There’s a lot to see in Copenhagen, from Tivoli Gardens to Rosenborg Castle to the Little Mermaid, but one of the truly unique experiences is visiting the Danish National Museum. Right, we’ve all been in museums, and they’re interesting — but you’ll learn some strange and wonderful things at the Danish National Museum that you won’t come across anywhere else.
The museum itself is impressive enough. Set in an 18th-century mansion in the middle of the historic city, it has fascinating collections of artifacts from Danish prehistory and the Middle Ages, Near Eastern and classical antiquities, the royal collection of coins and medals, and a children’s museum. It would take days to browse through all its displays.
But what makes the Danish National Museum really special is the quirky and sometimes completely bizarre displays that live among its collections — displays that make you step back, take off your eyeglasses and wonder, did I read that right? The people who curated this museum have a great appreciation for a good story, and if the line between truth and folk tale sometimes gets a little blurred, well, who’s to complain?
Here are five weird and amazing things I learned during my visit to the Danish National Museum. Some of them are true.
Amber comes from the sun
According to the museum, amber comes from solidified sun rays that hit the ground during a solar storm. In fact, there is a display of jewellery made from pieces of amber created 3,200 years ago when a solar storm hit some ancient graves. In fact, it hit so hard you could hear the rattling far away.
The narration goes on to say that this jewellery was worn by young men during their night bathing ceremonies prior to their first sexual experience. When not in use it was stored in the skull of an aurochs, a now-extinct ancestor of domestic cattle. Who knew?
Vikings really wore those horned hats
Those pictures of Vikings storming ashore with big horned helmets are a big cliché (though they make for great television). However, it’s true: they did wear them, and the museum has some of those helmets on display. They’re not quite the way I envisioned them, but close.
In addition to wearing horns on their heads, Danes also blew horns — long, curved ones like the horns of an ox (seen at top), with a disc at the end that symbolized the sun. They were called lurs, and were blown at special ceremonies during the Bronze Age. Afterward, they were tossed into a bog — in pairs, presumably so they could play a duet in the afterlife.
Mermaids are real
You thought the only mermaid in Copenhagen was the Little Mermaid down by the harbour? The Danish National Museum is here to prove you wrong. In fact, it has on display the skeleton of the Haraldskaer mermaid, discovered by a farmer while ploughing his field. (Click on the photo to see it larger.) The description says she was likely a member of the Asian branch of the mermaid family, which makes her a rare find in Europe — rare indeed!
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According to the narrative, the Haraldskaer mermaid was about 18 years old, with long, thick hair and long, sharp canines. She had a purse containing a shark’s tooth, a snake’s tail, a mussel shell and a flower. The skeleton is complete, though she’s missing one hand — or possibly a fin.
Gold comes from magic rain
Another informative display explains that while amber is formed when sun rays hit the earth (with a thud, apparently), gold comes to earth in the form of a golden rain. It starts with a golden rainbow, which is too bright to be viewed with the naked eye. But if you run to the end of the rainbow carrying a bronze bucket filled with stallion’s urine, you can catch the rain and solidify it. Then you can make precious jewellery and get filthy rich. Apparently this rarely happens these days, which the museum says may be linked to the progression of Western capitalism.
You can even see a small chariot made from this wondrous gold, pulled by a model of the stallion — named Valdemar — who contributed the urine for the solidification process. He, in turn, belonged to the dwarves from Odder, who created the golden wheel you see here. Of course they did.
Bogs are the best embalmers
Probably the most famous attraction in the Danish National Museum is a display of Denmark’s famous bog people, including this one, called The Huldremose Woman. They date from the Iron Age, in the first few centuries BC, and in many cases they had been strangled or hung as sacrifices to the gods, then sunk into peat moss bogs to spend eternity.
The amazing thing is that these people are almost perfectly preserved, with their skin pretty much tanned and their organs intact. That’s because the acid environment of a peat bog tends to kill all the bacteria and other organisms that would usually attack the bodies, so they remain in their original state. Even their clothing is well preserved — truly one of the world’s wonders.
There are lots of wonders to explore in the Danish National Museum, and most of them are true. But it’s delightful to see displays in a major museum that make you think twice: which is fact, which is myth, and do we always know the difference?
I think more museums should follow the Danish example and slip a few whoppers into their collections. At very least, it would make visiting museums a lot more fun.