Designmuseum Denmark in Copenhagen is one of the world’s leading design museums. On the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast, host Sharon Berman spoke to the museum’s curator and museum keeper, Anne Cathrine Wolsgaard Iversen. Anne Cathrine offered an inside look at the museum’s upcoming exhibitions, as well as Denmark’s unique “Jewellery Box” program. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m delighted to have as my guest Anne Cathrine Wolsgaard Iversen. Anne Cathrine is curator and museum keeper at Designmuseum Denmark in Copenhagen. She’s an expert on art, architecture, and arts and crafts from the period of 1880 to 1920, which encompasses Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Today, we’re going to talk about this intriguing museum, which I recently had a chance to visit, its rich history and some of the innovative programs it’s putting on today. Anne Cathrine, welcome to the Jewelry Journey.
Anne: Thank you very much, Sharon.
Sharon: The Designmuseum is such an interesting place and the work you do looks so fascinating. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your career path?
Anne: Yes, of course. I was brought up with art, especially by my grandfather and my mother. They always took me and my siblings to exhibitions on art as well as to historic buildings and sites. Since I was in my teen years, I considered studying different things at university. I both considered literature and philosophy, but then I realized that I would miss the visual part, and that literature and philosophy, as well as history, are combined in art history. So, when I decided to study art history, it became a rather natural choice for me.
Sharon: How did you get into museum work from that?
Anne: When I was studying, I worked in different museums and archives. At the time—it was back in the 1990s—it was almost obligatory that you worked at least one day a week with something closely related to your studies because it was a good way to get an impression of what real working life would be when you finished, and to get some good connections in the art world. So, I worked in an archive and I worked in different museums. A few months after I completed my studies back in 2000, some of my connections actually secured me part-time employment on an exhibition with a museum. Soon after that, I got a two-year position as a curator in the Danish Museum and from then on, I’ve been working with art history, lecturing, curating and so on.
Sharon: Wow, that sounds so fascinating! We only had a short bit of time to spend at the Designmuseum Denmark, but you could spend days there, it’s so interesting. Can you tell me more about it, when it was established, how does it fit into Denmark’s museum landscape? It’s such an interesting place.
Anne: Yes, thank you, we are happy to hear that. The museum was founded in 1890 by Danish Industries and the Carlsberg Foundation. I’m sure you have heard about Carlsberg? They also established the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek , another museum, and the Designmuseum Denmark – it had a different name at that time, but it opened to the public in 1895. In 1926, it moved to its current location, which is a former hospital. As I think we talked about when you were visiting us, this hospital was built in the middle of the 18th century by a quite famous architect in Denmark, Nicolai Eigtved. He’s famous because he also created Amalienborg, the royal castle where the royal family has their residence.
The idea behind the museum was to communicate the idea of quality in design. The industrialization in the 19th century and the sudden ability to mass produce generated a lot of objects for daily use that were very often made with cheap materials and not that well designed. As a reaction against this, we saw the birth of the arts and crafts movement, and their ideals spread out all over Europe and the United States. In Europe, many of the arts and crafts museums, like the Designmuseum Denmark in Denmark, were founded around 1900. The idea was that by exhibiting beautiful, well-designed items in a high-quality setting, the museum could raise the level of Danish industrial products and be a source of inspiration for people working in the industry. That is still our aim, and our goal is also to make nowadays consumers more critical and quality-oriented when they look at design and handicraft.
Sharon: That’s interesting. You think of Denmark as a place of design, and it sounds like it started way before we think of it.
Anne: Yes, because I think a lot of our guests nowadays, when they think about Denmark and design, they think about Danish modernism and they think about art furniture. They are mostly connected from the 30s, 40s, up to now, where we’re quite famous for it, especially in Japan. We have a lot of guests from Japan who are crazy about coming and looking at Danish furniture from this century and the last 50 years from the last century, but actually we began much sooner.
Sharon: I want to talk about a couple of the exhibits. One of them was the “Crème de la Crème,” which was a great idea. Can you tell us about that and how it came about?
Anne: Yes, of course. I think that the title says a lot, “Crème de la Crème.” The main idea was to show a selection of our absolutely top-class and most delicious objects, such as a really, really good cup of coffee. We have many works by famous artists, such as Gauguin, Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec, but they are often lent out to other museums. They travel around the world most of the time. At one time, we considered calling this exhibit “Grounded” instead of “Crème de la Crème,” because we’re saying these pieces are now grounded like an airplane. So, this year, we had a chance to show them all because none of them were going to be lent out to other museums, and that was the main idea. We thought, “This is a big chance,” and a lot of our guests have asked, “We know you have this beautiful tapestry by Matisse, and we know you have all these wonderful original posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, but why are they not on display?” So, it was a combination of a lot of people would like to see them and we had all the items in-house.
While you were there and saw the exhibition, we arranged six different rooms, each with a specific theme and covering a specific style or period. We had a rococo room and an Art Nouveau room, and in each room, we put some of our most beautiful, precious items on display. We also wanted to focus on good handicraft and showing our guests some of the fantastic techniques that have been used to produce these items. Some of those techniques are almost forgotten now and are not in use anymore. For instance, we have rose glasses with gold leaves in between, which are called gold sandwich decorations because gold leaves are lying in between two pieces of glass. We also exhibited jewelry and we also wanted to show some of the very beautiful jewelry we have by Georg Jensen. I think you pronounce it Georg Jensen.
Anne: You know who he is, of course, and he was a very important figure in the development of hammered silver hardware as well as jewelry. I think it’s quite interesting that it was George Jensen who made it fashionable to hammer silver and leave it that way, with all the hammered marks on. Usually you polish the marks away so that it’s really shiny and looks the same all around, but for Jensen it was very important to capture the reflections in the silverware -he said, because silver is one of the most beautiful materials we have. It captured some of the moonlight, which reminded him of bright, summer nights.
Sharon: Oh, wow! And today, we just accept it as that’s the way it is.
Anne: Exactly, but actually, he began this fashion with hammered silver, and it soon spread all over Europe and everyone wanted to have this hammered silver, but actually it was not fashionable until he brought it up.
Sharon: It was a great way to see the highlights and feel like you were seeing the Crème de la Crème. Is it over now?
Anne: No, we have it until the end of January and then, unfortunately, we have to take it down and make room for new exhibitions in the spring.
Sharon: Can you tell us what’s coming up?
Anne: Yes, I can. Next year, we will have an exhibit on the Bauhaus.
Sharon: Oh, wow!
Anne: Yeah, as you probably know, 2019 is the hundred-year anniversary for Bauhaus.
Sharon: No, I didn’t know that. Do you want to explain what Bauhaus is in case our listeners aren’t familiar with it?
Bauhaus started in Germany, and it was a group of architects and artists who wanted modern art and architecture. They made this beautiful house they built themselves. They wanted simplicity in art, and they wanted modernity and color. They had three different leaders. They only existed very shortly from 1919 to 1933, when they were closed by the Nazis, but the influence was huge all over the world, considering art, but also considering architecture. For instance, in Denmark, we think that the modern movement in Danish architecture with Arne Jacobsen was highly affected by Bauhaus, so in a way, without them there wouldn’t have been that kind of architecture.
Sharon: Wow, that sounds like it’s going to be a fabulous exhibit.
Anne: I think so. We think it’s important now that it’s shown in Denmark and in Copenhagen to show the influence of Bauhaus on Danish architects, so there’ll be a section hopefully with that. The year after, in 2020, we will have an exhibition of something that is extremely close to Danish hearts, the bicycle.
Sharon: Oh, interesting.
Anne: I don’t know how much you noticed when you were here, but in Denmark and Holland the bicycle is very important. I saw a program the other day that said 99% of all Danish children can bike at the age of ten. This would be a huge exhibition. We’ll try to cover all the aspects of the bicycle, the cultural history and, of course, will consider the environment. It’s become much more fashionable to ride a bike, but in Denmark, it’s been more than a hundred years that it’s been something that people use daily to go to work.
Sharon: Yeah, we definitely noticed, and we had to be very careful where we were walking, but it’s fabulous. It’s going to be a popular exhibit, I’m sure.
Anne: We hope so.
Sharon: We also saw the “Jewellery Box” program, which is something I can’t imagine doing over here. Tell us what the “Jewellery Box” program is and how it works.
Anne: Yes, of course. It’s—how shall I put it—it’s not our idea, so to speak. We are hosting the Jewellery Box and we have a selection of the objects in the Jewellery Box on display. The Jewellery Box is a collection of contemporary jewelry, and it’s actually part of a larger program of collections where the Danish Art Foundation, which is part of the Danish state, will buy art objects from contemporary Danish artists and designers. Those art objects can be borrowed by public institutions, such as schools, nursing homes, hospitals, ministries and so on for a given period. This foundation has existed since 1978, and since 2007, you can also borrow jewelry from this program. It’s rather new, actually. You can borrow the jewelry for up to one month. All Danish citizens can borrow a piece of jewelry; what’s important is what event they’re going to use it for. That’s what decides whether they can borrow it or not. It has to be something a bit official, such as the opening of a seminar, a public exhibition or a TV or film production where you’re hosting. But you simply apply, and you can see all the jewelry. There’s an official website where anyone can see what’s on display. There are many objects, and you simply make a choice and then you send in an application. Most of the time you’re allowed to borrow it, but of course there’s some limitation on it. One is that the value of the jewelry you borrow must be less than $8,000.
Sharon: So, does the program buy jewelry that is worth more than $8,000, or is that the limit in terms of what they buy?
Anne: No, they do buy more expensive things, because the idea of the foundation is to make sure that the Danish state supports and buys important art works as well as jewelry from contemporary artists and keeps it. Some of the jewelry that is more expensive will probably end up in museums one day and some of them are already there. You can take them out and say, “This is a common museum item only for exhibitions,” but the ones that are less than $8,000 dollars can be bought.
Sharon: Is it a well-used program?
Anne: I think it could actually be used more. We have two or three long-term loans a month, which I think is not that much, but it’s only ten or eleven years since you could start borrowing from this program. It’s sort of a word-of-mouth thing, where someone borrows something and the other one says, “Oh, that’s really beautiful, where did you buy that?” and they say “Oh, I didn’t buy it. I borrowed it from the art jewelry program.” You can borrow up to ten pieces at a time, so that’s a lot I think. Clients are extremely grateful to borrow new things, because many of them are quite surprised that it’s possible and that it exists, as you were.
Sharon: Hopefully people will hear about it here.
Anne: Yes, and then they’ll have to become Danish citizens.
Sharon: Well, that wouldn’t be so bad either.
Anne: I imagine you would also like to know what people prefer to borrow, perhaps.
Sharon: Yes, please, tell us.
Anne: I think it’s quite interesting because it’s 50/50 between classic jewelry and the more experimental jewelry. One thing that is not very often lent out is finger rings, because they have sizes and it’s really difficult. You might see one on the internet and you think, “This is very beautiful, and I could borrow it,” but it’s too small or too big. So, brooches are very popular.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense, no sizing.
Anne: I think that makes a lot of sense, exactly, because very often if you’re going to do a speech or you’re hosting something, you’re going to wear a jacket or something where it fits perfectly to put on a brooch.
Sharon: Have you ever borrowed anything?
Anne: No, I haven’t borrowed anything yet. I have a beautiful collection of my own at home, which is very nice, but I think I might do it in the future. I should be more aware of it, but it’s also a bit interesting because some of the jewelry is more popular than others and it’s not always there. It could be lent out when you want to borrow it.
Sharon: You’re saying that it’s not just at your museum, but there’s a website and it’s also at other museums?
Anne: No, for the time being, it’s housed in the Designmuseum Denmark in Denmark. It’s been here since it opened in 2007, but it will be passed on to another museum, I think perhaps next year. They will host it for a while. All the jewelry is with us, except the ones that are very expensive and that are already part of museum collections. It will be passed on to another institution, but it will go on. The system will continue so that you can borrow from it.
Sharon: It sounds so innovative. Tell me about how you decide what the exhibits are going to be and who decides that. You’ve decided there’s going to be a bicycle exhibit. Are you still rounding up pieces up for that?
Anne: I think it differs a lot where the ideas come from. Anyone working here or from outside is welcome to come with an idea, but usually or very often the ideas develop between the director, the head of exhibitions and the curator. Some things are in the “zeitgeist,” sometimes it’s just an idea that is in the air already. For instance, the bicycle idea has been floating around. Bicycles are such a big thing in Denmark and we get so much credit abroad, and there has been a lot of writing about it. I think it was a natural decision; now it’s time that we make a bicycle exhibition. We’re a design museum and it’s obvious that we should make a big exhibition, and this will of course be one. We’ve already begun preparing it because we’re not doing it alone; we’ll have some partners in it and perhaps also some sort of catalogue or book. When it’s a huge exhibition, of course it takes a lot of time. We usually start planning something like this at least two or three years in advance, but other times, for instance the “Crème de la Crème,” we made that quite quickly.
Sharon: Well, it sounds like the work you do is so fascinating. Anne Cathrine, thank you so much. It was great to meet you and I look forward to getting back to the Designmuseum Denmark. Everybody, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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