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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... Magasin du Nord Museum

Once a hotel and home to Hans Christian Anderson, the store became Denmark's answer to Harrods and Bloomingdales.

When I come to Copenhagen there is one stop I make and always one I recommend. I head for coffee and cake in the bookshop café of the department store Magasin Du Nord. It really has become one of my happy places.


Covering six floors in a vast turn-of-the-century building on Kongens Nytorv, Magasin du Nord is Denmark's largest and best-known department store, the equivalent of Harrods in London or Bloomingdales in New York.


The Danish retailer has seven stores based in Copenhagen, Lyngby, Roedovre, Fields, Odense, Aarhus and Aalborg, as well as an online store and was, until recently, owned by department store chain Debenhams. It now operates as an independent chain and is currently owned by the German-based fashion giant Peek & Cloppenburg.


The store is well worth a visit and so easy to get to, as there is a metro station with an escalator right up to the entrance of the store at Kongens Nytorv, past a lovely flower seller. The ground floor food hall is lovely and at Christmas is a great place to pick up a seasonal treat, especially their fabulous selection of advent calendars and I always make sure I have suitcase space for them. Their homeware department is also a great stop, where you can see a curated selection of wares from Danish design firms in one space.

But for me, there's nothing better than grabbing a book (even if I can't read Danish) and sitting up at a high table by the windows in the coffee shop in the book store, with an earl grey, a slice of apple cake, and views over to the Opera house and the bustle of the square below.


What I only found out on my last trip was their museum, which opened in 2013. It traces the first 150 years of the department store chain and houses seasonal exhibitions. I finished my tea and headed downstairs to see what I could learn.


The brand history

Based only in Denmark, Magasin du Nord can trace its roots back to 1868, when Theodor Wessel and Emil Vett opened a draper's shop in Aarhus.


In 1870 they opened a modest shop in Aalborg, Jutland and found premises in the nation's capital, Copenhagen, for their business, in rented rooms in the Hotel du Nord on Kongens Nytorv, where the famous author Hans Christian Andersen had boarded from 1838 until 1847.


As the store grew, it occupied more and more space within the hotel and even incorporated its name.

By 1889 they had demolished the hotel and a neighbouring building and work began on the flagship department store building we see today, modelled after the French department store Le Bon Marché in Paris. Interestingly, they maintained the name Hotel du Nord over the main entrance. The new store opened in 1893 with four floors of goods from all over the world and from their own furniture and textile factories in Denmark.

In 1900 both Theodore and Emil resigned from the general day-to-day running of the company and Theodore died in 1905 followed by Emil in 1911.


The company continued to open branches throughout Denmark and at its peak, there were 138 stores spread across the country. In 1918, the Kongens Nytorv store employed 1,800 clerks, 600 factory workers and hundreds of home seamstresses. The staff benefitted from improved working conditions such as free medical cover, holiday homes for rent in Hundested, sports associations, an art club and a pension fund.


The company was listed on the Danish Stock Exchange in 1952 after which it was decided to have fewer, larger department stores.


But like many department store firms, Magasin has seen tough times since the late 1990s and has witnessed several takeovers. They maintain not just a brick-and-mortar presence in Denmark but also an online store, which is expanding into Sweden.


But, with the challenges of a changing retail world, the former cathedrals of commerce have been floundering. Stores that develop into destinations, blending entertainment and shopping, focusing on local producers, connection, heritage, nostalgia and engagement, will be those that survive and thrive. In fact, department stores would do well to go back to how Magasin and its peers of the time started out, when they were envisaged more as a gallery or museum, a place to play, a place to learn, a gathering place, and a place of wonder. Makes you wonder why more stores don't have a museum in them.


The Visitor Centre design

There are several iconic department stores in the world, Harrods in London, Bloomingdales in New York, and Galeries Lafayette in Paris for example. But there are very few physical store museums. So I head off to my favourite store with much excitement.

Don’t expect a large museum, as it’s only one room as I found out, but I managed to while away over an hour in there, looking through their archive materials, even though most of it was in Danish. They do have some English handouts for some of their displays, but I found Google Translate worked for much of it. As a relatively small museum, it may not attract as many visitors as larger, more well-known museums in Copenhagen. However, it may still be of interest to those who are interested in the history of retail and the development of department stores in Europe.

Housed in an historic building behind the department store, it was once owned by King Hans in 1500 who installed a mint and a vineyard on the premises. To the right of the entrance door to the museum, you can still see a portion of the staircase that led up to HC Andersen's room.

The Wessel & Vetts Foundation runs the Magasin du Nord Museum with the aim of giving the public the opportunity to connect with Magasin's history and culture. The foundation's board currently includes three descendants of founder Emil Vett.


Magasin du Nord has employees that can trace a family connection to the store back several generations and when I visited there were retired employees reminiscing about their time working there. The brand encourages ex-employees to share their memories with them to enhance the collection and provide a resource for future storytelling.

The best thing about the museum is the fact that they change their exhibitions regularly, so there's always something new to see. The exhibition 'At work in Magasin' will be shown at Magasin du Nord from 9 March to 29 October 2023 and I'll be back to visit that as it will focus not just on staff uniforms but also on wider issues such as changes in work practices and conditions. But you also access previous exhibitions online through their website. It really is a fascinating glimpse into the brand's past.


There are QR codes on many of the display cases too, so you can get even more information as you peruse the collection.


The one-room museum isn't going to win any design awards and each display cabinet is packed with information and artefacts, but it is better to have one room with some historic value than none at all.


The museum could be seen as part of retail theatre, where elements of performance and entertainment create a unique and memorable shopping experience for customers. It delivers an additional environment that engages and entertains customers, making their visit to the store more than just a transactional exchange.


Entrance

The entrance to the museum is out of the store itself and round the side of the building in a small street, Vingårdstræde 6.


Inside there is a small entrance hall, where there is a brief history of the brand and a painting of the original store.

The history display is in Danish, but I was given an English printout of the brand history once inside from the guide.


The founders

The museum features a collection of artefacts, photographs, and documents that illustrate the store's evolution over time. Many feature founders Theodor Wessel and Emil Vett.


The Christmas exhibition

When I visited, at the end of November 2022, the brand was showcasing its Christmas exhibition, Christmas in Magasin, which ran from 3 November to 23 December 2022.

The store has created magical Christmas displays since 1887. Goods from all over the world were displayed in the store to the fascination of Danish customers. There were a few photographs of the store decorated at the time and you can see how opulent it must have felt.

The store produced branded toys in wood and metal and homewares.

From 1919 Magasin decorated the store at Christmas to reflect what was happening in Danish society and a different theme was chosen each year until 1962. In 1951 for example, the Christmas theme was construction, as the whole store was being refurbished and expanded.

Recently the Christmas themes have been centered around one main idea, such as hot air balloons, but weaving into the design historic elements from the archive.

I particularly enjoyed the graphic designs on show for things like pop up theatres, greeting cards and toys.


Denmark's first department store Santa

In 1932 store worker Carl Dauw, who had worked for the store for 29 years as a postal worker, was asked if he could be the store’s first Santa Claus. He got an extra 100 kroner to go round in a Santa Claus costume and sell chocolates to customers. Carl told his employees that he felt that Santa should not be selling anything, and the following year the store gave him the task of collecting gift wish lists instead from the younger customers. He enjoyed it so much that he was the store's Santa for the next 28 years.

Magasin du Nord even sent their Santa to New York in 1954, to distribute Danish Christmas presents to children over there, and his visit was filmed and broadcast to over 25 million Americans on TV and radio.

Following that, children wrote to Santa in Magasin du Nord from all over the world.

A post clerk at the store even invented the world’s first Christmas stamp. In 1903 he proposed a stamp to raise money for sick children and the stamp launched the following year featuring a portrait of the then Queen Louise. Rather than postage stamps, these were Christmas labels and they sold a staggering 3.4 million in the first year alone.

That certainly helped the cause.


Theodore and Theodora

1988 saw the first appearance of the Theodor and Theodora teddy bears in the brand's catalogue. Named after one of Magasin du Nord's founders Theodor WesselI, in 1989 the teddies were designed as the main focus of the Christmas in-store displays and wrapping paper and gift box graphic design. Customers could buy clothes for them from chef's outfits, overalls to dresses.


1989 saw many changes for the store. Denmark changed its laws on opening times and the store could open until 7 pm. While many employees found it a shock to their work/life balance, the new opening hours were a huge success. Magasin saw a rush of custom after people had finished their working day at 5 pm and, like now, the store is busy with shoppers, browsers and the restaurants are busy up until closing time. The brand also launched its own brand women's and men's clothing line in the same year called "Wessel & Vett", again named after Magasin's two founders. This was designed to appeal to a mass market and a more cost-conscious consumer.


Veronica

Veronica was a doll invented for the Christmas campaign of 1936. She was sweet but cheeky and got up to a lot of teasing and mischief. On December afternoons, the “Song of Veronica” was played in the store for the children, who had to search for her. She would be hidden somewhere in the store, and the lucky child who found her would receive a Veronica doll.


This is such a quaint idea and certainly one that other stores could use today for some added visitor engagement.

Though she was very popular it took until 2014 for Veronica to be taken from the archive and given an update for the starring role in that year’s Christmas displays. Revamped by Danish illustrator Mette Boesgaard, she has become a recurring figure and I have seen her pop up in various displays since.


In 2020 she was used on gift wrap and graphics throughout the store. It was so good I kept the gift bag as colour inspiration for an interior design project.


The advent calendar

It is not known when Magasin du Nord adopted the tradition of producing an advent calendar. The advent calendar was a German invention from 1903 and Denmark produced some in the early 1930s. But the branded advent calendar has been a staple of their Christmas offering for a few years now and they are extremely popular.

Though the store produces many branded advent calendars, a particular favourite of many is the wooden version that they brought out in 2016, though I have a cardboard one that I reuse every year.

The changing face of Magasin

There are boxes of old posters and advertisements. It is fascinating to see some of the fashions and items on sale throughout the brand's history.

There are also books on how the stores changed over the years.

There are copies of books on design and store history which are a fascinating resource.

You even get to rifle through copies of the old store catalogues, that the brand has produced since the late 1880s. In 1902 they published their first Christmas catalogue and by the 1960s the catalogues were printed in colour. They still send out over 500,000 catalogues each Christmas, though this is changing to a predominantly digital version.

I picked up a few to browse through to see what was trending back in the day.

In the early days of the store customers could get their goods delivered but due to costs this ended by the mid 1970s, when there was a global fuel crisis. It took until 2009 for customers to be able to have their orders delivered to their homes again, with the birth of the brand's online store.


The archive

Magasin du Nord Museum runs an extensive archive where designers and researchers can view old advertisements, catalogues, magazines, employee handbooks and accounts. Anyone interested can write to the museum inspector Britta Smits at bst@magasinmuseum.dk and make an appointment.

If you want access to more pictures, you can even search the museum's large picture archive online on Kbhbilleder.dk, run by History & Art, Copenhagen Municipality.


Podcast

You can even access the brand's podcasts on various subjects throughout the year. They're in Danish however.


More in store

Hans Christian Andersen was known to be fond of the store's luxurious interior and its wide selection of goods. He even wrote about the store in his diary, describing it as a "splendid temple of consumption." In 1868, the year before his death, Andersen participated in the inauguration of the Magasin du Nord's new building on Kongens Nytorv. He was invited to recite a poem in honour of the occasion and was given a tour of the new store.


You can apparently go and have a look at the hotel attic room that 22-year-old Hans rented and where he wrote some of his poems. You gain entrance through the store's homeware floor. It's not that easy to find, however. Behind the door is a meeting room and then a narrow corridor. On the right-hand side is a small room. This is where Andersen worked in solitude on his fairy tales, novels and poems. I'll be looking for it next time I visit.


In conclusion

The store is always worth a visit, even if you don't visit the museum. We are losing so many department stores that soon they could be a thing of the past. And while even I have changed my shopping habits to shopping small and locally, it is refreshing to see a store that appears to make a lot of customers happy, offers value for money and is looking to enhance the shopping experience, whilst drawing on its history to improve its future.


The museum, while tiny, does offer information on the history of the brand and has interesting exhibits for Danish and non-Danish visitors. Plus, the guide speaks perfect English, like most Danes do, which puts me to shame. The exhibition is changed several times a year, so it is always fresh and also creates interest for repeat visits.


With retail theatre so important in today's competitive retail environment, in the face of the rise of e-commerce, brick-and-mortar retailers must provide a unique and engaging shopping experience to attract customers and differentiate themselves from online competitors. This is where the museum really is an added value for the brand, as it adds an experience that stimulates the senses and engages customers on an emotional level.


As far as engagement goes, did it add to the overall experience or create any advocacy for the brand? Well, I would have to say yes. The other visitors on the day happily spent time recounting their memories of their past shopping and working experience to the guide. The brand is actively encouraging input from their customers and workforce, to create an ever-growing resource of archive material. While some might see this as looking backwards, in fact, it can be seen as very forward-thinking, especially with the changing trends in retail design and consumer expectations. The archive is actively being used by designers too. to create not just Christmas displays and graphics but for product designs for the store. It is also a brilliant resource for reminiscence therapy and could provide inspiration for marketing activations in the future.


It is due to the fact that there are so few museums for department store brands globally, that the museum is an important resource and a true added bonus to any shopping trip in Copenhagen. I just wish there were more of them.


How long was the visit?

I was there for over an hour and I had seen everything, taking photos of text that I translated later in my hotel to get the full history.


How much are tickets?

It was free but do check out their website for up to date prices.


This was not part of any advertising.


Tour options

This is a self-guided experience and you can explore the displays at leisure. There is also a free guided tour that lasts an hour for groups of up to fifteen people.


Opening times

It's always worth checking with the venue for their current opening times, as they can vary.

I visited in the winter, at the end of November as part of their Christmas events when they were open from 11 am until 5 pm.


 

Where we stayed:

Copenhagen is one of my favourite places in the world. We have worked and visited here so much it feels so familiar, but never disappoints.

I always stay at the same hotel when in Copenhagen, the Radisson Blu Scandinavia Hotel, Copenhagen. It's never been the coolest kid on the block, but I've stayed in it so many times that it's like coming home, and the bonus is you can see it from so far away that it's hard to get lost. I always ask for a high floor and a quiet room, and you're gifted with superb views across the city, even on the bleakest of Danish days. Thankfully they have started room refurbishments and we've been lucky enough to stay in one of their new rooms, which is a huge improvement. They will hopefully tackle the bar and reception area next.


The hotel has bikes you can hire, which I've used before to explore the city. You need to be prepared to ride like a local, obey the rules, and keep up, but you'll be rewarded with safe travel that puts a smile on your face. It's a 300-metre walk to Islands Brygge metro station, which is so handy, especially as Copenhagen has expanded its fabulous metro network.


Recently however, I have been using a multi-day pass via the Dot app to use the metro, train, and bus lines, as there's a terrific bus network connecting you with some farther out places, such as the distilleries on Refshaleøen and the upcoming improvements around Carlsberg Byen. It's a great way to explore new places. There's a 5C bus stop on the main road, Amager Boulevard, right outside the hotel, so it couldn't be easier. It operates 24 hours, 7 days a week and with a few easy transfers (use Google maps on your phone if that helps) you can get just about anywhere, including the airport. And, of course, you can walk everywhere.


Getting here:

We are really lucky to have direct flights from Edinburgh Airport to Copenhagen, but we often fly KLM via Amsterdam, as we are Platinum members and use the airline for many of our travels. Depending on the time of year though, we can't always resist a bargain flight by Easyjet or Ryanair. For this trip, my return direct flight with Ryanair cost me just £33.

Magasin Du Nord has direct access to Kongens Nytorv metro station on the ground floor, so it's easy to find.


What else is there to see close by:

Copenhagen is a terrific city to visit with activities for all. I can recommend a few below, though I am not paid to advertise any of them.

I cannot recommend Tivoli Gardens enough. I visit twice a year, once in the summer and again for their Christmas market. It inspired Disney in the creation of his parks and has a fabulous old wooden roller coaster that is great fun and gorgeous gardens around a lake.

You pay to get in (buy tickets online) and rides are extra. You can buy ride tickets in the machines by the rides themselves using your debit or credit card or tap and go (a new thing we found) at the person manning the ride after you’ve queued.

TIP – La Baracca for Italian food in the food hall is great. Just sit at the counter and it's cooked in front of you. They stop serving at 9 pm and the Chianti and portions are good.

Stroget is the main shopping street, but wander down Nikolaj Plads too, as there are some independents there too. Many of the side streets have nice shops too and are well worth a wander down.


Rundetaarn or the Round Tower, is well worth a trip up. It’s got a spiral ramp, so great for those like me who hate spiral staircases and small spaces. It has lovely views from the top too and there’s even an observatory up there.


In the middle of Copenhagen is the Amalienborg Museum, which is part of Christian VIII’s Palace. You don’t have to go inside, as it’s just lovely to look at, with small sentry boxes and soldiers that look a bit like toys.

The Danish Royal Guard march from Rosenborg Castle to Amalienborg Palace where the Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place daily, with the guard leaving Rosenborg Castle at 11:30 to arrive at Amalienborg Palace for the ceremony at 12:00. When the Queen is in residence the guard is accompanied by the Royal Guards music band. It's quite a sight.

If you're determined to visit the Little Mermaid then the Kastellet next door is worth a walk around. Admission to Kastellet fort is free and the gates are open to the public from 6 am to 8 pm daily. It has a historic windmill and a very pretty little church next door.


Right near Tivoli is Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, a great way to waste an afternoon. It has a great café, a winter garden and some lovely sculptures, and some amazing floor tile patterns (if you dig that kind of thing). I love it. An Instagrammers dream.


For more Carlsberg photos then head to Carlsberg Byen, where after 160 years as an industrial site, a new Copenhagen district is being built on the very areas where brewery horses and beer carts roamed around the streets in their time. The history, repurposed buildings and cultural heritage from the brewery’s past are essential parts of what makes the neighbourhood so special.

There's so much more. Please try and visit Copenhagen at least once.



Visited: Nov 2022

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.



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