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Openluchtmuseum named EU’s Museum of the Year

Third Dutch winner in prize’s history

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

ARNHEM – The European Museum Foundation has voted the National Heritage Museum - Openluchtmuseum - in Arnhem as the European Museum of the Year 2005. The Arnhem museum received it prize from Belgium’s Queen Fabiola, the patron of the European Museum Forum.

The long-established Openluchtmuseum – the name freely translates as Open Air Museum - originally followed the model of the famed Skansen museum in Sweden, but the idea for establishing such a collection in the Netherlands, was based on Denmark’s Frilandmuseum Sorgenfri. In the 1990s, it embarked on a renovation and modernization plan, which resulted in five new areas and a new concept.

The museum shows its concern with present-day problems and controversial issues of the past, which not yet have been completely solved. The issues currently presented include a dramatic strike of farm workers who in 1929 tried to stop agricultural mechanization; life in Moluccan camp barracks which highlights the post 1951 immigration of former soldiers of the colonial army of the Dutch East Indies ’KNIL’ and the difficulties they faced; and a 17th-century farm which became a luxury dwelling for urban professionals at the beginning of the 21st century.

The museum’s popular HollandRama feature develops the 19th-century idea of a panorama and combines multimedia with displays of real objects.

According to the jury of the Award committee, the Openluchtmuseum puts ”people at the centre of the museum’s philosophy.” Good quality multimedia presentations and numerous activities for people of all ages add to the package provided, according to the jury’s report. It is also felt that the museum shows an “excellent example for other traditional museums wishing to take new directions and combine traditional forms of open-air museum with innovative, experimental and imaginative projects focussing on contemporary social issues.”

The Award consists of a bronze statuette by Henry Moore entitled ’Mother and Child: Egg Form.’ It will be prominently displayed at the Openluchtmuseum for one year.

The Openluchtmuseum is only the third such institution in the Netherlands to win the prestigious award in the 28-year history of the annual prize. In 1980, the Catharijne Convent Museum in Utrecht was the first to be so awarded. Four years later, the European prize went to the Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen. This museum as well has an open-air section where heritage buildings from communities around the closed-off inlet of the North Sea have been given a new lease on life.


Established as a private endeavour in 1912 to preserve heritage buildings, objects and culture in general, the museum began as a collection of an initial six historic buildings, which were meticulously taken apart in their original surroundings and rebuilt on a leased estate in Arnhem. The museum welcomed its first visitors in the summer of 1918.

Since then, the museum has been collecting pre-1890 dwellings and workshops from ‘the common man,’ in particular farmers and farmhands, fishermen, shepherds and artisans, and their tools of the trade. An early addition to the museum’s collection was a treasure trove of heritage costumes assembled over the years by then Dutch Queen Wilhelmina.

During the Second World War, the private museum was absorbed by the German-controlled Dutch government as a Rijksmuseum. Located near the frontlines in 1944 and 1945, the inadequate buildings in the museum became the temporary home of some 600 people forced from their homes in Arnhem. In 1945, an errant German V1 missile destroyed two of the three exhibit halls.

During the last sixty years, dozens of heritage buildings, large and small, have found a new home in the expanded Openluchtmuseum, including drawbridges, windmills, factories and farmhouses, often including original furnishings and household items. The original time concept was de-emphasized, allowing the museum to display buildings of the early industrial era as well.


As part of government austerity measures in the late 1980s, the Minister of Culture in 1987 proposed to close the museum. His initiative was met with a wave of protests, drawing 100,000 protesters to the museum during a February 1987 weekend, only days after the Minister’s announcement. Although the Openluchtmuseum was saved, it then was decided to privatize the Arnhem facility, the first ‘rijksmuseum’ to be redesignated, with another 17 to follow.

In the late 1990s, the museum embarked on a renewal and expansion drive, which saw the start of a new entrance and the construction of an award-winning theatre. HollandRama, housed in an egg-shaped copper ‘building’ near the entrance, was opened in 2000 and allows visitors, in a time capsule of sorts, a virtual reality show of the Netherlands, as it was and is. Visitors are given a ‘surprising view of the life of yesteryear’, the presentation of images of land and cityscapes enhanced by lights and sounds, temperature changes and even particular smells.