The Openluchtmuseum, or Open Air Museum, in Arnhem in the Netherlands is one of the oldest outdoor/living history museums in the world. Opened in 1918, it preserves traditional and folk cultures by collecting vernacular buildings, furnishing them to specific periods, and using them to demonstrate historic crafts and skills. In the last decade, they’ve expanded these approaches by adding multimedia presentations along with interpreting the post-war period as part of an effort to create a national history museum interpreting the “Canon of the Netherlands” (the canon is a divergent idea worth investigating). In this post, I’ll examine their interpretation of the post-war period and in a later post discuss various unusual exhibition techniques.
At first glance, the Open Air Museum seems to be comprised of distinct clusters of farm buildings from a distinct region and time, where you can wander through houses and barns and watch someone in costume making brooms or working a plow. But the layering of history is complex and I found myself continually asking, “what time is it?” and “how are these things related?” to make sense of my visit. There are lots of historical anomalies, such as a 1960s phone booth in front of a 1910s train depot, but perhaps they’re not anomalies if you mentally reinterpret the scene by finding the overlapping period, such as the 1930s. These intellectual gymnastics don’t always work, but then again, the entire concept shaping the Open Air Museum allows for the artificial juxtaposition of historical places, times, and objects–which is what often happens in art museums and can also be bewildering (ever visit the Robert Lehman Gallery at the Met?)
The experience caused me to think hard about the role and purpose of interpretation Continue reading