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The Museum of National History at Frederiksborg in 2019, with a glance to the future

Annual Review Article 2020

In a world where mutual dependence and integration have become increasingly visible in recent decades, the Museum has endeavoured, in its exhibitions and research, to examine Denmark’s historical interactions with other parts of the world. To this end, the Museum has partnered with foreign museums to arrange exhibitions staged both at Frederiksborg and abroad and initiated international research projects.

By Mette Skougaard, director, and Thomas Lyngby, head of research and curator, Frederiksborg Museum of Natural History

The Danish Museum of National History at Frederiksborg in Hillerød, approximately 20 miles outside Copenhagen, was founded by Brewer J.C. Jacobsen in 1878 as Department C of the Carlsberg Foundation. The Museum is intended to contribute to historical awareness among Danish citizens and thus to the nation’s social cohesion. 

The Museum showcases Denmark’s history, making extensive use of portraits of eminent Danes and history paintings of important events. Furniture and other artefacts help to relate the country’s culture-historical development. 

The Museum is housed at Frederiksborg Castle, which has framed both the day-to-day lives of Denmark’s monarchs and special occasions such as coronations and the Royal Orders of Chivalry. After the castle fire in 1859, Brewer Jacobsen contributed the lion’s share of the restoration costs. 

Today, the Museum’s running costs are financed solely by grants from the Carlsberg Foundation and entry fees, while the Danish state is responsible for external maintenance of the buildings. 

Taking three main areas – Danish history, the art of portraiture and the history of the castle – as a starting point, the Museum seeks to be a central cultural institution in Danish public life. 

The collection is continually expanded with new works that complement the existing ones and bring it up to date, so that the Museum embraces Danish history right up to the present day, which inevitably is always our starting point for understanding what has happened in the past and what may shape the future. 

Danish history, portraiture and Frederiksborg Castle feature not only in the permanent collections but also in a wide range of special exhibitions. We offer something for everyone: adults and children, specialists, interested members of the public and pupils at all stages of their education. 

We organise competitions for portrait artists, and school pupils can use materials developed by the Museum to pit their knowledge of selected historical subjects of topical interest against their peers nationwide in our “history contests”. 

The Museum conducts research both specifically in areas relating to its collections and more broadly in historical and art historical subjects that emerge from our main areas – ideally in collaboration with partners in Denmark and abroad who can contribute new angles and new source material.

After the castle fire in 1859, Brewer Jacobsen contributed the lion’s share of the restoration costs

Opening of the exhibition “Portraits of the World – Denmark” at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC on 13 December 2019. Michael Ancher’s major work Art Judges occupies a prime spot in the Gallery. Photo: Thomas Lyngby

PORTRAIT NOW! and “Portraits of the World” at the Smithsonian

The Museum is Denmark’s national portrait gallery and also considers it part of its mandate to bring the genre into focus in a contemporary perspective. 

As well as hosting exhibitions of leading Danish and foreign portrait artists, since 2007 the Museum has organised PORTRAIT NOW!, a major Nordic portrait competition, which has also been opened up to artists from selected other countries. 

In the 2019 competition, for example, Nordic artists were joined by colleagues from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. The portraits from Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine were collected in collaboration with Carlsberg in Ukraine and, before coming to Frederiksborg, had been exhibited at the Lvivarnya cultural centre in Lviv, where special prizes were also awarded to three of the works. 

It was precisely the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery that in 2019 invited Frederiksborg to collaborate on their Portraits of the World” exhibition

The main exhibition opened at Frederiksborg in May, with the Carlsberg Foundation’s Portrait Prizes being awarded to the three best examples of contemporary portraiture together with a further three special prizes plus a “Young Talent” prize. 

First prize for 2019 went to the Swedish photographer Erik Viklund. In the autumn, the Nordic works were exhibited at Ljungberg Museum in Ljungby in southern Sweden. 

PORTRAIT NOW! is unique in being open to works created in all media – painting, sculpture, photos, videos, installations, etc. All the works compete on equal terms; what matters is that an artist has sought to portray a person with whom they have stood face to face. 

We differ in this respect from the National Portrait Gallery in London, where separate competitions are held for paintings and photographs. 

On the other hand, the competition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC is also open to all media. It was precisely the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery that in 2019 invited Frederiksborg to collaborate on their “Portraits of the World” exhibition. 

The concept is that, each year, a different country is invited to exhibit a significant work, which is then displayed at a prominent place in the Gallery – in the hall adjacent to the permanent exhibition of portraits of all the American presidents and the special exhibition areas, which among other things showcase the best works from the US portrait competition. 

The work the Smithsonian has borrowed from Frederiksborg is Michael Ancher’s  monumental group portrait Art Judges

The work the Smithsonian has borrowed from Frederiksborg is Michael Ancher’s monumental group portrait Art Judges, in which Ancher depicted his fellow artists Laurits Tuxen, P.S. Krøyer and Holger Drachmann together with the slightly younger J.F. Willumsen. 

Art Judges provides a unique insight into the dynamic and the interaction among the four artists, who are in the process of judging a work that the person viewing the portrait cannot see. 

Across time and place, you almost feel you are there and can sense the four critics as they deliberate. Alongside Art Judges, the Smithsonian has arranged an exhibition that places the painting in dialogue with works that trace the development of American modernism in artists’ communities in New York City in the early 20th century. 

These works testify to the ways, community, friendship and rivalry can help to foster artistic innovation.

“Art Works of Silk and Wool – Noble and Princely Textiles from Denmark 1600-2000”, arranged by the Museum of National History at Prince Gong’s Mansion in Beijing. This shows guests in the exhibition’s 18th century section on the opening day, 4 September 2019. Photo: Thomas Lyngby

Collaboration with China

The Museum of National History has been working for several years to develop collaborations with Chinese museums. In 2019, we had the opportunity to host an exhibition from the major museum in Jingdezhen, the home of porcelain – or ”China”. 

Conditions here were perfect for the production of porcelain, including easy access to all the key ingredients of “white gold”, namely kaolin, quartz and feldspar, as well as minerals that could be used for different glazes. Also available were wood and coal, which were crucial in the past when the porcelain had to be fired at high temperatures. 

The exhibition told the story of porcelain and its journey from China to the rest of the world. It showcased examples of the many types of object that can be made of porcelain, both utility items and actual works of art, together with examples of different glazes and paints. 

The exhibition provided a good starting point for exploring the porcelain in the Museum’s own collections: Chinese porcelain from the 17th and 18th centuries, and European and Danish porcelain from the 18th century and later. 

In the autumn, the Museum was also able to host an exhibition of modern Chinese design from the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, which showed how Chinese artisans are experimenting with combining old techniques with modern idioms. 

Frederiksborg works closely with Prince Gong’s Mansion in Beijing and organised two exhibitions there that opened in the late summer. 

One of these displayed examples of how textiles have been used in royal and aristocratic settings from the 17th century to the present day – for interior decoration and clothing alike. 

The exhibition included original Gobelin tapestries, tablecloths and upholstered furniture as well as copies, including garments reconstructed with the help of the Museum’s portrait collection. Interiors linked to various periods of cultural history showed how textiles have played a part in special occasions and everyday life, as well as setting the scene for the exercise of royal power. 

Mastering the art of embroidery was an important element of education in the past, and the exhibition’s final interior demonstrated that the craft and its traditions are very much alive. 

The Museum was uniquely honoured to be able to borrow a piece of embroidery worked by HM Queen Margrethe of Denmark together with one of the Queen’s gala dresses, created by Birgitte Thaulow in 2010. 

In a pavilion in the grounds of the mansion, the Museum arranged another exhibition of works by the contemporary Danish artist Kasper Eistrup. This gave the Chinese public the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the former rock musician’s portrait of HRH The Crown Prince, created for the Museum in 2018.

Mastering the art of embroidery was an important element of education in the past

Dannebrog 800 years anniversary and the Museum’s newest international research projects

2019 marked a historic jubilee: the 800th anniversary of the Dannebrog, the Danish national flag, which, according to legend, fell from the skies during the Battle of Lyndanisse, near present-day Tallinn. 

The Danes had been hard-pressed, but now gained the upper hand and triumphed over the heathen Estonians. The Estonians subsequently converted to Christianity and recognised the Danish king, Valdemar II (the Victorious), as their sovereign. 

On the jubilee day itself, 15 June (Valdemar’s Day), HM The Queen opened an exhibition organised by the Museum in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. 

H.M. Queen Margrethe participated in the celebration of Dannebrog’s 800 years jubilee in Estland. Photo: Meeli-Kyttim

The exhibition, which will run up to and including summer 2020, is housed in “Kiek in de Kök”, one of the towers in Tallinn’s old city fortifications. It opens with the battle and the ensuing period from 1219 to 1346, when Estonia was ruled by the Danish kings. 

The exhibition also includes displays on the subsequent use of the Dannebrog and the three lions from the state coat of arms, in Denmark and Estonia, including the Order of the Dannebrog. 

Visitors to Frederiksborg are also able to enjoy an exhibition to mark the Dannebrog jubilee in the Valdemar Hall. This provides an introduction to the Baltic Crusades and the Danish–Estonian common history. 

Exhibits include a photostat on canvas – based on a sketch of the Battle of Lyndanisse, painted by Henrik Olrik in 1885 – that visualises the large mural that Brewer Jacobsen originally wanted for the hall, but which was never completed. 

At the opening in Tallinn, Queen Margrethe presented scholarships to two historians – one Danish and one Estonian – who, over the next two years, will research Danish–Estonian history. The Danish postdoc is affiliated to Frederiksborg and the Estonian researcher to Tallinn City Museum and the University of Tartu. 

The scholarships are being funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. Similarly, in 2019 we initiated the Danish–Icelandic research project, which has two scholarships affiliated to Frederiksborg and the National Museum of Iceland and the University of Iceland. 

Launched to mark the centenary, on 1 December 2018, of Iceland becoming an independent, sovereign state in personal union with Denmark, the project takes as its theme how the Old Norse period is shaping Danish and Icelandic identity. These scholarships, too, were established thanks to a special grant from the Carlsberg Foundation.

And what now?

At the time of writing, we see a different future ahead. Frederiksborg, normally open 365 days a year, is as a result of the coronavirus currently closed. This stands in stark contrast to the last few years, when the Museum’s many initiatives coupled with the growth in international tourism led to consistently high visitor numbers. 

In 2019, we achieved our third-highest visitor numbers (284,825) in the Museum’s history. When the Museum is able to reopen, hopefully soon, we must anticipate much more moderate visitor numbers. 

The Museum will continue to seek to be a central cultural institution for historical knowledge, available to Danes wherever they are

The rapid global spread of the coronavirus, with dire consequences for many societies and economies around the world, is a result of increased globalisation, with people and goods moving freely across and between continents. 

It is still too early to make any definitive predictions about how the pandemic and its aftermath will impact globalisation. Regardless, we still live in a world where we are dependent on one another in many areas, and there will still be a need to be familiar with the history of one’s own country and be able to see it as interacting with other countries when forming an overview and preparing for the future. 

The Museum will continue to seek to be a central cultural institution for historical knowledge, available to Danes wherever they are. At present, that means via the virtual visits that have been made available on the Museum’s website. 

Another “history contest” for schools is planned for later in the year, this time the theme is the reunification of Southern Jutland with Denmark in 1920. But nothing can match a real visit to Frederiksborg, and we look forward to once again welcoming every visitor who comes here.