Open-air museum

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The Old Town—an open-air museum in the city of Aarhus, Denmark.

An open-air museum (also frequently open air museum) is a type of museum that exhibits collections of buildings and artifacts out-of-doors. They are also frequently known as museums of buildings or folk museums.

The concept of an open-air museum originated in Scandinavia in the late 19th century and spread widely. A comprehensive history of the open-air museum as idea and institution can be found in Swedish museologist Sten Rentzhog's 2007 book Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea.

Living history museums, including living farm museums and living museums, are a type of open-air museum where costumed interpreters portray period life in an earlier era. The interpreters act as if they are really living in a different time and place, such as the Colonial era, and perform everyday household tasks, crafts and occupations. The goal is to demonstrate older lifestyles and pursuits to modern audiences. Household tasks might include cooking on an open hearth, churning butter, spinning wool and weaving, and farming without modern equipment. Many living museums feature traditional craftsmen at work, such as a blacksmith, cooper, potter, miller, sawmill worker, printer, doctor and general store keeper.


Open-air museum in Stará Ľubovňa, Slovakia.

Open air is “The unconfined atmosphere…outside buildings…”.[1] In the loosest sense, an open-air museum is any institution which includes one or more buildings in its collections, including farm museums, historic house museums, and archaeological open-air museums. Mostly the term open-air museum is applied to museums which specialize in the collection and re-erection of multiple, old, buildings at large outdoor sites, usually in settings of re-created landscapes of the past and often include living history. Most of them may therefore justly be described as building museums. European open-air museums tended to be located originally in regions where wooden architecture prevailed, as wooden structures may be trans-located without substantial loss of authenticity.

Common to all open-air museums, including the earliest ones of the 19th century, is the teaching of the history of everyday living by people from all segments of society.


A number of historically important buildings and their surroundings were opened to the public as museums as early as the first half of the 19th Century, including the palace of Versailles in France and George Washington's estate Mount Vernon, in Virginia. However, the planned assembly of open-air museums was innovated in late 19th century Scandinavia. One reason may be the ancient tradition of moving and re-erecting wooden buildings, based on the local log building technique. The idea was a predictable further development of the by then well-established indoor type of museum. In order to collect and display whole buildings, it would have to be done outdoors. Precursors of open-air museums were the “exotic” pavilions, “antique” temples, “ancient ruins” and “peasant cottages” to be found in 18th century landscape parks. Later precursors were the real or constructed peasant cottages shown at the international exhibitions of the mid- to late 19th century.

World's first open-air museum: King Oscar's collections at Bygdøy near Oslo in 1888

The world's first open-air museum was King Oscar II's collection near Oslo in Norway, opened in 1881. The original plans comprised 8 or 10 buildings intended to show the evolution of traditional Norwegian building types since the Middle Ages. Only five were realized before the king lost interest because of the expenses involved. The royal open-air museum was later incorporated into the Norsk Folkemuseum, established on an adjacent property in the 1890s.[2] Influenced by a visit to the Norwegian open-air museum, Artur Hazelius in 1891 founded the famous Skansen in Stockholm, which became the model for subsequent open-air museums in Northern and Eastern Europe, and eventually in other parts of the world. The name ‘skansen’ has also been used as a noun to refer to other open-air museums and collections of historic structures, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.[3]

Around 1900, national and regional open-air museums were established in all Scandinavian countries, notably in Norway and Sweden.

Most open-air museums concentrate on rural culture. However, since the opening of the first town museum, Den Gamle By/The Old Town in Aarhus, Denmark in 1914,[4] town culture has also become a scope of open-air museums. In many cases new town quarters are being constructed in existing rural culture museums.

North American innovations[edit]

Traditional buildings in Colonial Williamsburg

The North American open-air museum, more commonly called a living history museum, had a different, slightly later origin than the European, and the visitor experience is different. The first was Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan (1928), where Ford intended his collection to be “a pocket edition of America”.[5]:153 But it was Colonial Williamsburg (opened in 1934) which had a greater influence on museum development in North America. It influenced such projects through the continent as Mystic Seaport, Plimoth Plantation, and Fortress Louisbourg. What tends to differentiate the North American from the European model is the approach to interpretation. In Europe, the tendency is to usually, but not always, focus on the building.

In North America, many open-air museums include interpreters who dress in period costume and conduct period crafts and everyday work.[5]:154 The living museum is therefore viewed as an attempt to recreate to the fullest extent conditions of a culture, natural environment or historical period. The objective is total immersion, using exhibits so that visitors can experience the specific culture, environment or historical period using all the physical senses. Performance and historiographic practices at American living museums have been critiqued in the past several years by scholars in anthropology and theater for creating false senses of authenticity and accuracy, and for neglecting to bear witness to some of the darker aspects of the American past (e.g., slavery and other forms of injustice). Even before such critiques were published, sites such as Williamsburg and others had begun to add more interpretation of difficult history.[6]

List of open-air and living museums by country[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0) © Oxford University Press 2009
  2. ^ Tonte Hegard: Romantikk og fortidsvern. Historien om de første friluftsmuseene i Norge, Universitetsforlaget, Oslo 1984. ISBN 82-00-07084-0
  3. ^ Sten Rentzhog: Open air museums: The history and future of a visionary idea, Carlsson Jamtli Förlag, Stockholm and Östersund 2007. ISBN 978-91-7948-208-4
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Kenneth Hudson, Museums of Influence, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  6. ^ Scott Magelssen, Living History Museums: Undoing History Through Performance, Scarecrow Press, 2007

External links[edit]

Museum websites