Surrounded by woods on the outskirts of Aarhus, the Moesgaard Museum (MOMU), designed by Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects (HLA), offers a new perspective on the role of the museum as a public space.
The new Moesgaard Museum was opened in October 2014 to house specialized archaeological and ethnographic exhibitions. It was designed by HLA and commissioned through an invited competition process.
The museum’s overall concept is inspired by the process of archaeological excavation. This is articulated through a powerful gesture: a colossal sloped-roof structure that erupts from the ground. The roof acts as a container for all museum functions below while also providing an accessible public space on top. Rather than the rooftop being a secondary function of the building, visitors appear to appreciate the view just as much as the exhibitions below. Indeed, climbing the zigzagging path up the roof before entering the museum almost feels like a rite of passage.
Amidst a picturesque landscape of rolling hills and dense forest, the almost Brutalist concrete roof structure could be seen as quite imposing. However, HLA’s decision to turf the top with grass, moss, and wildflowers softens the building and blends it into its surroundings. Furthermore, the design draws on a palette of raw materials to reinforce that this is a building deeply connected to the land, its history, and its ancient culture.
Apart from concrete, which is used extensively to create a monolithic and robust form, the building is punctuated with softer humanizing materials such as glass and timber. Vertical timber lamellas echo the trunks of the nearby forest as they break the façade into slim panes of glass. This highly transparent façade dissolves the boundary between the interior and exterior as well as flooding the interior with natural light.
The building is laid out on simple perpendicular axes. The horizontal axis is an open, light-filled hall consisting of an entry foyer, ticketing, museum shop, and a large dining area. Despite being buried under tons of concrete and earth, the high ceilings, plentiful daylight and excellent acoustic performance give an air of openness. A grand staircase cuts this space in half, allowing visitors to reach the upper and lower exhibition spaces. The staircase also acts as a gathering place, with double-height stairs creating seating for visitors.
In contrast to the light-filled hall, it is only when visitors descend the stairs into the large exhibition space that they experience the subterranean nature of both the building and the archaeological findings it houses. The lower exhibition rooms consist of large cavernous spaces with no natural daylight. Visitors are offered opportunities of respite from the darkness through a series of breakout spaces. After being underground for so long, these spaces reconnect the visitor with the outside and offer a chance to rest and reflect.
The usual judge of success for such a high caliber museum would focus on the clarity of the overall concept, quality of finishing and functionality – in these categories MOMU would excel. However, MOMU is successful as a building as well, because its sloping roof has provided locals with a new dynamic public space. During the warmer months, the area also functions as a picnic spot with views over Aarhus Bay; in wintertime, with snowfall, it is transformed into the area’s largest sledding spot. Opportunities such as these may seem like a lucky consequence of the building design, but with so many Danish architecture firms currently questioning how buildings can give back to the public realm, it is obvious that this was a conscious design motivation by HLA.