EUROPE. When most people think of museums they conjure corridors filled with paintings or sculptures. Galleries filled with artifacts from ancient civilizations. In Scandinavia during the latter part of the 19th century, a new concept in museums appeared. The outdoor museum. Also called open air museums, or living museums, these museums exhibit collections of buildings and artifacts in small villages.
They let visitors walk back into history to see how people lived, worked and survived in the past.
Today there are hundreds of open-air museums scattered throughout Europe. Frequently known as a Folk Museums or Museums of Buildings, these collections exhibit buildings, and artifacts, as the name implies, out-of-doors.
Many living history museums feature interpreters who become characters from another day and time. Not only do these “actors” talk with visitors about the lifestyles and historical events of the time they represent, they also exhibit household tasks and occupations of their bygone era.
Don’t try to trick them because, like the guards at Buckingham Palace who do not smile, the re-enactors will not break character.
The original concept was to bring typical historic farmhouses and styles of architecture from various parts of a country to a single location so visitors can stroll through collections of their native ancestry.
Since then the idea of “living history” parks has evolved to include animals, crops, native clothing and even folk music and dancing of a particular period.
The common denominator to all open-air museums, including the early 19th century versions, is to present the heritage of everyday life by the people who lived and worked within a particular society. European outdoor museums are heavily interactive allowing patrons to participate in the experience in ways traditional exhibitions cannot match.
The first proponent for an open-air museum was Charles de Bonstetten of Switzerland in the 1790s whose idea evolved after viewing an exhibition of peasant costumes at Frederikborg Castle in Denmark.
Though Bonstetten failed to garner much support for his concept, in 1867, a private citizen in Norway transferred some historic buildings to a site just outside of Oslo. Soon after, in a burst of inspiration, King Oscar II established his own collection nearby. Those buildings were later inherited by the Norwegian Folk Museum.
By 1891 the first major open-air museum opened in Stockholm, Sweden and, today, Skansen remains one of the most popular outdoor parks in Europe. Skansen’s success was the turning point for other open-air facilities throughout the continent.
As a result, contemporary Europe offers hundreds of similar attractions, though the first historic buildings built at Skansen came from Norway.
Travelers who wish to immerse themselves into a culture and absorb it through their pores should take an opportunity whenever possible to visit one or more open-air museums. Not only will the historic buildings, landscaping, animals, costumes, and folklore capture your imagination, so, too, will the food that is available on the grounds.
Listed below are five of the best living museums:
Skansen (Stockholm, Sweden):
As the original open-air museum, Skansen has its own history as well as that of the country. Skansen is a miniature historical rendition of the country. Buildings range 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 is not original, though they are realistic copies of historical structures.
Most popular for children is the traditional bright red carved wooden statue of a horse from the province of Dalarna. Known as the Dala horse, it was a children’s toy but today it has become a symbol of Sweden.
A fun way to reach Skansen is by the funicular that has been operating since 1897 on the northwest side of the property.
Seurasaari (Helsinki, Finland):
Seurasaari 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 Finns gather to celebrate the longest day of the year.
During this celebration, a bride is married at the park chapel. She and her new husband are rowed to a small outcropping of rock. As the festivities conclude a bonfire of longboats, standing on end, is lit.
Ballenberg (Brienz, Switzerland):
Though a native of Switzerland conceived the original idea open-air museums, it took the Swiss longer than usual to open the only museum of its kind in the country. While there was early discussions for the project in 1963, it was 1978 before Ballenberg became a reality as one of the newest outdoor museums in Europe.
Ballenberg, near Interlaken, features over 100 rural houses and farm buildings from all over the country. Since the structures could not be maintained in their natural environment, each was carefully dismantled and then re-built on 165 acres of land.
Ballenberg is a living museum where master craftsmen work with traditional tools. These reenactors create exhibits and provide insights into the early history of the country. There are also domestic animals on the property creating an animated ambiance as life was hundreds of years ago.
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 includes six furnished farmhouses with the centerpiece being the Vogtsbauerhof, built on the site in 1612.
The oldest building in the park dates to 1599. The Hippenseppenhof from Furtwangen-Katzensteig features costumes and clocks from the region.
The Black Forest Museum is the most visited open-air museum in Germany welcoming over 13-million visitors since 1964.
The Old Town (Aarhus, Denmark):
When the Old Town opened in 1914, it was the first open-air museum to focus upon urban history rather than rural culture. Situated in the Aarhus Botanical Gardens, The Old Town remains one of only a few Danish museums outside of Copenhagen.
The property features five themed exhibits that include a small village featuring half-timbered structures built between 1550 and the late 19th century.
Europe abounds with open-air treasures often overlooked by American travelers. For something new and different, take time to savor history at the Scandinavia open-air museum
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who travels throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer, reporter, and broadcast anchor. Taylor now focuses on writing about international events, people, and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) with the goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime
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