Rethinking the local museum in the countryside – The Archipelago Museum in Denmark, by Peter Thor Andersen

The Archipelago Museum in Denmark, a 2022 Luigi Micheletti Award nominee, went through a transformation. Director Peter Thor Andersen tells how a typical local museum has changed into a new museum concept.

At the annual meeting this year for the European Museum Academy one of the nominees for the Luigi Micheletti Award was our museum, The Archipelago Museum in Denmark. During the last decade the museum, originally a quite small and typical local museum, has changed into a whole new museum concept, that has generated twice as many guests as before, attention from colleagues and local pride in the community. In this article the transformation will be described. Hopefully it can serve as inspiration.

The new museum

In 2021 the Archipelago Museum opened to the public. The museum is designed to bridge two different experiences: 1) exhibitions inside and 2) dissemination in the landscape. The topic of the exhibition and dissemination outside is the relationship between the human person and nature. We want to shed light on the impact from nature on our mind, as modern persons, as well as how nature affected our ancestors. For instance, darkness in a forest affects our senses and is part of the reason why people of premodern cultures believed in magical figures such as elves, and burial mounds were placed on top of hills in the Stone Age for certain reasons. 

In the exhibition you take off your shoes before entering five rooms. They comprise a burial mound/hill, there you can lie down in the mound. It is related to the Stone Age. A bog with Iron Age sacrificed items and a horse hanging in the middle. A medieval forest with an elf. A room with the sea and a special pair of trousers from the 19th century, that on one hand was a gift from a woman to her man and on the other hand could be used to identify the man if he drowned at sea. The last room focuses on nature in modern time. The artefacts in this exhibition are kept on a minimum since the experience is very much related to affecting the senses. For the same reason the guest can use a podcacher with different kinds of sound/stories/explanations instead of reading texts. In addition to the experience in the rooms it is possible to make several tests; for instance, how, you react to darkness.

The intention underlying the exhibition has been to become relevant for the modern tourists coming to our area for hiking, sailing and other outdoor pursuits, as well as being relevant for the inhabitants in the local community, who are proud of the local nature with hills and islands (hence the name of the area: the archipelago). A nature that is a candidate for UNESCO Geopark status.

Most of the visitors are two or even three generations visiting the museum together

That ambition has been fulfilled since the new museum is the most popular place to visit locally and another benefit is that a lot of the guests come to visit as a two or even three generation group. We have managed to make an experience that brings together generations!

The exhibition is placed in the remains of an old, abandoned factory next to the harbour of Faaborg. Together with the exhibition there is a visitor centre for the whole Geopark. The visitor centre also serves as a local meeting point, for instance for a knitting group.

Historical trail in the landscape

Outside, the guests can choose a historical trail, where we have put up posts with audio-stories about hunting a mammoth, finding a nix (half human/half fish) or an elf, or about water as a source of energy (next to the oldest water mill in Denmark). Our local community theatre has, together with us, made an audio-walk (called invisible theatre), where you listen to a story while walking up the hills. We even offer the guest the opportunity to sail a transparent canoe. The archipelago was flooded in the early Stone Age period, and traces of 6.000-year-old hunting camps can still be seen under the surface. 

So, the ambition is to relate the museum to its landscape and our longing for the nature, as modern people, to the beliefs of our ancestors. 

A new museum to a new period in the local community

The community has the medieval town of Faaborg as its centre. The town is quite small, some 7.000 inhabitants. Nevertheless, it used to be a ‘fully equipped’ town with a town hall, court, jailhouse, hospital, schools, high school, and lots of jobs in the local industrial area. But in 2007 the government in Denmark reformed the local municipalities, and Faaborg ended up in a large municipality consisting of five small municipalities, with a town hall far away. The jailhouse and court were closed in 1989/2007 and the hospital shut in 2011. In 2016 the biggest industrial site, a factory that made ready meals, closed and 500 jobs were lost. The demography of the town has changed, so that most people are elderly, and the schools and high school lack pupils. The overall feeling locally is a rapid change from being the centre to being on the outskirts. In 2010 some 700 inhabitants went onto the streets in Faaborg to protest a decision made by the new municipality. In the same period, we at the museum decided to suggest a radical change in the mission of the local museum to make the museum reflect the new challenges for Faaborg and the dream of a new era for the town.

The town is close to the islands, the sea and the hills with forests, scenic views, and beautiful manor houses. Therefore, we decided to suggest a new topic for the museum: the historical landscape. And we decided to work with a strategy for the exhibition and dissemination, that would combine indoor and outdoor and thereby transform the landscape into a kind of giant artefact for the museum. The museum should serve as a source of inspiration for the community through a new story about the area, that combined pride with a hope of a ‘new start’ through tourism and new opportunities for the locals.

The process from a traditional museum to a new kind of museum

In the beginning, some 15 years ago, the museum was one of the smallest local museums in Denmark. Consequently, we did not have skilled staff, funding, or a place for our museum. Back then the museum consisted of and old 18th century building with a mixture of rooms, some of them with furniture and other items, that exemplified original rooms from the house, and some of them with collections of toys from the beginning of the 20th century, paintings of local ships and a collection of glass from Odense, the nearest large city. In addition, the museum included an old watermill nearby and a museum in the old jailhouse. In other words, a museum with a little of everything and not a lot of anything.

The Archipelago Museum is placed in a factory building from 1930

With funding from the municipality, we hired new staff skilled within landscape archaeology and started the strategic planning of the new museum with consultants and architects. The first plan in 2011 was to place a new museum under the garden of the old 18th century building that used to be the local museum. Thereby the old museum could be part of the new museum. But restrictions on the building due to its protected status and the cost of restoration and change of the garden made that project too difficult to realize. Instead, we were trying to find a place to a new museum at the harbourside. In 2014 the large factory making ready meals announced it would be closing within two years. The municipality took over as owner of the old factory buildings, and after a pledge from the neighbours to the factory building, it was decided to place the new museum in the old factory building. It was quite symbolic, a new chapter in the 800-year-old story of the town, that our museum should take over the old factory. Instead of being the centre for public welfare and administration or industry, the town is changing into a centre for Geopark-tourism and a (beautiful) place to live for inhabitants who don’t need to be close to a highway, railway, or a big city – either because they either don’t work any more, or because they have other requirements than the majority, when it comes to a place to live.

In 2017, years after the new municipality was formed, the politicians decided to reserve three million Euro for the new museum. In 2018 the state gave extra funding to the museum of two million euro. Finally, one of the big foundations in Denmark, the Nordea Foundation, gave 1,3 million euro in 2019. The museum opened in the summer of 2021 and had 40.000 guests during the first year.

The future

The extraordinary funding from the municipality and the state has allowed us to plan for an additional exhibition and to expand the old factory building with a new building designed for museum purposes. We hope to have that section finished within three years.

About the Author

Peter Thor Andersen, Director
Øhavsmuseet – The Archipelago Museums

*Peter Thor Andersen (born 1975) is director of the Archipelago Museum in Denmark. He is a candidate from the University of Copenhagen (2003) in History and Political Science. He started as a local head of the museum in Faaborg in 2006