Open Air Museums - North American Interpretation

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, Michigan (1928), where Ford intended his collection to be "a pocket edition of America". But it was Colonial Williamsburg (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 Plantation, and Fortress Louisbourg. 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.

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