Europe’s unique open-air museums

Europe’s unique open-air museums



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Preserving Europe's rural culture gave rise to the idea of outdoor, living museums filled with gardens and animals so that people will never forget the heritage of their country.

Historic Swedish village is one of the exhibits at Skansen (wikipedia)

Europe, November 26, 2016 – Back at the turn of the 20th century, before the Industrial Revolution changed the world, Artur Hazelius had an idea. He wanted to bring rural culture to an area filled with traditional houses and farmsteads along with gardens and animals so that people would never forget the heritage of their country.

Ballenberg in Switzerland is near Interlaken (ballenberg.ch)
Ballenberg in Switzerland is near Interlaken (ballenberg.ch)

In so-doing, Hazelius created the first outdoor museum on the island of Djurgården in Stockholm, Sweden. Within two short decades, there were nearly 20 more open-air museums scattered throughout northern Europe.


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The experiment to preserve rural life among rapidly growing industrialized societies was a resounding success as traditional customs and occupations that might have disappeared into the annals of history were saved for future generations to enjoy.

Seurasaari is Finland's contribution to Europe's outdoor museums (wikipedia)
Seurasaari is Finland’s contribution to Europe’s outdoor museums (wikipedia)

Many American visitors miss these outdoor treasures in their never-ending pursuit of guidebook attractions, but a traveler should experience at least one or two in order to bring the picture of our own heritage into focus.

Here are some of the best open-air museums in Europe in alphabetical order.

Ballenberg in Switzerland is one of the newest outdoor museums (ballenberg.ch)
Ballenberg in Switzerland is one of the newest outdoor museums (ballenberg.ch)

Ballenberg (Switzerland): The Swiss took longer than usual to open their outdoor museum known as Ballenberg near Interlaken. Featuring more than 100 rural houses and farm buildings from all over the country, the structures could not be maintained in their natural environment so each was carefully dismantled and then re-built at Ballenberg on 165 acres of land.

Dwellings contain farmhouses, workers quarters, alpine huts and stalls, barns, store-houses, wash-houses and drying ovens along gardens, fields, pastures and meadows that have been arranged according to traditional historical models.


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Ballenberg is a living museum where master craftsmen work with traditional tools to create exhibits and provide insights into the early history of the country. In addition a few hundred domestic animals on the property give it an animated ambiance as life was hundreds of years ago.

Though the Swiss had discussed the concept much earlier, it did not come up for serious consideration until 1963 when the Swiss Federal Council set up a commission to explore the idea. Fifteen years later, Ballenberg became a reality as one of the newest outdoor museums in Europe.

The half-timbered houses of Germany are familiar to many people (wikipedia)
The half-timbered houses of Germany are familiar to many people (wikipedia)

Black Forest Open Air Museum (Germany): In German the word for Open Air Museum is Freilichtmuseum or “Free Light Museum.” The Black Forest Open Air Museum focuses upon six fully furnished farmhouses with the centerpiece being the Vogtsbauerhof which was actually constructed on the site in 1612. Travelling craftsmen perform exhibitions inside the house on a regular basis.

Hotzenwaldhaus dates from 1756 in Hotzenwald and is used for demonstrations of Black Forest textiles.

Dairy and livestock farming are on exhbition at Falkenhof which came from Dreisamtal and was built in 1737.

Woodworking demonstrations are conducted in the 1730 building of Schauinslandhus from Schauinsland.

The oldest building in the park, built in 1599, is Hippenseppenhof from Furtwangen-Katzensteig features costumes and clocks from the region.

Finally Lorenzenhof (1608) was brought in from Oberwolfach in the Kinzig valley for forestry management, glassblowing and a collection of regional stone and minerals.

The museum is open daily from the end of March until early November. It is said to be the most visited open-air museum in Germany welcoming some 13.5 million visitors since it opened in 1964.

The Dahla Horse is a symbol of Sweden (wikipedia)
The Dahla Horse is a symbol of Sweden (wikipedia)

Norsk Folkemuseum (Norway): King Oscar II’s open-air museum near Oslo, Norway opened in 1881, making it the first of its kind.

Initially the plan was to display 8 to 10 building styles from Norway dating to the Middle Ages, but the king eventually lost interest because of the cost of the project.

King Oscar’s influence however, was instrumental in making Scandinavia a haven for similar projects and the Oslo Open Air Museum is a thriving enterprise today.

Ancient stable from the rural countryside of Finland (wikipedia)
Ancient stable from the rural countryside of Finland (wikipedia)

Seurasaari (Finland): The Finnish contribution is an island in Helsinki consisting mainly of old wooden buildings from other parts of the country. What makes Seurasaari different is that it is situated in a heavily forested landscape inhabited by an abundance of wildlife.

The island is most popular on Midsummer’s Day when people gather throughout the park to celebrate the longest day of the year.

A bride is chosen to be married at the chapel in the park, and then she and her new husband are rowed in longboats to a small outcropping of rock at ten o’clock where they light a bonfire of longboats standing on end.

Ancient farmhouse at Skansen in Stockholm (wikipedia)
Ancient farmhouse at Skansen in Stockholm (wikipedia)

Skansen (Sweden): If you only visit one open-air museum in your life, Skansen in Stockholm is the one to see. When King Oscar gave up in Norway, Artur Hazelius carried the idea to fulfillment in Sweden opening the world’s first open-air museum in 1891.

Skansen is more than a park. Rather it is a miniature historical rendition of the country represented in buildings ranging from farmsteads in Skåne in the south to the indigenous Sami (Lapps) of the north.

Venues range from the early 16th century to the first half of the 20th century and the park features domestic and wild animals, folk music, dancing and costumed performers who demonstrate the social conditions of each period.

Only three of the roughly 150 building are not original, but those were painstakingly copied from examples that were found.
Oddly enough, the oldest building in Skansen comes from Telemark in Norway.

A fun way to reach Skansen is by the funicular that has been operating since 1897 on the northwest side of the property. It’s approximately 650 feet in length with a rise of about 115 feet.

Europe is filled with open-air treasures that are frequently missed by American travelers. For something new and different, take a deep breath and savor the open-air of the Continent.

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

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