Becoming a Copenhager or Don’t Leave me Alone with the Danes

Nyhavn Harbour, Copenhagen

I caught Becoming a Copenhager just days before the Museum of Copenhagen closed its doors in preparation for its relocation to a refurbished building in the city centre. I liked the idea. An exhibition about internal migration from the countryside to the capital as well as from abroad: that explored what unites rather than divides people – living in this stunning city. But would the exhibition live up to my expectations?

Cities can be exciting but, for a newcomer especially, they can be lonely, dangerous places. Copenhagen, it seems, is no exception. A wooden model depicts a 19th century scenario. A country bumpkin peers through a hole in the wall of an apartment to take a closer look at a naked woman. The newcomer has been lured to the apartment by two unscrupulous men who trap him with an iron bar and empty his pockets, leaving him without a krone.

Replica of an apartment at Vesterbro

“We wanted to bring an element of lightness to the topic of arrival,” says Jakob, the curator. He admits to having misgivings as to how far such humour can extend to the treatment of more recent migrants from outside Denmark.

I peer into cases filled with personal objects, intimate photographs. The baby book of a child adopted from Africa. A billiard cue of a young man, Kin Deng, from Jutland, who came to the capital to study. He has stayed on despite his fears that Copenhagers would be stuck up and not understand his humour.

“I haven’t become a Copenhager yet,” he asserts. “I’m a Jutlander through and through.”

Cases showing personal objects and intimate photographers of Copenhagers

I learn about the Dutch who settled in Amager in the 16th century and introduced new vegetables and methods of cultivation. They were invited by the King who recognised their skills and granted them special privileges. The prosperous Dutch pose outside church in stylish headgear and fine jackets and gowns – their Sunday best.

The Last Nap Hat in Copenhagen: Family in front of the church in Store Malby 1904

Other communities received less of a welcome. The Roma, in particular, were treated as outcasts with laws expelling them from the country dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1906 a colourful group of travelling entertainers were handed a deportation order under the Aliens Act of 1875. But Marietta, daughter of the troupe leader, went down on her knees before King Frederick V111. You can see why the King allowed them to stay – they are an attractive, talented bunch.

But on the King’s death in 1937 the troupe were expelled. Only Marietta was able to stay as she had married a Danish resident, Edvard Rosenhagen, a bear tamer. Edvard stands bear-like, erect and proud, his fingers in his waistcoat but his bears were to be his downfall.

Edvard Rosenberg and 3 members of Marietta’s troops just before a performance. Marietta is on the left.

Marietta remained in Denmark after her husband was killed in an accident with his animals. She survived on her wits and fortune telling.

Marietta, husband and family

Today there are Roma living in Helsinger. They first settled on Amager Common in 1972 and, after fierce debate, were finally granted asylum.

German migration to Copenhagen goes back to the Middle Ages when the city was a port town for the Baltic trade. But the increasing power of the Germans in public office came to be resented. Johan Freidrich Struensse from Halle was employed as Christian V11’s personal physician on the King’s grand tour. He became a close confidante at court but took advantage of the King’s madness and his relationship to the Queen to take power in 1770. Many of his reforms, including freedom of the press, were popular but his German origins were increasingly held against him and he was brutally executed. The subsequent Citizens Act Birthright Legislation in 1776, a law unique in 18th century Europe, stated that public office,   ‘can only be enjoyed by native subjects and those who are considered equal.’ No longer would a German upstart be allowed to rise to such heights.

In 1905 Alberta and Victor came to Copenhagen to perform in the West Indies section of the colonial exhibition held in Tivoli pleasure gardens.

Excerpt from film Postcards – Tivoli by Nanna Debois Buhl, 2006

After the exhibition the children did not return home but were sent to a children’s home.

Alberta is questioned in class at Vajsenhus School 1908

Alberta died from pneumonia at the age of 16 but Victor became a teacher, school principal, choirmaster and public speaker. I watch a television interview where Victor recalls his early days in Tivoli. The Danish weren’t, “accustomed to seeing black people at the time and …..since I couldn’t behave a cage was installed. People stuck their fingers through the bars to see if we would bite them because rumour had it that we were cannibal children…..”

Excerpt from film Postcards – Tivoli by Nanna Debois Buhl, 2006

I cringe thoughout the interview but particularly  at the end when Victor is asked to sing a negro spiritual – to perform once more?

I smile at amusing art works. A popular poster, ‘Don’t leave me alone with the Danes.’ I watch a film clip of a teenager, with an Arab father, explaining how she had to leave home as her Danish mother disapproved of her wearing a burqah. They left on good terms, respecting each other’s views. But it is a film of the actor, Janus Nabil Bakrawa, that addresses the central theme of the exhibition. Janus’s mother is Polish, his father Palestinian. For some time he went along with the derisive, racist jokes he was subjected to but then reacted. Janus  started to take an interest in Islam, stopped eating pork, developed an attitude and worked in a pizzeria because that is what ‘real’ Arabs do – evidently. He couldn’t relate to being a Dane – a Viking heritage, a Danish flag meant little to him but, ‘being from Copenhagen, that I can identify with.’

Film My Denmark, Director Vibe Mogensen, Final Cut Productions, 2006. Actor Janus Nail Bakrawa walks through Copenhagen talking about identity and memory

This was  an interesting exhibition – fascinating stories, use of historical images and objects as well as contemporary art and film footage that avoided stereotyping individuals or communities. Interestingly the Museum did not consult with communities, fearing this might contribute to a more segregated, rather than integrated, exhibition – the Chinese or Arab section for example.

But I leave with some sympathy with Kin Deng from Jutland who believes he will never become a Copenhager. I have lived in London for over 40 years and love the city but, having been born and brought up in Lancashire, still consider myself a northerner. Besides where I live is part of, but not all of, my identity, complex and shifting as it inevitably is.

And how comparable are the experiences of someone who migrates from within the country with someone who migrates from abroad and across the decades? What other factors such as skin colour, culture, class and gender come into play? Complex questions to be sure but I feel confident that the lessons learnt from this well received and popular exhibition will contribute to a revitalised and relevant Museum of Copenhagen when it reopens.

It is New Year’s Day, 2016.  What will this year bring? Will I ‘become’ –  an East Ender, Londoner or world citizen, turn my back on my roots? I remember the words of Ligia, an eleven year old from Brazil living in Hackney.  I  asked her where she considered home.

” I don’t have a preference. That would be really [laughs] unfair if I chose one over the other ‘cause it’s impossible.”


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