The new MOMU: meeting the family at Denmark’s flagship Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography
I visited the new Moesgaard Museum in January 2015 on a grey and rainy day, and five hours later I left empowered with an unexpected feeling of optimism at human potential, reacquainted with what Larkin (1974: 19) called “the million-petalled flower of being here”, and not least, conscious again of the privilege of being an archaeologist, lucky enough to spend my professional life doing something so marvellous. Is the museum really that good? Yes.
Moesgård is an eighteenth-century manorial complex in open countryside a few kilometres south of Aarhus, the main city of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. Since the 1950s, this has been the home of Aarhus University’s departments devoted to the human past, and also home to Moesgård Museum, an independent body that has always been closely integrated with teaching and research. The combined institution has long occupied a leading position in Danish archaeology, with an international reputation (as celebrated in a fiftieth anniversary Festschrift to the institution; Høiris et al. 1999) and counting Antiquity’s late editor, Glyn Daniel, among its closest friends. In recent years, the university has reorganised its departments into new groupings with new names, but the disciplinary focus remains clear at Moesgård. Extensive fundraising has also enabled long-laid plans for a revitalised museum to be realised (Figure 1). After a period of closure, Moesgaard Museum reopened its doors to the public in October 2014 situated in an exciting new building with a new acronym—MOMU—and even a new spelling (the citizens of Aa/Århus have argued politely for years about their city’s name, and the same dilemma extends to Moesgård/gaard).
The new museum has been constructed in what were previously green fields, 200m or so from the manor house complex that housed its predecessor. Designed by Henning Larsen Architects, the scope is impressive and the statement a bold one: a pale rectangle built into the side of a hill, but following (rather than opposing) its contours. The angled, turf-covered roof extends from the ground on one side to the three-storey ridgeline on the other, and visitors are encouraged to walk up it to witness the spectacular sea views at the top (Figure 2). For such a dramatic building, it blends remarkably well into the landscape, a pleasing counterpoint to the manor in the valley below.
The visitor enters a vast open space, off-white surfaces reflecting the light from the full-wall windows, and expanses of pale Scandinavian wood everywhere. Mostly unoccupied, the ground floor houses the shop and an excellent restaurant, with a further feature in the as-yet unfinished gallery for special exhibitions; this will open in spring 2015 with a major Terracotta Warriors show.
At the centre is the grand staircase, bisecting the building with four vertigo-inducing flights of soft stone (absent of any relieving spiral or curve) and taking visitors along the hill slope, either down to the Danish prehistory displays or up to ethnography (there are also accessible lifts, of course). In addition to offering a means of communication and a place to sit, it is, unusually, this staircase that also provides the visitor’s first encounter with the primary themes of the museum: what it means to be human, the variety and simultaneous connectedness of cultural expression, and the relationship between the living and the dead.
It does this through the installation of ‘the Family’: seven life-size and very realistic mannequins of early hominins from Lucy to the Flores hobbit, made by the Dutch Kennis twins, stand at intervals on the steps (Figure 3). The apparently empty foyer is effectively an arena for the contemplation of this human story, and, on the railing surrounding the stairwell, special viewers reveal each of the hominins embedded in startling 3D-filmed recreations of their original habitats, before fading slowly back into their motionless positions in the museum. In a touch that proved to be typical of the museum, each of the mannequins is accessible and visitors engage with all of them as they pass up or down, which on my visit could be seen to generate a constant stream of selfies.
Standing sentinel by the doors, the Mesolithic woman from Koelbjerg introduces the prehistoric galleries. Inside, the exhibitions are divided into three sections, fanning out radially from an entrance hall. The displays are broadly grouped as Bronze Age, Iron Age and Viking Age, with Stone Age and medieval galleries scheduled to fill in the currently empty sides of the arc in 2016. So, how are they? In the manner of a film review that endeavours to avoid spoilers, I find myself in the odd position of not wanting to say too much that will detract from the visitor’s experience of seeing these displays for the first time. In any case, the sheer scale of the museum is prohibitive to description, so I will focus on impressions.
The apparently traditional Three Age approach is not borne out once inside, as the actual displays are strongly thematic rather than chronological. It is immediately striking how large a place spirituality and belief have taken in the Bronze and Iron Age presentations, treated throughout as a driving force of life, inseparable from everyday existence, and not as ‘Chapter 4: Religion’, as is the case in so many archaeological syntheses. Both galleries exist on two levels, the visitor passing between them repeatedly as the narrative moves from our world to that of the gods, chthonic powers beneath the bogs and waterways. The museum is quite a controlled experience, with clear directions of movement marked out and a conscious effort to create a specific atmosphere. Unusually, the exhibition has a soundtrack—Ligeti, I think, or something similar—and the visitor is also surrounded by voices. Many of the displays talk, as ancient people whisper their interpreted stories with accompanying films, but there are equally many, many screens where Danish archaeologists and other scholars wait patiently to deliver mini-lectures on questions chosen from an on-screen menu. The effect is personal, direct, sometimes amusing and very well done indeed.
Although I found the focus on religion appealing given my research interests, I was surprised to see such an emphasis on ritual interpretations presented as unqualified fact. This first becomes apparent when the Bronze Age population are introduced as ‘people of the sun’, and the cosmology identified by Flemming Kaul and others is related as unequivocal reality. The same theme extends through burial practices and the wetland sacrifices on into the late Iron Age.
What saves it is the manner of the telling, which is stunning. Without wanting to give too much away, visitors encounter an immersive theatre of the night sky set against solar motifs and the looming image of the burial mound; this culminates in the log coffins of the Borum Eshøj grave actually situated inside a full-size barrow, lit by a subterranean sun (Figure 4). Here, the contemplative music really works; one stands alone with the dead in an earthen chamber and a sense of a genuine resting place with a dignity and respect far, far beyond what is common. Long after leaving, I found myself thinking of the Borum people down there in the dark, in what is quite truly a new grave, in the silence of the museum’s night-time closure.
Much of the museum is in semi-darkness, and throughout the displays there is a concern for the tactile, the texture of surfaces and an experience for all the senses. As the displays address climate change, steel rain falls from the roof and a breeze is felt on the skin. On heading deeper into the Bronze Age and its relationship with the wetlands, the floor actually becomes spongy and resistant like the bog. Set around the burial of the Grauballe man, sunk deep within the marsh in another extraordinary and moving space (repeated from the former museum), we see the things people placed into the water, and ultimately we ourselves descend through watery darkness, illuminated by glowing birch trees, and in so doing enter the Iron Age world and its own liminality (Figure 5). As one walks down, the sound changes again, footfalls ringing on iron steps.
The Illerup weapon sacrifice displays are unsurprisingly another highlight, with a long introduction via the invading army’s arrival in 205 AD and a tour of its camp on the nervous night before the battle. The fight itself is loud, dramatic and violent on a surround screen: afterwards, we follow the gathering of the spoils, and then go down again to the lake with an astonishing recreation of the sacrifices, all of it in the round (Figure 6). The finds themselves are superbly displayed in what is effectively a museum of their own, matched by a section on the recent finds of a slaughtered army at the Alken Enge site. Here, the excavator Mads Kähler Holst guides the viewer at length, full screen and life size with a running textual translation in English, with the actual artefacts spread around his virtual presence in the museum. Of course, it would be possible to see these galleries as androcentric and war fixated, but it is appropriate to the nature of this unique material and probably also to Iron Age preoccupations that implicated all of society. To put it another way, nobody complains that the museums devoted to the Wasa or the Mary Rose spend so much time talking about ships.
Not everything works—a sensory deprivation tour of the Gundestrup cauldron kept malfunctioning on my visit and mostly seemed to confuse people—but in general the technology holds up. One wonders how well it will age and if the museum is to function at all, that the displays will require seriously good technical support. Given the level of investment and imagination to date, my money would be on its long-term survival.
A halfway house in the prehistoric section divides the world of the bog sacrifices from the later Iron Age on the other side. Here, a lab-like room celebrates the work of the archaeologists who put it all there, and, as so often, I was struck by how truly cool what we do can be (with no apologies for an unprofessional comment).
The final section (so far) of the prehistory galleries is the Viking Age, with twin themes of travel and the developing urban centre of Aros—early medieval Aarhus. The visitor enters through a ship with seven passengers—more mannequins, this time of sleeping Vikings—on their way to their respective futures: a queen, a bishop, an adventurer, a merchant, an elderly woman, a child and his father. The displays are partly replicated from the former museum, but they still work well, although the main Viking gallery is a more traditional experience than the rest. The Aros section is appropriately crowded and bustling, before opening out into small rooms devoted to major destinations in the Viking world. Perhaps partly because I was tired by this point, partly because I am more familiar with the material, the Viking galleries did not quite have the impact of the preceding sections, although this may be an unfair judgement. Certainly, the artefact displays themselves were excellent. In addition, this was the only section of the museum with real displays aimed at children, rather than the occasional panel: dedicated areas to climb, play and draw, and a nifty computer simulation to steer a ship at sea.
The museum is an exhausting experience, requiring at least one coffee break and a rest or two, but the latter is catered for by three spaces along the facade set aside for that purpose: soundproof rooms separate from the galleries, furnished with comfy sofas and nothing else but views over the countryside.
The ethnography and anthropology galleries upstairs risk playing second fiddle to the magnificent prehistoric collections, but they link to them effectively by addressing ‘the life of the dead’ and by exploring contemporary death rituals in a cross-cultural perspective. At the top of the great staircase, outside the entrance, is another group of mannequins, but this time all of real, living people, introduced by comprehensive wall panels behind the figures. Paul Gurrumurruwuy, an Aboriginal Australian, Galina Ainatgual, a Chukchi, and Stephen Hawking are engaged in a lively conversation about the nature of reality, embodying the contemporary pluralism of the museum.
Much of the collection derives from Aarhus University’s field expeditions over the years. After a long gallery of dramatic masks (many of them from Papua New Guinea), come diverse sections on reburial after the Ugandan civil wars, Danish memorial customs and an Aboriginal Christmas. I liked the Day of the Dead gallery best: several rooms of Mexican celebration in fiery colours that were a tonic after the atmospheric twilight dominating the museum. To lively music, the visitor is invited to dance with two life-size animated skeletons that match one’s movements; I made two elderly ladies laugh by having a go and then they joined in. It was a good end to the day and a life-affirming journey to the past.
Northern Europe now has a dazzling new museum of prehistory and ethnography, combining its responsibilities as the regional archaeological repository with an original public face for its wider collections, presented in one of the most strikingly designed new-builds of recent decades. See it if you can.