Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Maritime Museum of Denmark

The Maritime Museum of Denmark by Bjarke Ingels Group

Exhibition space buried underground and wrapping around a dry dock, a bridge leading you to Hamlet's castle housing an auditorium underneath and granite seating looping round a new public space, tapping out a message in morse code: I wasn't long in Denmark before I made a trip to the Maritime Museum of Denmark in Helsingør, and from first sight I was hooked. Opened in late 2013, the competition to design M/S Museet for Søfart, as it's known here, was won by Bjarke Ingels Group with a clever approach to a very restrictive brief. The museum was to be housed in a 60 year-old dry dock sandwiched between Helsingør's new cultural centre and Kronborg Castle, a UNESCO heritage site most famous for being the setting for Shakespeare's Hamlet. The museum would need to make an impression and create its own presence... without disrupting anyone's view of Kronborg. BIG achieved this by putting the museum not in the dry dock but buried on either side of it, using the dock itself as a public space intersected by three bridges: one that leads you to the castle (containing the museum's auditorium) and two that zigzag towards the museum's entrance. The design of the museum is incredibly impressive in that it successfully hides and reveals the museum simultaneously, while carving out a unique urban space in the process.

The Maritime Museum of Denmark by Bjarke Ingels Group

Helsingør's Kronborg Castle and the Maritime Museum of Denmark by Bjarke Ingels Group

Inside, the museum continues to impress. The Maritime Museum of Denmark aims to present Denmark's history as a leading maritime nation while also elucidating the cultural significance and social history of sailing. It does so through a series of super interesting themed exhibitions containing artifacts, films, audio clips and more. You are lead through the gently sloping gallery spaces, travelling through two stories of galleries on two sides of the dock without having to exit one side of the building to enter the other, and without having to climb steps or find a lift until the very end of your visit. The experience gives you a broad introduction into the myriad ways sailing has been depicted in the arts, how life on board a ship was in the past, how life was for those left behind by a sailor, insight into the massive industry of shipping today and so much more. Interactive exhibits include activities to learn how to locate a ship on the globe using old fashioned tools or giving yourself a (non-permanent, don't worry) sailor's tattoo in the museum's tattoo parlour. There is a lot to see when you visit, as well as a nice-looking cafe and a well-stocked gift shop.

Shipping today at the Maritime Museum of Denmark by Bjarke Ingels Group

The impact of sailing on art and culture at the Maritime Museum of Denmark by Bjarke Ingels Group

One thing I do wonder about though is what I will see if/when I visit again. While I could easily wander through the exhibitions I have already seen and find new artifacts to look at or details to consider, it is unclear how long the exhibitions I saw will be in place or what new exhibitions I might expect in the future. A browse through their website - at least at the moment - brings up a very sparse events programme, leading me to wonder how much it can offer the repeat visitor. What then does the museum offer the people of Helsingør and its surrounds other than one, maybe two visits? I will have to keep an eagle eye on the website to find out...

Projections of life at sea at the Maritime Museum of Denmark by Bjarke Ingels Group

A quote from HC Andersen's The Little Mermaid at the Maritime Museum of Denmark by Bjarke Ingels Group

That said, I would be very happy to visit the museum again, even as it is. Each exhibition space is fascinating, striking a fine balance between individual atmosphere and a cohesive experience throughout the building (one of the details it deploys throughout the building is quotes - in Danish and English - that relate to sailing and the sea, such as the HC Andersen quote above). And while the building itself is remarkable, it never encroaches on the museum experience - you spend your visit not looking at the building itself, but at its contents. For a starchitect-designed building, it's just the right amount of reserved, stepping back to let the exhibitions and collection do the wowing. I've long admired Bjarke Ingels' work from afar, and was so happy (and relieved) that his work stood up to the hype when experienced directly. You might not think Helsingør is a place to make the journey to if you visit Denmark, and you might not think a maritime museum is an interesting place in which to spend a few hours (before visiting I certainly didn't), but if you find yourself in the area, I guarantee you will be very pleasantly surprised.

The auditorium at the Maritime Museum of Denmark by Bjarke Ingels Group

Concrete steps mimicking waves at the Maritime Museum of Denmark by Bjarke Ingels Group