Words and images from home and away
The City Museum of Copenhagen (owned by the Municipality of Copenhagen) is housed in the former headquarters of the Royal Copenhagen Shooting Society. Decorated targets adorn the ceiling of the entrance hall and the walls of one of the large stairwells—these wooden discs are elaborately painted with scenes and motifs representing the occupations of their owners. Niels Christian Arrs (d. 20 August 1890) perhaps had some connection with colonial exploits in the Danish West Indies, where slave labour underpinned commercial exploitation of tobacco, sugar, cotton and other commodities.
Outside the Museum is a miniature scale model of medieval Copenhagen. This world-in-miniature reminded me of the scale models of towns and fortifications beloved of military strategists and town planners that are displayed in city museums elsewhere, most recently in Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic in September this year.
The Copenhagen Museum was organised thematically rather than chronological, perhaps a little disappointing for the visitor looking for a more comprehensive city history. I did enjoy some of the historical snippets: Carl and Josephine Winther on the double tightrope c.1840; the extraordinary wicker time ball from the tower of the Nikolai Church; the fact that, as in Melbourne, gas lighting was introduced in 1857. The Danes used whale oil before this; Melburnians also used colza oil (derived from Brassica rapa) prior to gas illumination.
I also wondered whether my German-speaking Danish ancestors the Dietrichsens were caught up in the antagonism towards foreigners that culminated in the Birthright Legislation of 1776, which restricted admittance to government posts to native subjects. Only very recently have I tracked my ggggg grandfather Christian Dietrichsen’s birth to Copenhagen in 1742. Christian’s son Frederick was a military clothier, habit and stay maker in London from the late 18th century. His father Christian took out naturalisation in England in 1812 (“professing the protestant religion having given testimony of his loyalty and fidelity to your Majesty and the good of the United Kingdom”). Christian stated that he was the son of Ludwig and Elizabeth and born in Copenhagen. Seven children of Paul [Ludewig] Diedrich & Elisabet were baptised at Sankt Petri, København (the parish church of the German-speaking community of the city from the late 16th century): Peter (1733); Christina Margretha (1735); Alexander (1737); Ludevig (1739); Christian (1742); Anna Elisabeth (1744); Ferdinand (1746). Need to find out more about them. Christian married in London at St Martin in the Fields in 1768.
A clue to the City Museum’s approach is perhaps the fact that it underwent extensive restoration in 2000. There’s a not too subtle subtext of the positive influence of cultural differences; indeed the museum’s mission statement reads: ‘The Museum of Copenhagen must help strengthen the feeling of identity of our citizens and our various ethnic groups, thus enhancing social development and the feeling of “belonging”, and providing coherence to the city.’ (see Joergen Selmer, ‘The city museum and the multicultural challenge to modern life’, camoc.icom.museum/conferences/documents/JoergenBoston.doc).
There is a tension between historicising immigrant identities, and deploying an idealised or fictive past as a means of cementing the construction of contemporary consensus and normalising heterogeneity. Just because there are a few foreigners doesn’t mean that society has always been tolerant and intercultural. At its worst, this elicits anodyne museum labels such as: “From the West Indies people have arrived as students, slaves, servants, workers and actors” (in reference to the theme “Cosmopolitan Copenhagen”). In a caption to a photograph of a halal butcher: “Immigrants become part of the changing street scene”. Niels Kærgård is correct in stating that Danes are preoccupied with the transition form being an ethnically homogeneous state to a multicultural one in the post 1990 period, however low the actual number of immigrants seems to be. What indeed is the role of the city museum as an institution in the management of social cohesion and the accommodation of conflict and difference? Social cohesion (‘sammenhængskraft’), as Kærgård notes, “has been a much-used expression in the last decade, but the meaning with which it is used often seems imprecise and politically biased.”
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