technology allows different sounds and dialog to play depending on how a visitor moves through the space.

[Photo: Laerke Beck Johansen/H.C. Andersen’s House]
“Andersen is trying to convince you of how the fairy tale of his life really was, and all of the objects have different opinions because they see it from their own point of view,” Lübker says. “The sounds and the architectural space becomes one.”

In 2016, Kengo Kuma and Associates won an international architecture competition to translate this truth-bending experience into physical form. “We were very keen from the museum standpoint to say that this should be a project that has Andersen’s way of thinking in the architecture,” Lübker says. “Is this a closed-off world or is it a transparent world? Is it something that privileges the line or does it privilege the curve? The curve hides things while the line gives an overview of things. So we started by asking these really basic spatial questions.”

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[Photo: Laerke Beck Johansen/H.C. Andersen’s House]
That evolved into a set of curving buildings, psychedelic galleries, and dreamy garden spaces that try to bring visitors inside the worlds Andersen imagined in his fairy tales. Lübker points to a ramp that makes a transition from the buildings to the gardens. “It’s that sense of in-between. Being in process, being on a journey like the Little Mermaid or the Ugly Duckling that’s trying to find a home,” he says. “It’s about not having any 90-degree angles. Everything has a sense of continuous movement.”

Even the gardens themselves tell different stories. One is a dark, almost haunted space, while another is bright and flowery. Another outdoor space has a labyrinth with no center. Each, Lübker says, is meant to represent different aspects of Andersen’s stories, but also the different ways real life can sometimes feel scary or wonderful or weird.

“You’re constantly meeting different expressions of Andersen’s fairy tales in this garden space,” Lübker says. “So it’s really about trying to create an experience where the architecture and the landscape and the exhibitions constantly reveal new ideas of the fairy tales, of Andersen’s world, of your own world.”