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Aarhus - A Tale of Two Museums: Demented in Denmark on the Looney Front - Part 4

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Aarhus, Denmark's second city, has two major museums, one dealing with the cutting edge of modern art and conceptualism, the other delving back into the mists of Denmark's, and humanity's, distant past.

Ironically the modernist palace, ARoS, now housed in a building based on Dante's Inferno and the Nine Circles of Hell, is the country's oldest public arts museum outside Copenhagen, founded in 1859. Its name comes from the Old Danish for Aarhus, Áros, with the capital letters spelling the Latin for art.

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The new building's underlying concept, basically a red brick cube topped in 2011 by a 492-foot long horizontal circular rainbow of glass panels that goes through, well, all the colours of the rainbow, draws on Dante's Divine Comedy and its description of the three stages of the afterlife - hell, purgatory and paradise - at least according to the museum's brochure.

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'Your rainbow panorama (as the topknot is called) completes the link between heaven and hell,' it adds.

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You enter on the 4th floor and are met by the sign Pause I Paradis (Stop in Paradise). Now I thought paradise would be at the top, but this being material Earth, this paradise is the gift shop.

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For the Nine Circles of Hell you descend the long spiral stairs (or take the lift) to floor 0, which I suppose is OK as they name the exhibit there 'The 9 Spaces.' It's appropriately dark within black walls, and includes an installation called 'Too Late' depicting the unkempt morning after a night of fun at a gay bar, and a cubicle with mirrors on all four walls, floor and ceiling sending back your own image ad infinitum - imaginatively called The Mirror.

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Once you've recovered from your infinite self, you can move on up to the 1st floor, where you're greeted by a lifelike but 15-foot-high squatting boy, entitled Boy. Under 'The many faces of Boy' the brochure asks: 'What is Boy and what is he doing here? Boy leaves you with a lot of unanswered questions.' Actually it seems pretty clear; he looks as if he's trying to crap in his canvas shorts.

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By the time you reach the 5th floor you come to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. Now I'm no fan of his and I know I'll get clobbered as a philistine and ignoramus, but whatever his artistic genius, his innovative photographic ploys, his ingenious plays with light, a bullwhip sticking out of your own hairy arsehole is still just that - a bullwhip sticking out of your own hairy arsehole.

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They even have a bullwhip on display but I don't know if it's the original intruder.

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There are numerous self-portraits with the typical Mick Jaggerish moue, and much else. And, oh dear, now I've just snapped the 1976 photo of naked little Jesse McBride exposing his penis and the 1970 portrait of vagina-splaying little Rosie, and I'll be arrested for trading in paedophilia.

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If you want something along these lines but more home produced, ascend to the 6th circle and enjoy an aerial dick - a video of a man lying naked on his back while a model airplane attached by twine to his penis goes round and round, lifting, twirling and reposing said member. The video section is called 'Happiness and Misery.' It doesn't say to which rubric aerial dick belongs.

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Finally your reach the rainbow at the end of the pot, so to speak, Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson's 'Your Rainbow Panorama.'

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It does indeed give you a glorious 360-degree angel's eye view of the city through all the colours of the rainbow, the hues shading into each other as you proceed along the walkway. Talk about seeing Aarhus through rose-tinted glasses.

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At the other end of the space-time continuum, away in the suburbs, is the Moesgaard Museum, also housed in a modernist building, but home to archaeological and ethnographic displays. With an enormous sloping roof covered with grass and walkways, it's the final resting place of 2,300-year-old Grauballe Man, whose body was found in a peat bog near the village of Grauballe in 1952.

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Considered the best bog body in the world, as bogs preserve corpses naturally, its owner was a man who in the 3rd century BC was apparently sacrificed to appease Germanic gods, the evidence showing that his throat was slit. The body is so well preserved that his finger prints have been taken - but he has not yet been charged.

Two other bog bodies accompany him in the dimly lit cavern, a mock-up of a burial mound on the lowest floor, a highlight of its People from the Past exhibit. Other offerings to the gods found in the bogs include the skulls of horses and dogs as well as a wooden phallus.

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The amazing show of weapons, tools, pots, broaches and other ornaments from the Nordic and Germanic lands on show range from as early as 1700 BC to the end of the Viking empire, if you can call it such.

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Another highlight are the dioramas and models, and the video reenactment of the battle of Illerup Ådal, where in 205 AD an enemy army apparently arrived on the coast, and what the museum calls 'one of the greatest battles in the history of the Iron Age' ensued.

This is based on the more than 15,000 items, mainly weapons and personal equipment, apparently captured and thrown into the lake as votive offerings.

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The skeletal remains of hundreds of Iron Age warriors were recently found nearby, possibly sacrificed prisoners. The reenactment is great fun. You stand in a room with the opposing armies on either wall, and video arrows and spears rain down on either side, along with appropriate sounds and music.

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On an upper floor you can attend a video reenactment of Roman gladiatorial spectacles with gladiators and animals killing each other.

Perhaps the most ironic exhibit of all is the staircase leading down to archaeological display. At the top is a model of 3.2-million-year-old Lucy, everybody's favourite australopithecine grandmother found in Ethiopia, passing by in descending order 2-million-year-old Sediba man from South Africa, 1.5-million-year-old Turkana Boy from Kenya, and a nice Neanderthal model.

It ends on the last steps with a representative of Homo Sapiens - Koelbjerg Woman from 9,000 years ago, the world's oldest bog body, found near the eponymous Danish village.

Doubtless unwittingly but arguably correctly, the museum shows the Descent, not Ascent of Man.

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OK, time for a walk in the lovely beech forest outside where a Viking Trail passes mockups of Viking buildings. After a couple of miles you end up at a beach on the Baltic coast.

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[Upcoming blog next Sunday: The churches and castles of Schleswig-Holstein]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.