Museums aren’t confined to just objects or artworks; there are places, buildings and structures, and the only way to view these things is from the outside. The tradition of open-air museum is familiar to Scandinavians with their Nordic and Skansen museums centred around a collection of historic structures. The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in Oslo was founded in 1894 by a librarian and Historian, Hans Aall. The site is host to 150 buildings relocated from other places, shipped in pieces and reconstructed, including buildings from Medieval times onwards.
The Highland Folk museum in Scotland relies more on replicas and is Britain’s first open air museum. Founded in 1935 by Isabel Grant, over 2000 artefacts were gathered to represent life in the Highlands. The collection covers everything, from farming equipment, furniture, tools, utensils, weapons, pottery and musical instruments. The buildings include a blackhouse and a But and Ben. (See below for explanations)
The museum didn’t stay where it started as it was relocated, with buildings, to a bigger site, and other traditional structures were added including a crofthouse and post office.
Folk museums work well as open-air museums as that is how our ancestors lived, outdoors; cultivating the land, engaged in crafts that needed materials – wood, clay, straw, iron, copper – things that need to be grown, mined or gathered from the wild. With live demonstrations, the objects that represent the folk that handled them are brought back to life. It’s engaging too, unlike static exhibits in cabinets.
There are other folk museums worth visiting. West Stow in Suffolk recreates Anglo-Saxon life, The Black Country Museum in Dudley, the industrial era, and Mountfitchet Castle, the Norman village life. Weald and Downland Museum will get you back to Tudor England and Chatham Docks, will give you a maritime perspective.
Outdoor museums, like the Highland Folk, are a bit like time travelling, and their authenticity is due to a commitment to detail, the recreation of a way of life that is gradually being forgotten, or in some cases deliberately being destroyed, as was the case with the Highland Clearances by the English in 18th and 19th Centuries. Consequently, many of these sites are used in filmmaking as locations; if you’re a Peaky Blinders fan, you might just recognise The Black County Museum, and the Highland Folk Museum – Outlander, what a surprise!
What film sets do you know that use a museum – my local museum, the National Waterways Museum was used for The Irregulars, based on Sherlock Holmes stories (Netflix series).
Blackhouse – traditional in Hebrides and Ireland. The black might simply be a translation of Gaelic for thatched or black. Nobody knows.
But and Ben is a Scots term for a two roomed house.
A Croft is an enclosed area of land with a dwelling.