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An open air museum is a distinct type of museum exhibiting its collections out-of-doors. The first open air museums were established in Scandinavia towards the end of the nineteenth century, and the concept soon spread throughout Europe and North America. Open air museums are variously known as skansen, museums of buildings and folk museums. A more recent form is the Ecomuseum, which originated in Francemarker. A comprehensive history of the open air museum as idea and institution can be found in the Swedish museologist Sten Rentzhog's book "Open air museums. The history and future of a visionary idea", 2007.

Living museums, also known as living farm museums and living history museums, are a special 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 businesses. The goal is to demonstrate older lifestyles 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


The International Council of Museumsmarker (ICOM) defines a museum as "a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, the tangible and intangible evidence of people and their environment." Most open air museums specialize in the collection and re-erection of old buildings at large outdoor sites, usually in settings of re-created landscapes of the past. Most of them may therefore justly be described as building museums. 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.

European origins

World's first open air museum, King Oscar's collections at Bygdøy near Oslo in 1888.
The earliest open air museum appeared in Scandinavia in the late 19th century. 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.

The world's first open air museum was King Oscar II's collection near Oslomarker in Norwaymarker, 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 5 were realized before the king lost interest because of the expenses involved. The royal open air museum was later incorporated into the Norsk Folkemuseummarker, established on an adjacent property in the 1890s. Influenced by a visit to the Norwegian open air museum, Artur Hazelius in 1891 founded the famous Skansenmarker in Stockholmmarker, 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.

Around 1900, national and regional open air museums were established in all Scandinavian countries, notably in Norwaymarker and Swedenmarker.

North American interpretation

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, Michiganmarker (1928), where Ford intended his collection to be "a pocket edition of America". But it was Colonial Williamsburgmarker (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 Plantationmarker, and Fortress Louisbourgmarker. 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. 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..

Selected list of open air and living museums




Bachten de Kuppe (Itzenberge), (Flanders), (Belgium),

Fourneau St Michel (Ardennes), (Wallonie)




Czech Republicmarker

(Skanzen Vysoký Chlumec), (






Roscheider Hof, Germany





The Netherlandsmarker







  • Banská Štiavnica
  • Bardejov
  • Čičmany
  • Humenné
  • Martin
  • Nitra
  • Pribylina
  • Svidník
  • Vlkolínec
  • Vychylovka
  • Zuberec – Brestová



United Kingdommarker




United Statesmarker

Living transportation museums

Ecological and environmental living museums

Some ecological living museums are zoos


  1. ICOM Statutes
  2. Kenneth Hudson, Museums of Influence, Cambridge University Press, 1987. p. 153
  3. Ibid, p. 154
  4. Scott Magelssen, Living History Museums: Undoing History Through Performance, Scarecrow Press, 2007

See also

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