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Denmark Martyr Museum Draws Controversy For Including Terrorists In Exhibit

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What comes to mind when you hear the word martyr? For many people, it might be Joan of Arc. It must be said that for some others, it might be a suicide bomber. Images of both are depicted side by side at a new exhibition called "The Martyr Museum" in Denmark. And even before it opened, the exhibit was called crazy by the country's culture minister and reported to the police for endorsing terrorism. Sidsel Overgaard went to see for herself.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: "The Marytyr Museum" is tucked away in a former slaughterhouse behind Copenhagen's central station. Its white-tiled walls are lined with portraits and reconstructed artifacts, like Socrates' vial of poison and Martin Luther King's podium. But it's during the twice-daily guided tour, led by actor Morten Hee Andersen, that the echoing space comes to life with music and stage lighting.

MORTEN ANDERSEN: (Foreign language spoken).

OVERGAARD: In one section, visitors are shut in a meat locker as the guide falls to the floor to relay the story of Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who took the place of another man condemned to starve to death in a cell at Auschwitz. Further along, the guide assumes a lotus position and with trembling hands recounts the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc who died protesting the treatment of Buddhists in 1960s Vietnam.

And finally, the section responsible for the headlines - a room where the reconstructed artifacts flashing under strobe lights hit a little closer to home - a melted keyboard from Ground Zero, a crumpled coffee cup from the Brussels airport, nails used as shrapnel and the profile of a man who killed dozens of Parisians in November, a man who likely saw himself as a martyr. Critics call this provocation for the sake of ticket sales. Not so, says artist Henrik Grimback.

HENRICK GRIMBACK: Since 9/11, the word martyr has been popping up in our minds more and more. It would have been, in many ways, strange if we were not discussing our own time when we did this show.

OVERGAARD: A show that does not endorse but seeks to explore the many definitions of the word martyr, says fellow artist Ida Grarup.

IDA GRARUP: To see the world through these terrorists' eyes for a couple of minutes, it's not the same as sympathizing or understanding them.

OVERGAARD: Not everyone agrees.

ALEX AHRENDSTEN: I don't like relativism. I think they are relativists.

OVERGAARD: Alex Ahrendsten is cultural spokesperson for the right-wing Danish People's Party.

AHRENDSTEN: If you're a Westerner, you have to take a stance. You have to say, well, you might say that Islam have martyrs, but we don't think they are martyrs. They are murderers. They are terrorists.

OVERGAARD: It has not gone unnoticed by the artists that some of their most vocal critics are the same people who staunchly defended the newspapers that published inflammatory cartoons of Muhammad 10 years ago. Sociology student Tea Ingemann Olsen, who traveled two hours to see "The Martyr Museum," explains it this way.

TEA INGEMANN OLSEN: In Denmark, a lot of Danes feel like the freedom of speech is a very big thing, and they like to talk about it. But when it's something that they don't necessarily agree with, then it's not a freedom of speech. It's just wrong.

OVERGAARD: But to the credit of critics like Alex Ahrendsten and as a testament to the strength of Denmark's free speech tradition, very few have actually suggested that the exhibit be shut down.

AHRENDSTEN: It's an ignorant, stupid exhibition without any deeper knowledge, but they have the right to do it. If I don't like it, I don't have to go.

OVERGAARD: For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Denmark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.