Denmark has a long and important maritime history, going back at least a millennium to the Vikings up the present day with the largest container shipping company in the world. With so much coastline in such a strategically important location, it was inevitable that moving things and people over the seas would play such a prominent role in Danish political and economic history. As you wander around Copenhagen and Helsingør, you can’t miss the huge variety of boats, from historic tall ships to modern leisure craft.
So it came as something of a surprise to walk into the Maritime Museum of Denmark to find it so physically compact and quite narrowly focused.
Its location is good. It sits right on Helsingør’s waterfront, in the shadow of the Kronborg Castle, a world-heritage site often known as “Hamlet’s Castle” because it inspired the castle at Elsinore in that famous play. (For a century, until 2013, the museum was housed inside Kronborg Castle.) So there’s a steady stream of tourist traffic.
And the museum is housed in an eminently apt edifice. Much of it is below sea level because it’s built into what was originally a 1950s-era dry dock that was converted quite recently into an architecturally ambitious museum space.
But for the most part, the Maritime Museum of Denmark isn’t a typical maritime museum. You immediately notice that ships aren’t featured as prominently as they are in some other maritime museums. The museums in Istanbul, Lisbon, and Sydney are examples that come immediately to mind that I’ve visited recently. Istanbul’s imperial barge museum, also in a newly designed space, is filled with ornate watercraft fit for royalty. The Portuguese maritime museum’s sprawling space is crammed with model and real ships and watercraft. And the one in Sydney has a wide assortment of original boats and ships (and parts of ships) that play a prominent role in displaying how the sea played such an important role in Australian history.
The Maritime Museum of Denmark, however, is less about stuff than stories.
That’s not to stay there aren’t any model ships or more typical artifacts on display—there are. But even those that are there are often displayed in a quirky way, as you can see in some of the photos.
Instead, there’s an emphasis on the maritime culture—both its impact on general popular culture and the culture of life at sea. And I have to say, it’s the first time I’ve seen Haribo gummy candy (in this case pirates) used as an intellectual illustration of cultural impact.
As an example, a sizable portion of the exhibit space when I visited was taken up with a temporary exhibit titled Sex and the Sea by film director Paul Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke that takes a broad brush and includes an odd assortment of pornography, sexualized natural objects like double coconuts, gifts for sweethearts and ship’s names, and open discussions of how the lonely and challenging conditions of life at sea can lead to different sexual norms than on land.
Other exhibits focus on the lives of sailors’ wives and the effects of globalization.
Of course, it’s entirely possible to make the argument that not only are these aspects of maritime history important and under-represented and that focusing on them is a decidedly modern approach compared with a stuffy, old-fashioned (or time-honored, depending on your point of view) collection of model ships and maritime artifacts. And I can well imagine that the curators are probably a little tired of people like me expecting something more traditional.
It’s just not what I expected when I walked into the national maritime museum of a country that has traditionally been one of Europe’s maritime powerhouses.
But I came away impressed. Although housed in a relatively confined space, the museum is beautifully designed and presented. And it doesn’t take long to appreciate why the curators have gone in the direction they have—these are important stories that are often overlooked but should be told.
Photos of the Maritime Museum of Denmark
What to Know Before You Go
The Maritime Museum of Denmark is immediately adjacent to the entrance to Kronborg Castle. I would say you can’t miss it, except you can for the simple reason that the museum is underground. But if you’re walking towards the main entrance of Kronborg Castle, outside the moat, you’ll find yourself walking directly over the maritime museum over what is a bridge over the dry dock.
It’s relatively compact so doesn’t require an enormous investment of time to do it justice. An hour is probably plenty—two at most.
When I was there, they had a large and impressive Lego workshop set up for kids. I don’t know if that’s a permanent thing or just temporary, but it was a great idea if you’re taking kids with you.