BIG-designed museum opens in Denmark’s largest wartime refugee camp

In the mid to late 1940s, the population of Oksbøl, a small town on Denmark’s North Sea coast, swelled dramatically, so much so that it ranked as the fifth largest city in the Scandinavian country in the years immediately following World War II.

The influx was due to the presence of Oksbøl refugee camp, a military training ground on the wooded edge of town converted into what was just one of hundreds of German refugee camps fleeing the Army red. At this time, German refugees – mostly women, children and the elderly – comprised around 5% of the total Danish population, with Oksbøl serving as the largest such camp for displaced Germans. Of the approximately 250,000 German civilians who left their homeland after the war, 35,000 of them were housed in the camp; in December 1948, the sprawling complex was closed almost four years after its creation.

Central courtyard and reflecting pool at FLUGT, a museum dedicated to telling personal stories of forced migration. (Rasmus Hjortshøj)

Today, what remains of the former Oksbøl refugee camp has been transformed into a newly opened museum that tells the story of refugees in Denmark while shedding new light on the plight of people around the world who fled prosecution and conflict in their homelands. Designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the new museum, FLUGTis the second project carried out for Vardemuseerne, a cultural and historical institution based in West Jutland that operates several museums, historic sites and exhibition spaces in the region. FLUGT—Danish for “flight”—is the newest of the museums operated by the state-recognized organization; Vardemuseerne previously tapped on BIG to Tirpitz, a cultural complex focusing on the history and natural landscape of Denmark’s west coast. This museum is built in a series of dunes on the site of a long-abandoned war bunker just outside the main port town of Esbjerg.

With FLUGT, which opened yesterday June 29, BIG has similarly adapted an abandoned World War II relic for new modern use. In this case, the Copenhagen-based company worked alongside Vardemuseerne to convert – with a keen eye on historic preservation – a former hospital on the grounds of Oksbøl refugee camp into a museum of around 17,200 feet. squares which aims to “give a voice and a face to the humans who have been forced to flee their homes and capture the universal challenges, emotions and nuances shared by refugees past and present,” according to museum director Claus Kjeld Jensen.

aerial view of a museum complex surrounded by forest
FLUGT’s forest-flanked campus is outside Oksbøl, a small town on the west coast of Jutland, near the German border. (Rasmus Hjortshøj)

As detailed in a press release shared by BIG, key contributors to the $16.7 million project (Germany reportedly contributed $1.6 million effort) including an engineering firm Engineer and Dutch exhibition design studio, DIY imaginerswho also worked with the firm on the Tirpitz project.

One of the few structures still standing in what was once Oksbøl refugee camp is the old hospital, consisting of two low-rise brick buildings fused in the middle by a curved volume clad in Cor-ten steel that adds near an additional 4,500 square feet to the footprint of the new museum. The slender, timber-framed pavilion serves both as the connective tissue between the two historic buildings and as a multipurpose entrance hall; a curved wall of glass in the center of the space offers guests a view of a large central courtyard and the forest beyond. The courtyard, which creates a “peaceful sensory experience” by fusing the naturalistic landscape (also designed by BIG) of the site with the interior of the museum, features a small circular reflecting pool at its center.

a large open museum space with a slender wooden ceiling
Functioning primarily as a lobby, the soaring volume can be used for events, special exhibits, and more. (Rasmus Hjortshøj)

Back inside BIG’s curvaceous lobby, museum visitors can venture into the museum’s two distinct wings located in the preserved historic buildings of the hospital: an area dedicated to the exhibition in the north wing which contains gallery spaces “organized according to the original flow/circulation in the hospital,” according to the firm. “While most of the hospital room walls have been demolished, some of the walls interiors are kept intact and stabilized by three cross sections, creating larger exhibition spaces.” To the south, the second former hospital building has been converted to accommodate smaller exhibition galleries, a conference room , a café and administrative spaces.

As BIG elaborated, the south wing of the museum has “the same character and materiality” as the other exhibition wing. The entire complex features yellow brick flooring as a means of “connecting past and present structures”.

gallery exhibition on refugees
An exhibition gallery in one of the historic hospital buildings on the site. (Rasmus Hjortshøj)

“The buildings are some of the last remaining physical manifestations of the former refugee camp, and not only are their preservation invaluable for future generations to understand the past and present, the buildings have also directly informed our design of the extension through their unique elongated shape, structure and materiality,” said Frederik Lyng, project manager at BIG, in a statement. “FLUGT is a great example of how adaptive reuse can result in sustainable and functional buildings. that preserve our shared history while standing out architecturally.”

Currently on display at FLUGT, two permanent exhibitions, Refugees at all times, and an exhibition tracing the short but brutal history of the Oksbøl refugee camp. Two major exterior elements of the museum are an immersive sound walk through the surrounding forest and the refugee cemetery where the camp’s dead are buried.

an exhibition featuring the personal belongings of refugees
A permanent exhibition displays the personal belongings of people displaced by war and oppression. (Rasmus Hjortshøj)

“The Danish Refugee Museum explores an important part of our history and a theme that is more relevant than ever, with millions of refugees currently displaced from their homes,” said Bjarke Ingels, founding partner and creative director of BIG.

FLUGT indeed paints a sensitive and sympathetic portrait of people around the world – from Vietnam to Bosnia to Ukraine and beyond – affected by forced migration. It also celebrates the contributions migrants have made to the country over the decades. The museum, however, stands as a somewhat curious addition to Denmark’s cultural landscape when considering the prosperous Nordic nation’s contemporary approach to immigration. Today, the country has enacted Europe’s toughest anti-immigration laws and has been the subject of fierce criticism in recent times due to its strict – and in the opinion of many, inhumanrefugee policiesnotably related to policies impacting Syrian asylum seekers.

James C. Tibbs