The Regional Review

Volume IV - No. 6

June, 1940

And Folk Art Centers

National Park Service.

[Note: The following brief history of the origins and development of folk art centers and open-air museums in Europe, and of their recent spread to the United States, recalls an interesting approach to the same topic which was written by M. D. Jones, "Living Museums of Norway and Sweden", The Regional Review, Vol. III, Nos. 4 and 5, October-November 1939, pp. 23-25].

The conception of the folk art center in conjunction with the open-air museum was born in Scandinavia, Arthur Hazelius, the Swedish scholar, inaugurated the first such institutions widely to be known at Stockholm in 1873 and at Skansen in 1891, after he had been studying the problem since the 50's. His idea struck root in the deep interest which the Scandinavian countries had taken in ethnographical problems since the early years of the 19th century. As a matter of fact the first ethnographical museum built upon modern lines had been established in Copenhagen in 1841.

It was fortunate that when scholars set out to explore the ancient culture of the Scandinavian area, traditional ways of living and customs had not yet declined in more remote parts of the country, It was a decisive moment, for the machine age already had begun to threaten the continuance of obsolete trends in those parts of the country which were more open to "modern" civilization, So it happened that when Hazelius began reconnoitering he was richly rewarded in his effort to save what he could for his museum. That was not his only purpose, however, because he also tried to foster everything that was fit to survive by urging people to adapt their old customs to new ways of life in changed circumstances. The salient point was not the growth of his collections but rather the encouragement of the interest of the people in the regeneration of folk culture.

building interior

folk dance
Upper: An interior from halland placed on permanent exhibit at the open-air museum of Lyngby, Denmark. Below, an installation at the same museum for the presentation of folk dances.

Such facts must be kept in mind in order to answer the question why this movement predominantly carried weight in Scandinavia and took considerable time to gain any footing in other parts of Europe. In fact it may be said safely that though many folk art collections and a few open air museums have been started in various countries of Europe, such centers have never served as rallying points for a real movement to which the whole country, including all classes of society, was devoted. As conditions in other countries of Europe were different they brought forth some other development. Romantic ideas born at the time of the French revolution, and national ambition thriving after the uprooting of the Napoleonic wars, worked up imagination to see the past only in the glory of the magnificent time of medieval chivalry. Neglecting peasant life, civil toil and folk ways, simple and unromantic as they seemed, the remainders of a past dreamt to be beautiful and heroic were gathered. Thus "national" collections were started, differing from those which princes formerly had assembled for entertainment.

The Cluny Museum at Paris and the Germanic National Museum at Nuremberg represented such collections. "National" interest, once aroused, was active in this direction, and as the 19th century progressed, innumerable centers of historical interest, called "historical" societies, were created. In German-speaking countries this movement finally led to the more recent creation of the Heimatmuseum (city or regional museum). Though undoubtedly this Heimatmuseum has its roots in the historical museum, the Scandinavian museums have influenced this type, at least so far as to make it conscious of the more modest walks of the past, bringing study of former ways of life of the lower or rural classes. So far the Heimatmuseum is following the same line as the Scandinavian museum. Yet, one Scandinavian activity---the difficult task of carrying on old traditions and adapting them to modern use---has never been a German function. It should be mentioned, however, that such activity has been recognized and taken over in part by schools teaching applied art even though they have no connection with any kind of museum.

Regarding Scandinavia once more, it may be stated that at the very moment when interest was aroused in folk art, the country was ready to respond. Unbroken traditions furnished a wealth of cultural features. Hazelius made rapid progress in realizing his hopes and soon was followed by colleagues in his own country and in Norway and Denmark.

As a result, folk art centers were established in all three capitals, each one of which began serving as a focus of the national movement. At Stockholm the Nordic Museum, founded 1873, formed the nucleus. The open-air branch at Skansen (on the outskirts of Stockholm) followed in 1891. The Nordic Museum comprises collections relating to rural life, burghers ("upper classes"), craftsmen, folklore, and social life. Covering the whole country there are collections of photographs and archives for documentation of architecture, portraits, patterns of textiles, pottery and pewter. Such evidence, which may be compared with the Index of American Design, is frequently used in various publications appealing to all classes of the population.

At Skansen characteristic buildings (farms, barns, dairies, a church, a manor house, workshops, etc.) have been put up in an area covering some 50 acres. Originally these buildings were placed in a pleasing landscape without the idea of arranging the site to simulate any original setting, whereas in recent years there has been an effort to make their surroundings more natural.

Craftsmen are busy in the workshops as glassblowers, smiths, pewterers, printers, bookbinders, tanners, combmakers and watchmakers. All of them, guards and girls attending in restaurants, wear national costumes of great variety. The church is consecrated and used, service is held, and often weddings are celebrated, everybody dressing in national costumes, which for such occasions may be more elaborate than usual. Frequently folk dances are produced with musicians playing old instruments and coming from all parts of the country. Such a parade is by no means a fancy dress ball, because these costumes are worn at home also and the oldfashioned habro, where the dancer gives his lady quite a flourishing swing, is danced by society members on festive occasions celebrated at the most elaborate town hall. Statements have been made that Skansen wears some kind of "make up", but they are not justified. There is nothing of a country fair atmosphere, It may be that some of the young Stockholmers going there have never before seen a woman working at a loom, but possibly they have never seen a cornfield either. The point is that what is done at Skansen is not artificial but real. Old customs and crafts come to life again and are appreciated after they have been snubbed and outmoded.

Next to Stockholm and Skansen the museum at Lund in south Sweden, opened in 1893, is most important. This excellent collection was built up by Carlin personally during a period of more than 40 years so that it exhibits considerable differences when compared with the museums already mentioned. All these institutions are operated privately, though occasionally receiving help from the government; but they must charge fees and, at Skansen, must guard against financial loss.

Besides these large collections there are something like 300 museums varying in size but similar in general character. It should be noted that many have been founded and maintained by committees of farmers. Nothing but pure love for their country and its traditions prepared them for such a task. Some of the museums will have to be abandoned occasionally, perhaps, for lack of sufficient support; but others will thrive because they are carried on by the interest of the home folk who like to gather round these civic centers.

A Gudbrandsdalen farmhouse reinstalled in a natural setting at the open-air museum of Maihaugen (Lillehammer), Norway.

Here is where the second of Hazelius' great efforts should be mentioned. He realized that it would not be worthwhile just to collect museum objects and put them on display. To keep up tradition beyond the current generation, care had to be taken to provide new impetus for old folk ways. So he set forth to gather material which would be effective in promoting arts and crafts where practice had been weakened or had ceased altogether. These efforts were taken up later by the Hemslöjd, an organization fostering home craft, Here again all classes of society worked together with marvelous success. Weaving schools were set up and literature was printed which not only brought knowledge of century-old patterns, but also---and this was essential---developed them logically without allowing cheap and vulgar effects to creep in. The museum always constitutes the center for such activity, although it often is little more than a fine old farm house which has been set aside by the community. Beyond the great civic value of such a rallying point, the activity achieved national importance through the high standard of its products. Swedish output in these fields has ranked high for years in international exhibitions. This is not due to a transient fashion; it is the consequence of permanent and steadfast work toward a national goal.

Oslo is the home of the Norwegian Folkemuseum, established in 1894 on the outskirts of the peninsula of Bygdo. Bygdo is a park like Skansen, one section containing the open-air museum, another a natural setting of collected houses best compared with a habitat group. In accordance with the character of Norway itself, the variety of displays is smaller than in Sweden and sparser population has indicated fewer regional museums. Rather important ones are to be found, however, in Bergen and Trondheim. The one which can be compared best with Skansen is at Maihaugen, near Lillehammer. It owes its existence to the private efforts of an industrialist who opened his collections to the public. Besides farm houses and barns, workshops are set up in which workers are active in summer, There, as in Trondheim, dairies, sheepraising, and other rural enterprises flourish. They are operated jointly by the museum and farmers who let their cows be milked by girls in national costumes, while the wool of their sheep is used for handwoven products. Similar to the Swedish Hemslöjd movement, the Husflid is operated to advance home crafts.

The Danish Folk Museum was founded in 1879 by Bernard Olsen and opened to the public in 1885; the open-air branch at Lyngby dates from 1901. Olsen, competing ably with Hazelius, was specially successful in collecting outstanding examples of farm and cottage buildings. He was the first to set up period rooms, taken from farm homes as early as 1879.

Among the smaller museums of Denmark one represents a unique type in Scandinavia. It is the "old town museum" established at Aarhus in 1909. A celebration called for an exhibition, and a group of fine old buildings was gathered in a setting representing an old town. After the event a permanent museum was made of the display. It was so successful that the example has been followed in the more recent settings at Bygdo and Skansen, Workshops and similar features are of the same type described above although they are not shown in operation.

In the main, trends and conditions in Europe have not been conducive to the development of such movements as the Swedish open-air museum or the Hemslöjd. Most countries, however, have developed a few folk art and open air museums, as at Koenigsberg, Germany, and Arnhem, Holland. Voices have been raised in Great Britain since 1903 for establishment of institutions similar to those in Scandinavia. Beginnings have been made in Cardiff, Hull, and other localities, but nothing has been done on a large scale.

A Folk Art Center was founded in New York in 1928. It has nationwide representatives and maintains contact with similar institutions abroad. Although it possesses no considerable permanent collection, it has held exhibitions at the Fifth Avenue home where a library is at hand and information is available. Dearborn Village, the creation of Henry Ford, should be mentioned here; and related to the subject is the Williamsburg restoration which is gaining nationwide importance with every year of progress and well deserved popularity.

Smaller American enterprises for preserving and promulgating local traditions are the Pilgrim Village at Salem, Massachusetts, and Lincoln Log Cabin and New Salem State Parks, Illinois. Luther College, of Decorah, Iowa, developed a group of cabins in the style of early Norwegian settlements. Henry C. Mercer's important collections of tools and everyday cultural objects is preserved by the Bucks County Historical Society at Doylestown, Pennsylvania, as a center for research in old crafts and folk culture.

It is impossible to mention all the scattered efforts being made by various agencies to revive interest in folk arts and crafts, but some of the most effective should be pointed out. There is a growing tendency to unite craftsmen living in distant parts of the country into "guilds" which serve as liaison between the public and the workman. The greatest success so far has been made in the South, by the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild, and in New Hampshire, by the League of New Hampshire Arts and Crafts. Such developments have been encouraged by Allan H. Eaton's fascinating studies of crafts of the Southern mountains. The National Park Service naturally is interested in these problems and has sought to be a useful promoter in the field.

Finally, one of the most remarkable Work Projects Administration undertakings should be mentioned: the Index of American Design. This countrywide endeavor, carried out with the greatest care and skill, has an older companion in the collection of textile patterns, already described, which was made in Sweden for use of home craft institutions, In her instructive book, Swedish Home Crafts (published in English at Stockholm, 1939), the Swedish author Sterner emphasized the importance this guidance one had in educating Swedish weavers. The Index appears even more apt to serve the same purpose, because it comprises such a wealth of material and covers such a large field of subjects. As a link between traditions which have passed away and developments necessitated by industrial progress, it should serve as a welcome tool.



Joergen Olrick, "Le dévéloppement des Muséees en plein air au Danemark," Mouseion, Vols. 23-24, Nos. 3-4, 1933, 60-67.

P. Holm, "Old Town, a Folk Museum in Denmark," Museums Journal, Vol. 37, 1937, 1 ff.


"Development of Folklore Museums," Museums Journal, Vol. 38, 1939, 592 ff.


O. Lehmann , "Home Museums of Germany," Museums Journal, Vol. 30, 1931, 300 ff.

Great Britain

Viscount Bledisloe, "Museums, Their Past, Present and Future," Museums Journal, Vol. 39, 1939, p. 214 ff.

Cyril Fox, "Openair Museums," Museums Journal, Vol. 34, 1934, 109 ff.


Erven Dorens, "Le Musée en plein àir a Arnhem," Mouseion, Vol. 5, 1928, 141 ff.


"Les Collections des arts et traditions populaires en Italie," Mouseion, Vols. 35-36, 1936, 71 ff.


S. Markham, "The Museums of Norway," Museums Journal, Vol. 39, 1940, 441 ff.

"Norwegian Folk Museums," Pencil Points, Vol. XVII, 1939, 91 ff.


H. Bolingbroke , "Openair Museums in Scandinavia," Museums Journal, Vol. 25, 1925, 17 ff.

J. Stendall, "Museums in Scandinavia," Museums Journal, Vol. 38, 1938, 394 ff.


E. Klein, "Rural Museums in Sweden," Museums Journal, Vol. 30, 1931, 257 ff.

A. Lindblom, En bok om Skansen, Stockholm, 1933.

Maj. Sterner, Homecrafts in Sweden, Stockholm, 1939.

United States

Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, New York, 1937.

Index of American Design, WPA Technical Series, Art Circular No. 3, Washington, November 3, 1938.

"Index of American Design," special articles in Fortune, June 1937, and House and Garden, July 1938.


All reproductions are from Volumes 23-24, Nos. 3-4 (1933), of Mouseion, official organ of the Office Internationale des Musées, Paris, France.


Preservation of historic Cumberland Gap, the gateway to the trans-Allegheny West through which ran the Warriors' Path and the later Wilderness Road, was assured this month when President Roosevelt approved Congressional authorization for eventual establishment of the Kentucky-Tennessee-Virginia area as a national historical park. The act provides for inclusion of such scenic and historic features as the Pinnacle, the remaining fortifications of the War Between the States, Soldiers Cave, King Solomon's Cave, Devils Garden, Sand Cave, the Doublings, White Rocks, Rocky Face, Moore Knob, and the section of the Warriors' Path and Daniel Boone's Wilderness Road extending from Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, to Cumberland Ford, near Pineville, Kentucky.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002