The National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen is the largest collection of Danish cultural and historic items – a top must-see sight for visitors but unfortunately no longer free.
The galleries of the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen cover life in Denmark from pre-history to the present. Highlights include artifacts and objects from the bronze and iron ages, as well as items from the Viking era. The museum also has a notable collection of ethnographic items from all over the world and a small but impressive gallery of classical and Near Eastern antiquities. Admission is no longer free, except for children under 18.
National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen
The National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet) in Copenhagen is the largest and most important of a series of museums, galleries and related sites covering Danish history and culture.
The permanent exhibitions at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen are arranged in:
- Danish Prehistory (up to AD1050)
- Danish Middle Ages and Renaissance
- Stories of Denmark (1660 to the present)
- Ethnographic Collection
- Royal Collection of Coins and Medals
- Classical and Near Eastern Antiquities
- Children’s Museum
What to See in the National Museum of Denmark
The National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen is much too big to see in a single visit. Visitors without a specific interest in other themes should concentrate on the Danish history sections. Even these collections are vast – the Stories of Denmark (1660 – present) section alone has more than 5,000 items on display.
For visitors with limited time it may be sensible to focus on the Danish Prehistory to Viking era section on the ground floor of the museum. The items here are more unique and unlike items that can be seen in museum throughout Europe. Even here, don’t get bogged in details at the start of the display to suffer from museum fatigue, or run out of time, when the really good stuff appears.
Danish History Exhibitions in the National Museum of Denmark
The biggest part of the National Museum in Copenhagen is dedicated to the Danish history. The collection is split into three permanent exhibitions covering pre-history to the Viking era (around AD 1050), the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, and finally Denmark after 1660 to the present.
The Danish Prehistory exhibition covers the period from around 13,000 BC to AD 1050. This arguably is the best part of the museum for visitors to Copenhagen.
The exhibition starts with the earliest signs of human life in the Denmark region during the Mesolithic period including a double grave of mother and child from 7,000 years ago and the almost intact skeleton of an elk that probably died of exhaustion after an unsuccessful hunt. More items from human activity survived from the Neolithic period including hunting tools, weapons, pots, and items from graves.
Many of the museum’s price items are from the Bronze Age: a unique, almost complete horse-drawn sun chariot and several lurs. The large Gundestrup cauldron made of nearly 9 kg of silver is the most impressive of the large Iron Age items but here, as from the previous epoch, smaller items and jewelry show highly skilled artists at work. The Golden Horns are copies of the ones stolen and melted down in 1802.
The last rooms cover the around two centuries of Viking history including rune stones, silver hoards and fine goldsmith items from the Viking Age. (For Viking boats visit the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde to the west of Copenhagen, or the fantastic Moesgaard Museum near Aarhus.)
Danish Middle Ages and Renaissance
During the Middle Ages (1000-1536), the Christian church mostly dictated art and culture. This was also the period in which towns became established in Denmark in addition to the rural farming and fishing communities. The end of the Middle Ages in Denmark is usually seen as 1536 when the Lutheran Reformation was accepted as state religion.
The Renaissance in Denmark covered the period from 1536 to the introduction of absolute monarchy in 1660. The crown benefited the most from the Reformation but other nobles and the new merchant upper class in cities also gained in importance. Much of the period was spent at war and ended with Sweden occupying all of Denmark except Copenhagen – silver hoards on display testify to the attempts of many Danes to hide their wealth from the invaders during these turbulent years.
Stories of Denmark (post 1660)
Rather than just following a chronological history, this section of the museum often tells the stories of everyday life, of different people’s lives, special events and important occasions in the development of modern Denmark. More than 5,000 items are on display in this section of the museum alone.
The main themes are:
Absolute Monarchy (1660-1848)
Following the disastrous war with Sweden, Frederik III established the absolute monarchy in a coup. The glamour of the court and nobles was in stark contrast to the poverty of especially farmers and laborers. Denmark’s disastrous support for Napoleon led to the bombardment of Copenhagen by the British navy and the loss of Norway at the Peace of Vienna (1814-15).
The Nation State (1848-1915)
Absolutism came to a peaceful end in Denmark with the death of Christian VIII in 1848, the year of so many revolutions in Europe. A disastrous war with the German states, principally Prussia, led to the loss of Schleswig and half of Denmark’s territory in 1864. This led to a conscious attempt to increase Danish nationalism in art, cultural and society in general. Despite the political and diplomatic failures, for art the mid-19th century was a golden age. (The free National Gallery of Denmark has many works on display from this period.)
The Welfare State (1915-2000)
During the twentieth century, Denmark strengthened democracy and continued social reforms led to development of a modern welfare state with provisions for the whole population and remarkable equality and personal freedom. Two special sections in this era are:
The German Occupation (1940-45) – this museum is rather frank about things that many other European museums on this period seriously under or overplay: Denmark realized the power difference and gave up without a fight to save cities and lives, the Danish generally cooperated with the occupiers so daily life could continue and Denmark had one of the highest standards of living in Europe during the Second World War years. Serious resistance only started in 1943 when Germany started to suffer defeats elsewhere. Denmark remained occupied until the end of the war and was liberated following Germany’s surrender without any allied troops fighting on Danish soil.
The 1950s and 1960s in Denmark – a generally positive period in Denmark despite the fear of nuclear war during the Cold War, the sexual revolution saw the increase in liberty in Danish society, which finally led to the establishment in the 1970s (and later acceptance) of the Free State of Christiana in Copenhagen.
The Royal Collection of Coins and Medals
Den Kongelige Mønt- og Medaillesamlings Udstilling is currently closed for renovation. It consists of around 10,000 coins and medals from antiquity to the present. The collection also has copies of ever coin and medal struck by the Royal Mint since 1713.
The National Museum of Denmark has a large ethnographic collection of items from all parts of the world. Many items were collected as early at the seventeenth century for the royal curiosities collection but acquisitions continue with the latest permanent display on Cosplay and Manga Youth.
This collection is vast with the galleries spread over two floors of the museum. English descriptions are often limited and for many visitors it would be sensible to concentrate on the displays from the Artic regions and Greenland, which not only have close connections to Denmark but are better described in English too.
Classical and Near Eastern Antiquities
It seems almost obligatory for major Danish museums to have at least one section that seems out of place and in the case of the National History Museum it is the rather splendid collection of classical and Near Eastern antiquities.
This section is probably low on the priority list of visitors to Denmark. However, even a quick walk through these well-lit, and usually very quiet, galleries will be rewarding. The go-to museum for antiquities is the nearby Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket.
The Children’s Museum
The children’s museum is aimed at children up to around age 12. Here everything may be touched and played with if not displayed behind glass.
Children may dress up, play on a copy of a Viking boat, experience a 1920s classroom and play traditional games. This separate section of the museum is often very busy on weekends.
Visitors Information for the National Museum
Opening Hours of the National Museum
The National Museum of Denmark is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 17:00. The museum is closed on Monday and December 24, 25 and 31.
Admission to the museum is no longer free and there are no free days either. Admission is DKK55 for an adult but free for children up to 18. An adult visiting with a child pays only DKK80! Tickets are available online from Tiqets.
The Copenhagen Card is valid.
The season pass, which include unlimited admission for one adult plus a companion, is good value at DKK295 per year.
Free wifi is available throughout the museum. Visitors are encouraged to photograph items and share photos liberally.
The pleasant café offers cake as well as typical Danish lunches.
Location and Transportation to the Nationalmuseet
The National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet), Prinsens Palæ, Ny Vestergade 10, 1471 Copenhagen K, tel. +45 33 13 44 11, is located just off the Slotsholmen Island in the south of Copenhagen city. It is halfway between the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the Christiansborg Slot (and Thorvaldsens Museum) with the museum entrance in the smaller back road – not from Stormgade used by buses (and heavy traffic).
From many parts of central Copenhagen, walking of cycling may be the easiest options. Buses 1A, 2A, 9A and 26 stop near the museum at Stormbroen or Glyptoteket.
More Danish History Museums
For more on Danish cultural and applied arts history it is worth visiting the National History Museum in Frederiksborg Slot, the largest Renaissance castle in Scandinavia located to the north of Copenhagen. The Rosenborg Slot in Copenhagen also give an insight into royal life and palace interiors while the free David Collection has an eclectic collection of expensive European furniture in addition to the magnificent Islamic art collection that it is most famous for.