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The New Moesgaard Museum, Denmark

Andrew Irving

Abstracts

Ethnographic exhibitions play an increasingly prominent role in rethinking how anthropology can engage in contemporary debates across academic and public settings. Since its inception in autumn 2014, the new Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, has provided a space for experiments in ethnographic exhibition making through long-term and temporary exhibitions, alongside a smaller laboratory space for university staff, students and others. Focusing on the permanent installation Time Travellers, and the long-term exhibition The Lives of the Dead, this review examines the challenges and potentials of presenting ethnography in contemporary museum settings.

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Introduction

1A pressing challenge for contemporary museums and ethnographic installations is how to create socially inclusive and politically innovative spaces to explore anthropological questions about social and cultural life, including the shared and diverse ways of worldmaking found around the world. It is more than a question of how to document or represent different social phenomena but how to evoke or understand the living qualities of experience, expression and action in ways that do not reinscribe entrenched epistemological categories.

2October 2014 saw the opening of one of the world’s largest dedicated archaeological and anthropological museums in the form of the new Moesgaard Museum (MOMU), Aarhus, Denmark. The purpose-built museum covers 16,000 square metres (the equivalent of three football pitches) and houses extensive archaeological and ethnographic collections, alongside the Eye and Mind programme in Visual Anthropology. The Moesgaard building was designed to become part of the land upon which it was built—a long and verdant hill out of which the building materialises—meaning large parts of museum are subterranean.

The Moesgaard Museum

The Moesgaard Museum

Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum

3It is therefore perhaps not coincidental that a considerable portion of the archaeological collection is located under the grass, as if its objects and artefacts are emergent from the soil and earth itself: not least the remarkable bog body, Grauballe Man: the subject of the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s poem of the same name, whose opening lines begin:

As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

and seems to weep

Grauballe Man

Grauballe Man

Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum

4Although the museum’s architects and engineers were presented with a complicated infrastructural problem concerning the planning and assembly of the building in relation to the specific properties of the landscape, the design, development and construction of the ethnographic exhibition—under the directorship of anthropologist Ton Otto and his team—presented an equally complex series of problems and challenges: not least in terms of how to negotiate and navigate the precarious and hugely contested politics, practices and ethics of museum representation.

The Challenges of Ethnographic Exhibition Making

5Starting from the blank spaces of the newly commissioned building, the Moesgaard’s collection creatively attempts to re-envision and re-imagine what an ethnographic collection might look like when taking into account the social, cultural and political dynamics of a world shaped as much by war, displacement, death and inequality as it is by globalisation, Christmas and the songs of Mariah Carey. At the heart of the exhibition is a recognition that anthropology is simultaneously a fieldwork science and documentary art, i.e. a practical field-based discipline that employs a range of methods to generate new knowledge about people and peoples living in diverse social, cultural and political contexts—but which then uses written texts, and to a much lesser extent images, objects and recordings, to communicate its theories and findings to its academic and non-academic audiences.

6Although the use of non-textual forms, such as photographs, film recordings, objects, artworks and so forth, have an extended history in anthropology, it remains a mostly text-based discipline that is disseminated through articles and monographs: a choice that has implications in terms of how anthropology engages the public. How is it possible, we might ask, to critically communicate or enact anthropological understanding or engage contemporary audiences through non-textual means? As importantly, how might such questions be addressed not only in the form of a textual argument but through the organisation of objects, spatial relationships, the use of walls, infrastructure, sound, light and so forth, in ways that might speak to an inquisitive twelve-year-old and also to an anthropologist who is all too aware of the social, political and historical dynamics of power at work in any ethnographic endeavour?

7Nowhere is this challenge more apparent than in how to connect the prehistory of the species, represented by the museum’s archaeological sections, to the contemporary and coeval social formations that comprise the ethnographic collections. One of the museum’s most striking centrepieces is the representation of evolutionary process, whereby anatomically precise reconstructions of Australopithecines and early human ancestors, reconstructed from archaeological finds, are arranged chronologically along the main staircase that links the archaeological and ethnographic collections and then segues into the permanent installation Time Travellers, consisting of uncannily lifelike models of contemporary humans. Namely British physicist Steven Hawking († 2018), Yolngu artist Paul Gurrumurruwuy and Siberian shaman Galina Ainatgual, who each sat for and donated their likeness to the museum. The three can be found on the stairway near the entrance to the ethnographic collection engaged in discussion about time, life, the shape of reality and our place in the world, all of which can be listened to through earphones, alongside the accompanying text:

The passage of time affects all human beings. But people understand and experience time very differently. Here on the stairs, three contemporary individuals discuss their ideas about time on the basis of very different cultural traditions: modern science, ancestral lore, and shamanistic ritual. They address the big questions that engage human beings all over the world: Where do we come from and where are we going?

The Time Travellers

The Time Travellers

Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum

The Lives of the Dead

8The current ethnographic exhibition, The Lives of the Dead, is organised around a series of questions concerning how different societies negotiate death, mourning and the continuing memories of their deceased loved-ones. In highlighting the variety of responses and attitudes towards death and the dead that exist both within and between societies, the assembled collections show how death can neither be defined by static social models nor timeless and universal truths. When represented ethnographically it soon becomes apparent that there are as many ways of dying as there are of living, and stories of death and remembrance are told through a range of personal and collective objects and interactive media. While a challenging subject, The Lives of the Dead has been popular and well-received by audiences of all ages. As part of the interactive element, visitors are invited to express their own ideas and feelings in relation to the presence of the dead in their own lives.

Reburial of the remains of displaced dead

Reburial of the remains of displaced dead

New graves are being dug for the reburial of the remains of displaced dead due to the civil war in Northern Uganda

Image from the video produced for the exhibition © Moesgaard Museum

9As someone with a long-term research interest in both death and Uganda, I was particularly drawn to the installation that sought to unpack the processes of death through the theme “Re-burials in Uganda” as seen through the frame of the two-decade civil war that has dominated northern Uganda and caused massive social upheaval and displacement. A majority of the people in the region were internally exiled during the war, resulting in many deceased and displaced persons who could not be buried on the ancestral soils that are so important for keeping the family and the social group together in the afterlife: dislocated, displaced and restless beings who as a result of exile may cause strife and trouble for the living in the form of disease, infertility and death.

10Denmark, the home of Søren Kierkegaard, is represented by a study of Danish homes conducted by the museum that investigated the role of deceased relatives in familiar places and the home. What objects do people keep, and why? And what role do they play in the lives of the living? What does it feel like to wear or dance in a dead person’s clothes or listen to their records? ‘Karsten’s story’ shows how the material belongings of his “outsider” uncle—who died when Karsten was only four years old—enable his absent uncle to be present as Karsten strives to find his own place in society throughout his teenage years and negotiate his own struggle of being different.

Karsten’s Uncle

Karsten’s Uncle

Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum

11A commitment to sensory ethnography runs through the exhibition with a sensorial and tactile focus on Mexico’s Day of the Dead that includes chocolate, chillies, sugar skulls and much else besides. The close attention to the senses invites the audience to immerse themselves in people’s sensorial lifeworlds so as to experience commonality and difference.

Dancing with skeletons

Dancing with skeletons

Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum

12An outstanding example of what is possible in an exhibit as a result of an ethnographic collaboration is Christmas Birrimbirr, a collaboration between the Moesgaard Museum and Miyarrka Media collective – consisting of Jennifer Deger, Paul Gurrumuruwuy, Fiona Yangathu and David Mackenzie – that combines image, text, sound and sculpture to enact, on one hand, the routine character and transnational commercialism of Christmas and, on the other hand, something rooted in the specific poetics of loss, renewal, mourning and joy of a particular Aboriginal Australian society: the Yolngu of north-eastern Arnhem Land. Christmas is a shiny affair in which homes and graves are covered in coloured lights and decorations starting sometime around the middle of October and is simultaneously a time for remembering and reconnecting with deceased loved ones, reuniting families and bringing the old and new generations together.

Christmas Birrimbirr

Christmas Birrimbirr

Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum

13The Lives of the Dead can be seen until 2022. The Grauballe Man and the Time Travellers are permanent installations.

14Moesgaard Museum, Moesgaard Alle 15, 8270 Aarhus, Denmark, http://www.moesgaardmuseum.dk/​en/​

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List of illustrations

Title The Moesgaard Museum
Credits Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/anthrovision/docannexe/image/8634/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 500k
Title Grauballe Man
Credits Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/anthrovision/docannexe/image/8634/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 516k
Title The Time Travellers
Credits Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/anthrovision/docannexe/image/8634/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 824k
Title Reburial of the remains of displaced dead
Caption New graves are being dug for the reburial of the remains of displaced dead due to the civil war in Northern Uganda
Credits Image from the video produced for the exhibition © Moesgaard Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/anthrovision/docannexe/image/8634/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 552k
Title Karsten’s Uncle
Credits Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/anthrovision/docannexe/image/8634/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 1.1M
Title Dancing with skeletons
Credits Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/anthrovision/docannexe/image/8634/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 752k
Title Christmas Birrimbirr
Credits Photo by Medialab Moesgaard Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/anthrovision/docannexe/image/8634/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 348k
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References

Electronic reference

Andrew Irving, “The New Moesgaard Museum, Denmark”Anthrovision [Online], 9.1 | 2021, Online since 30 November 2022, connection on 22 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/anthrovision/8634; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/anthrovision.8634

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About the author

Andrew Irving

University of Manchester

Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, Arthur Lewis Building, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, United Kingdom

andrew.irving@manchester.ac.uk

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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