Copenhagen

National Museum of Denmark

Interior of the National Museum of Denmark
Interior of the National Museum of Denmark

The building housing the National Museum of Denmark seems to be simple, clean and understated. I say “seems to be” because I’ve seen it only in pictures. When I visited the museum the front of the building was obscured by scaffolding. Thus, I don’t have any first-hand experience to verify whether the pictures accurately reflect the building or if they understate or overstate its attractiveness.

If you’ve been to any museums that display artifacts, including, but not exclusively, antiquities, along with explanatory text about human development and culture you have a good sense of what you’ll find here. The difference is that a large part of the National Museum of Denmark focuses on human history and pre-history in the area that is now Denmark. There are also sections set aside for ethnology from around the world as well, as you might find in any museum of this type.

A mask in the ethnographic collection
A mask in the ethnographic collection

If you’re into that sort of thing, and I mildly am, you’ll like the National Museum of Denmark. It’s well laid out, the interpretive text (which is in both Danish and English) is informative, and some of the text, particularly in the pre-historic section, is thought-provoking. Then again, that thought-provocativeness might be simply because I’m rather empty-headed. There’s not a lot of clutter to block any new thoughts that might want to insert themselves in my brain.

How Do They Know

Here’s one of the thoughts that was provoked in me. Actually, I’ve had this thought elsewhere as well. It’s something that I’ve always wondered about museums of this sort, or rather about the artifact interpretations the museums provide. If an anthropologist—or whatever the appropriate scientific discipline is—is reading this perhaps he or she can enlighten me by leaving a comment below. (There are probably a great many things I’ve wondering about museums of this sort, but one in particular occupied my mind for part of the time I was in the National Museum of Denmark.)

Cool threads from a time gone by
Cool threads from a time gone by

Next to many of the artifacts in the pre-historic sections of the museum (and the ones within the historical times as well, but I understand those), the accompanying text said something like “this or that was used in ceremonies.” Or “this or that signalled the start of a new social and religious epoch.” Of course, they wouldn’t say “this or that.” They’d name the particular artifact, but you probably figured that out.

How do the people who wrote the text know this? The artifacts were from prehistoric times. Sometimes the text included the word “may,” “might,” or “probably, but not always. And sometimes the descriptions were written in quite definitive terms.

How do the anthropologists, or whomever, know that, for example, a particular artifact was, indeed, used in religious ceremonies or a depiction of a religious belief instead of just being s decorative item? I don’t get it.

A commoner's bed
A commoner’s bed

Sure, when they find a dagger or an arrow-head I’ll grant them that it’s a pretty good guess that it was used to hunt or as a weapon. However, how could modern anthropologists know about prehistoric times that, “In the performance of the rituals, sun discs and sun symbols were used. They could be placed on holders or poles. The sun images could be of gold, bronze or stone. Miniature sun symbols were also used. Often the priests who held the special cult axes or who blew the lur horns wore helmets with horns. Horns or horn assemblages were among the equipment of the most important priests.”

A bed of the nobility
A bed of the nobility

That’s what one of the texts beside some artifacts said. As I asked earlier, how did the author of the text know that they were used in rituals and placed on holders and that the priests held axes and work helmets with horns? These were artifacts from the Bronze Age, which was from 1700 to 500 BC. That period had no written texts. And there’s no one left around to ask. So I don’t get how they came to those conclusions. If anyone can fill me in, please do.

To Bed

Now for something completely different. One of the exhibits in the museum displayed a bed used by nobility in more recent times, i.e., circa 1650. (OK, that’s not exactly recent in Internet Age terms, but it’s more recent than the prehistoric times I was talking about in the preceding paragraphs.)

The bed (see the accompanying photo) had a dark wood headboard and bedposts, all of which had intricate carvings. What struck me was that this bed was double size, at best. Was there some sort of law saying that only monarchs could have a king size or queen size bed? Were the rest of the nobility forbidden from having them so as to not let them feel equal to the royals?

You’ll also see a picture on this page of a bed used by one of the more common folk. It was even smaller and not decorated. This is probably what I would have had if I were alive back then. Either that or a mat  stuffed with rat hair lying on a bare earthen floor.

Viking drinking horns
Viking drinking horns

To Drink, Perchance to Pass Out

The museum also included a collection of Viking drinking horns. Some were elaborately decorated, but what struck me most is that some of them looked quite large for drinking vessels.

I assume that something that elaborate was used for drinking potations more potent than, say, water or apple juice. How did these Vikings manage to walk straight lines and stay standing? Or maybe they didn’t. Who’s to say. Maybe what happened in the Norse region, stayed in the Norse region.

Been there? Done that? Do tell.