The Classical Imagination of a Small Town: Aarhus 1909

I have been working on the geographies of classicism – especially the receptions of classical heritage in the context of Aarhus, a provincial, small Danish town that saw its fortune grow considerably from the late 19th century onwards. Around the turn of the century, the city’s architects occasionally (and sometimes quite fleetingly) looked back to classical paradigms to manifest its new identity and status as an industrial and cultural powerhouse worthy of the title of “capital of Jutland”.

The “Nordre Kirkegård Mausoleum” is one (largely forgotten) manifestation of this process, but I have also been looking to other, more well-known cases. Among these, the National Exhibition (“Landsudstillingen“) in 1909 is very important, even if its ephemeral nature also means that it takes some effort to imagine the impact that it once had.

The 1909 National Exhibition opened on 18 May. When it closed again on 3 October, it had been visited by 667.000 people, close to a third of the total Danish population of the time. Like many other exhibitions of this kind, it was designed to merge different points in time: the past (through the display of a prehistoric stone dolmen and monuments to civic heritage, such as “Borgmestergården“, the 16th century mayor’s mansion that later became the first house in the Old Town Museum), the present (through the display of contemporary goods – beer! sausages! – and carefully curated views of the city’s chimneys) and the future (through the demonstration of new technologies – electricity! airplanes! – and dreams of local and national grandeur).

Which specific elements from classical antiquity did the architects of the National Exhibition choose? The first image shows the “Tuborg Triumphal Arch” (advertising Tuborg beer). In the second, we see the temple-like main hall (viewed through the entrance gates), its pediment decorated with a painting by Valdemar Andersen that shows men of crafts and industry. The third shows the “Carlsberg Column” (another beer advertisement!) and a reflection pool. All of these monuments were constructed on a wooden frame and taken down after the exhibition ended. Images are taken from

This was, of course, by no means an innocent moment in Aarhus’ (or Danish) history. The most popular parts of the National Exhibition focused on ethnography and demonstrate the contemporary colonial imagination in full effect. One part focused on the life of Greenland’s indigenous population (and the history of Danish exploration in the Arctic). Another was an “Abyssinian village”, populated by 80 Ethiopians that had been transported to Aarhus from a Hamburg zoo (Tierpark Hagenbeck, still operating today).

Even if is written primarily from the perspective of local history, Johan Bender has written a nice and very beautifully illustrated book about the National Exhibition: Hurra for Århus: Landsudstillingen 1909 – vejene til og sporene fra (Aarhus 2008). Specifically on classical architecture in the National Exhibition, there are a few remarks in the introduction to Vinnie Nørskov (ed.), Antikken i Århus (Aarhus 2008), pp. 19-21.

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