The Moesgaard Museum uses technology and theatricality to bring Stone Age history to life.
Located about 20 minutes south of Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, the Moesgaard Museum emerges slowly from the earth. The angular building rises out of the slightly hilly landscape, pushing the grass up to form a green roof. Below, the concrete museum descends deep underground, hinting at what’s to come.
The Moesgaard, an affiliate of Aarhus University with a collection of more than 50,000 artifacts, is dedicated to archeology and ethnography, with a focus on Denmark’s pre-historic past. Recently reopened in a new building by Henning Larsen Architects, its galleries use immersion, technology and rich media in an effort to make the past seem alive.
Entering the museum’s spacious public areas, my attention was quickly drawn to an enormous staircase, rising up to the temporary exhibition galleries and plunging below ground to the permanent exhibition.
Dubbed the “Evolution Stairs”, they play host to a series of meticulously-reconstructed figures of early humankind, from “Lucy” through the earliest known Danish human. It’s possible to get up close to these figures, whose presence is a bit uncanny. From the upper balcony, one can view them via mounted headsets that use detailed 3D animations to show how they may have looked in their original environments.
Descending to the base of the stairs, I headed into the unassuming passageway for the Stone Age exhibition, and I was immediately taken aback by the size of the galleries; the casual entrance betrayed an enormous exhibition space.
The first room featured a large map of the Danish landscape, tilted back at an angle to catch projections from above. Animations showed the evolution of glaciers in and around Denmark thousands of years ago. Human figurines on the map became part of the storyline, as it showed how warming weather inspired early pioneers to first settle into the region.
Rounding the corner, a coastal diorama presented stories of early fishing life, once again using projection to show seasonal change and the development of early societies. Beside it, thousands of empty shells sat in a pile reaching all the way to the ceiling, and an empty canoe in the center of the gallery was animated with the projected shadows of its invisible inhabitants.
All of this was surrounded by more traditional exhibitry – display cases of unearthed tools and skeletons – but clearly, this was anything but a ‘typical’ archaeological exhibition.
In the next gallery, a forest of artificial trees hosted exhibits about hunting, including videos of life-sized archaeologists explaining key artifacts, an interactive bow-and-arrow simulation, and hundreds of arrowheads and other related finds. Moving on, I encountered galleries devoted to farming and early burial rites, again presented with an air of spectacle: a shamanic figure reveals herself in a dramatic object theater, a giant earthen vessel invites visitors to peer inside and view human remains rituals, and a VR experience shows the evolution of burial chambers.
After spending more than an hour in the Stone Age, it was time to move on to the Bronze and Iron Age galleries. Here, the theatricality continued; projected glyphs hanging amid an LED starscape presented early Danish cosmology, and animated stories shed light on daily life in the era. The main attraction in this gallery – and perhaps in the museum itself – was not media based: Grauballe Man, one of the best-preserved ancient human bodies, discovered in a local bog in the 1950s with skin and hair intact. The body is presented tastefully, with subtle lighting, with an accompanying film describing its history and likely cause of death: human sacrifice.
After an interstitial gallery with digital interactives about high-tech archaeological techniques, the historical timeline continued, with a focus on the battle of Illerup Ådal. A narrow, immersive gallery placed visitors in the middle of giant animations of the opposing tribal forces, with the warfare becoming more intense until we were surrounded by piles of dead bodies. My favorite interactive element here was a war strategy tabletop; visitors were prompted to arrange wooden figures representing archers, warriors, and cavalrymen to select a strategy, then watch how their armies fared against the enemy through projected battle diagrams.
The The Viking Age gallery was narratively ambitious; on entering the space, visitors chose a physical object representing one of about a dozen characters, from King Harald Bluetooth down to the lower strata of society. In the next gallery, eerily lifelike wax figures of the characters introduce their stories, activated by tapping the objects at each station. As the exhibition continued, I found the technique less successful; I had trouble triggering the audio at various points, and the stories were interesting, but lengthy, causing throughput bottlenecks and crowding.
Finally, the Medieval Age was presented in the museum’s most recent exhibition, completed in 2017. Again, drama prevailed; the emergence of Christianity in the region was represented with a room filled with hundreds of crucifixes illustrating the seven deadly sins and a centerpiece animation warning of hellfire and brimstone. Other exhibits here covered the emergence of cities, with videos of urban life revealed behind window frames, and an trial council interactive where visitors helped determine the fate of the accused. One of my favorite touches here was a slowly-spinning water wheel with built-in digital displays whose contents rotated to match.
I wasn’t planning to spend 5 hours at the Moesgaard… but I did, including a walk around the grounds, a smørrebrød lunch in the cafe, and a quick stop into a temporary ethnographic exhibition about death rituals. I left with a better sense of pre-modern history and with great inspiration from the museum’s bold approach to museography. That said, the experience was overwhelming. The quality of the content, and its delivery, made me want to spend even more time in each gallery, but exhaustion, and a tight travel schedule, prevented it.
About a week later, thanks to a delayed flight, I had some time to kill in Copenhagen’s National Museum, and found myself retracing the Stone, Bronze, and Iron ages. Here, the curatorial approach was sedate at best; backlit graphic panels lined one edge of each room, with artifacts filling the rest of the space. It felt a bit like reading a history textbook pinned to the wall. The disconnect between the objects and the interpretation, the limited use of media, and the complete lack of interactivity made the experience feel two-dimensional, and a bit arduous.
Some may balk at the theatricality of the Moesgaard’s new exhibitions and argue that they draw attention away from the (formidable) collection. For me, the media and technology complemented the abundant artifacts, bringing the pre-historic world to life in a way I haven’t experienced before.