After years of traipsing to writer’s house museums, I have come to the conclusion that there is, and always has been, something that threatens to be inconveniently over-material about these sites. By this, I mean that the writer’s house, and the physical items inside it, may not always offer an adequate reflection of the author’s writing. This is much less of a problem around authors famous primarily for their ‘lives’ (as in the case of Johnson), their autobiographical writings (as in the case of Rousseau or Wordsworth), or their realist fiction (as in the cases of Austen, Christie or Dickens), because the idea of place is hard-wired into their narratives. Much trickier, however, are authors famous primarily for works of fantasy, such as Hans Christian Andersen, a man who constructed even his autobiography as a fairy tale, publishing The Fairytale of My Life in 1847.
The case of Andersen raises the question of how a house-museum can represent authorial imagination through objects. The museum dedicated to Andersen in Odense, his birthplace, first opened in 1908 on the centenary of his birth. The display has since extended beyond the original building, and presently includes a remarkable room entitled ‘Imaginations: expressions and impressions of the artist’s mind and creative urge.’ This room is composed of a series of display cabinets placed within the space to present the possibility of walking through a roughly chronological narrative from Andersen’s youth through to his death. Displays include Andersen’s hat, his pen and inkpot, some of Andersen’s paper-cuts and a pair of his scissors, a decoupé screen made by Andersen, the rope which Andersen insisted on travelling with for fear of fire, a manuscript in Andersen’s handwriting, some of Andersen’s hair, and a bouquet of leaves plucked from his grave. These items are evidently preserved out of Victorian reverence for the biographical ‘leavings’ of the author’s life. However, the way that they are displayed is emphatically twenty-first century.
The emphasis of the lay-out is on de-familiarising and de-naturing the materiality of these objects so that they set the visitor a series of surprises, riddles and conundrums. We are confronted by a dream-like aesthetic, with anxious anti-realist insistence on all-but-unreadable associations. Alongside Andersen’s huge hat is the writer’s tiny paper-cut chair, positioned next to enormous paper-cutting scissors, lit to create huge shadows. The pen and inkpot are lit from beneath so as to appear to be on fire. The portraits of other admired authors, so characteristic of writers’ libraries, here appear in the shape of a screen obsessively ornamented with cut-out scraps of Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, and other luminaries, interspersed with fairies and other images that had caught Andersen’s fancy between 1873 and 1876. The writer’s manuscript appears in unreadable form as one of those Victorian jokes that requires you to squint at a slant to make-out apparently meaningless squiggles, or as a fan which snaps shut to conceal the writing. The writer’s grave appears grotesquely miniaturised in the shape of a sample of hair laid alongside a ‘Fairy-tale book with leaves from Hans Christian Andersen’s grave and grave bouquet.’
These objects are made to function as part of Andersen’s dream-life and ‘speak’ themselves in the first-person voice of his private diary: the pen and inkpot are captioned ‘I dreamt I was writing and the letters set the paper on fire -1 May 1856.’ High above the visitor’s head is a blank window set in the wall with a rope dangling from it to the floor, captioned: ‘I went to the Grand Hotel, the whole place full, I had to take a room on the fourth floor overlooking a narrow street, the height made me dizzy, no fireplace, I was afraid of a fire breaking out at night. 26 Nov 1869.’ Even the grave bouquet is captioned with an entry from his diaries ‘Dust and ashes he is, dead, burnt out like the candle, there is nothing left! Oh Lord may you let us disappear completely. 5 Mar 1872.’
Visitors are invited and incorporated into Andersen’s dreams through their knowledge of the fairy-tales. A vast and rather menacing mirror flanked by a tailor’s dummy captures the visitor’s image and inserts it within the tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ (1837), and a bed piled with seventeen mattresses recalls ‘The Princess and the Pea’ to the well-read. These installations are captioned not with quotations from the tales, but rather from the diaries that record Andersen’s struggles with unhappiness, loneliness, and his perception of his own over-sensitiveness. The obsessive and private quality of these confessions is emphasised by unconventionally styled writing set on long narrow banners:
me into a
One way or another, each of these objects function as magic entry-points into another world. And this world is set to expand: the newest addition planned to the Hans Christian Andersen museum for 2020 is a hugely ambitious 5,600 square metre ‘magical garden space’, designed to allow visitors actually to enter Andersen’s fairy-tale world. So I’ll certainly be heading back, in order to venture further into the thrilling and disorientating realms of Andersen’s imagination.