History of the museum

Grote weide in het Nederlands Openluchtmuseum

Geschiedenis van het museum rij1 EN

A century Dutch Open Air Museum

The Dutch Open Air Museum was established around a century ago on part of the Waterberg estate. In 1726 this area was acquired by the Mayor of Arnhem, Adriaan Menthen. The Menthen family built their own little paradise here. Groundwater-fed streams and ponds were created on the hilly site and the estate was given the fitting name Waterberg (Water Hill). In 1825 it came into the possession of Hendrik Jacob Carel Jan Baron Van Heeckeren van Enghuizen, who also owned Arnhem’s Sonsbeek estate. At this time there was a manor house with a coach house as well as a farmhouse with outbuildings here. The fields and meadows, on which orchards stood, covered an area of more than 65 hectares. In addition, the estate boasted an extensive garden and a large wood with over 15,000 beech and pine trees.

Boerderij uit Arnhem, 1763-1821. Collectie Nederlands Openluchtmuseum
Farmhouse from Arnhem, 1763-1821. 
Collection Dutch Open Air Museum

'De Waterberg' estate 

In 1899 the municipality of Arnhem purchased the Waterberg estate. The manor house and coach house, which stood to the east of the current museum site, had been pulled down some time before. Parts of the estate, created on the rolling lateral moraine of the Veluwe region, are still visible around the site today, such as the wood, avenues and large meadow. The ponds and some of the pathways also date back to that time. Two buildings that were once part of the Waterberg estate still stand on what is now the site of the Holland Open Air Museum and form part of the museum’s collection: the white farmhouse and the labourers’ cottages behind it.

Affiche Vaderlandsch Historisch Volksfeest, 1919. Collectie Nederlands Openluchtmuseum
         Poster 'Vaderlandsch Historisch
         Volksfeest', 1919. Collection
         Dutch Open Air Museum

Development of the museum

At the end of the 19th century the Netherlands experienced a period of rapid change. The industrial revolution brought progress and prosperity, but at the same time traditional buildings and the traditional crafts associated with them were at risk of being lost. Concerned by these developments, in 1912 a group of private individuals set up the National Open Air Museum Association, modelled on similar associations in Scandinavia. They leased around 31 hectares of the former Waterberg estate from the municipality of Arnhem. A number of buildings dismantled in other locations were reconstructed in Arnhem.


The museum opened its doors on Schelmseweg on April 13, 1918. A year later, the museum is the scene of the ‘Fatherland Historical Public Festival’ (Vaderlandsch Historisch Volksfeest). A major peace festival to celebrate the end of the First World War. According to tradition, ‘at least 400,000’ visitors arrived in three days.

Groep evacués voor radmakerij in het Nederlands Openluchtmuseum, 1944. Collectie Nederlands Openluchtmuseum
Group evacuees in front of the wheelwright
workshop in the Dutch Open Air Museum, 1944.
Collection Dutch Open Air Museum

War period

As early as the 1930s, the pressure to use the museum for 'popular propaganda' increased. However, this ideology does not get a foothold, even when in 1941 the museum became a (the) National Museum of Folklore - during the occupation. During the Battle of Arnhem, the museum housed 600 evacuees and resistance fighters. In early 1945, a V1 bomb destroyed one of the exhibition buildings where dozens of people lived shortly before. The beautiful collections of regional dress and painted furniture are also largely lost in the war.


After the war, in 1962, the museum site was extended northwards by around 12 hectares.

Schotel ter herinnering aan 75 jaar Nederlands Openluchtmuseum, 1987. Collectie Nederlands Openluchtmuseum
        Dish commemorating 75 years
        Dutch Open Air Museum, 1987. 
        Collection Dutch Open Air Museum

Hanging by a thread

In 1987, the museum exists 75 years, drastic cuts by the Dutch Government meant the Open Air Museum was facing closure. In the end it remained open thanks to massive public campaigns and extensive media coverage.


One of the consequences of this turbulent period was that the National Folk Museum, as it was known at the time, was privatised. From 1991 it continued as The Holland Open Air Museum Foundation. The collection remained the property of the state and the foundation received an annual subsidy to manage and maintain it. However, the museum assumed responsibility for its own operation.


Since it was privatised the museum has embarked on a new course, shifting its focus from rural life and working practices to the culture of everyday life. The still lifes previously displayed in and around the buildings have also made way for lively presentations. New historic buildings have been added to enhance the collection and trams now run around the museum park. A new entrance pavilion has been built at the entrance to the park, which had previously been relocated to the west of the site. This new direction earned the museum the title of ‘European Museum of the Year’ in 2005.


In 2011 the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science decided that the Canon of Dutch History should also be given a place at the Holland Open Air Museum, an exhibition that has been realised in partnership with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The new entrance pavilion housing the exciting Canon of Dutch History presentation has been open to the public since September 2017. In addition to the presentation, various canon windows can be seen in the museum park, such as The national gas deposit and the great flood of 1953, World War I, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the Statenbijbel, Slavery, Charlemagne, Willem Drees and De Stijl. In the village school from Lhee the link between education and child labour is made clear. In the coming years the canon windows in the museum park will be further expanded.


The Dutch Open Air Museum is now the most visited museum outside the Randstad and receives more than 550,000 visitors a year.


                 Canon van Nederland                Canon van Nederland                Canon van Nederland