History in the making

Theme

History is everywhere

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In the summer of 1805, Rasmus Nyrup (1759-1829) walked his way around Funen to see the island’s historic sites. The trip turned out to be a disappointing reunion with the countryside and monuments he remembered from his childhood. Runic stones had been demolished and gravestones toppled. Indignant, he returned to Copenhagen and began to speak about the need to protect “disappearing antiquities” and to establish a national museum. The idea won the support of the historical societies of the day, and was bolstered by the dawning national romantic sentiment. Two years later, a commission for the preservation of antiquities was established, and the cornerstone of the National Museum had been laid.

The key to the present
Prior to the 19th century, people reckoned history in terms of Biblical timelines. Based on its chronology, scholars believed that the Earth, and thus all of history, was about 6,000 years old. Moreover, it was assumed that there were no fundamental differences between prehistoric and modern humans. History was first and foremost a treasure trove of moral stories. The first written history of Denmark is the “Gesta Danorum” (The Acts of the Danes), written by Saxo Grammaticus around the year 1200. As late as the 18th century, one of the most popular history books was “The Great and Good Acts of Danes, Norwegians and Holsatians”.

Nyrup and other 19th-century historians felt history was a more complicated matter than great acts. Geological layers and archaeological finds of considerable age hinted that the Biblical timeline might not be accurate after all. History came to focus less on tales about the past and more on scientific studies of historic sources and change. The past was to be studied and preserved because it was, according to prevailing thought of the day, the key to understanding “the creation of the nation and the particular Danish ethnic character”.

History moves into the museum
Apart from the topics of the royal family, nobility and heroes, early popular historical interest focused on Denmark’s prehistory. In addition to the National Museum, local museums were being set up, including the Historical Collection in Ribe, housing prehistoric finds. Later, the Middle Ages began to draw people’s attention, as did the country’s churches, which came to be protected by the Church Inspection Act of 1861. By the end of the century, interest in traditional peasant culture and town culture began to grow, and resulted in the founding of the Open Air Museum in 1901, the Old Town open air museum in 1909 and the creation of historical preservation legislation. At the same time, local history museums were being founded, and since most were located in historic buildings they contributed further to the preservation of these buildings.

In the 20th century, increasing industrialisation was starting to leave its mark on the landscape and many older buildings. The concern it raised led to the first nature preservation laws in 1917, and the first historical listing law in 1918. For many years, listing efforts concentrated on preserving old city homes and manors, in addition to public buildings such as castles and town halls. Peasant culture was the responsibility of the museums.

Traces of history
Today, museums, archaeological digs, historical protection regulations, preserved cultural sites and storage rooms are bursting with historical items. The 19th century understanding that history is not just tales and legends, it is everywhere in the landscape, houses, items and habits, lives on. When we build houses, work the earth or build roads and ports, we create the backdrop for our historical memory, as well as for how we live. Sometimes this imprint lasts a long time. For this reason, time has engendered in us a desire to protect and preserve history. By doing so we acknowledge our past and help foster an array of cultures and diversity in the world around us.