The notorious theft of the Golden Horns in 1802 from the royal Chamber of Art started an avalanche of mourning over the loss of the significant cultural heritage. Adam Oehlenschläger wrote his epochal poem “The Golden Horns” as a reaction to this incident; and as a result of the loss, measures were taken to prevent further theft from these rich collections of rare objects, beautiful paintings and archeological relics. Leading personalities like N.L. Høyen, C.J. Thomsen, and Rasmus Nyerup were commissioned to secure and reorganize the various collections of the king’s cultural property. This was one of the first central steps, not only towards the foundation of several Danish museums, but also towards a professionalization of artistic and cultural heritage management.
One important step was to separate art objects, culture-historical objects, portraits, coins, jewels, books and curiosities in order to organize them in different museum buildings. Høyen and Thomsen were placed in charge of the Royal Collection of Paintings (Den Kongelige Malerisamling). In their reorganization of this major collection they aimed to reduce the number of paintings on display, and to get rid of copies of foreign masterpieces. Only unique artworks should be exhibited; they also imposed a chronological ordering. Especially Høyen classified, systematized and organized the collection into a chronological gallery of European art history, divided into schools and countries and culminating in rooms displaying contemporary Danish art – moving his display from the past to the present, from Europe to Denmark.
The success of this strategy (part of a more complex mission of getting the people to appreciate Danish art and culture) is borne out by the records of visitor numbers to the collections: the rooms with contemporary Danish painters were by far the most popular. For Høyen, the Danish part of the collection had a strong educational element and agenda in establishing a shared national feeling; for that reason, larger canvases with national motifs were centrally placed in the exhibition areas, whereas motifs in a non-national style tended to be placed in storage.
The Copenhagen upper middle classes evinced their own interest in the national case in the foundation of the first public museum. In the 1840s, a brand new museum was built to honour the internationally renowned sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, who, on his return to Denmark, intended to donate his artistic production of marble sculptures, as well as his purchased art collection, to the Danish state. This priceless gift deserved to be housed in an architecturally outstanding museum building. The design featured decorations on the exterior walls paying homage to Thorvaldsen: the scenes, designed by Jørgen Sonne, formed a national narrative depicting all the prominent members of the bourgeoisie in Copenhagen welcoming Thorvaldsen at the harbour in 1838.
In Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, similar civic initiatives to found public museums occurred (e.g. Kunstmuseum, 1859). In all cases, from the mid-19th century on, and especially after the end of absolute monarchy, exhibitions and collections on display often breathed a strongly national spirit.