Holland Open Air Museum and Kossmann.dejong: The Canon of Dutch History

Teus Eenkhoorn

Director, Holland Open Air Museum

Herman Kossmann

Founding partner, Kossmann.dejong

Martine Barnhard

Head, Exhibitions, Holland Open Air Museum


De Ruyterkade 107 1011 AB Amsterdam The Netherlands


Arnhem, The Netherlands 

Museums + Heritage International Award 2018


Immersion, Interaction and Inspiration - Introducing the Canon of Dutch History



The Canon of Dutch History, fifty themes summarizing Dutch history, has been brought to life at the Netherlands Open Air Museum. The permanent exhibition in the renewed entrance pavilion was conceived in a unique collaboration between a network of museums and historians, with the concept developed by main curator Pieter van der Heijden, spatial and graphic design by exhibition architects Kossmann.dejong, interaction design by IJsfontein and AV production by Redrum. The theatrical combination of physical, interactive and audio-visual media with collection presentations results in an engaging and fascinating visual narrative. The result is a 1780 m2 spatial collage of historic icons, interwoven with stories from everyday people, giving visitors an in-depth experience of the past from today's perspective.

For a long time, there was a need in the Netherlands to increase knowledge of Dutch history and values. After a national debate and a failed attempt to build a national historical museum, the Netherlands Open Air Museum and the Rijksmuseum were asked to create a permanent exhibition of the Canon of Dutch History. The new presentation offers an insight into the highs and lows of Dutch history.

In fifty "windows" the canon takes you along the events, people and objects that define Dutch history. From the first Dutch Monarch to a prime minister in the 50s, from slavery to the canals of Amsterdam and from megalithic tombs to the present.



But how to design an exhibition as an introduction to Dutch history? Central is to create a space that offers many starting points for the visitor to get drawn in by the story, with a strong balance between an attractive design stimulating all senses, and depth of content. The collection, interactives, movies, décor pieces: all elements in the exhibition are there for a reason. All components are little narratives about a particular aspect of Dutch history. Key is the integration of these elements.

An example of such integration is the Hanseatic city-story. In the middle of a décor piece of a Koggeschip (boat) that was used for trading in these cities, a hands-on interactive map is presented next to historical objects and B- and C-texts about the subject. Visitors can learn about the large network of cities through different media and from different angles, thus appealing to a wide range of visitors. Most importantly, the installation inspires people to visualize the story in their own head. People wonder, explore and talk to each other exchanging their knowledge with fellow visitors. They actively and collectively process the narrative on the spot.

Instead of just ticking off the historical highlights, the exhibition tries to trigger the visitor's imagination. While wandering through the spectacular film sets, a combination of physical, interactive and audio-visual media and unique collection presentations take visitors back in time. It's almost like stepping into a time machine. The decorations are designed to be as familiar as possible. For instance, brick has been decorated following historical research and the timber nails of the Kogge ship are a showcase of the ship building technique during the Hanseatic period. The films that bring the decors to life follow the principles of historical realism. History comes even closer through interweaving the topics of the Canon of Dutch History with stories from everyday people. High-end technology makes it possible to meet your peer that lived ages ago. So, visitors from all ages get an in-depth experience of the past from today's perspective.

A deliberate choice was made to include actors, creating one-on-one relations that make important historical events personal and timeless. Visitors can identify with the lives of "ordinary" people in a different time period. It becomes clear that history is more than a collection of Canon windows: it is one continuing, rich story with infinite connections. The Canon of Dutch History forms a starting point to discover this treasure. 



Stepping back in time
The new exhibition is distributed across four consecutive spaces. Visitors begin their journey in the tunnel-like introduction space that gradually takes them back in time, from the end of the 20th century to far beyond AD 1. How did we make light before electricity? What did children play with? And what did we eat? These stories are shared in a series of spatial film projections that give an intimate glimpse into people's daily lives from today and the past. These fragments show our continuously changing living conditions, and with each step, draw the visitor further back in time. 

The Story of the Netherlands
Then visitors enter a multimedia film set in a spectacular 16-meter-high dome room. Here "The Story of the Netherlands" is presented in ten time periods. Visitors wander through the print workshop of 17th century cartographer Joan Blaeu, a church tower from the time of the Iconoclastic Fury and the everyday world of prehistoric hunter -gatherers. In the layered composition of decor , objects and film fragments, the integration of (romantic-) realistic elements add tangibility and familiarity for a wide audience. Film projections bring the sets to life. Visitors are actively challenged to uncover information using a mix of media, hands-on elements and interactive games. For example, visitors can collaborate with each other and can open a treasure chest with collection pieces. Floor and ceiling projections emphasize the continuation of time, ensure visual connection and, in combination with dynamic light and sound effects, result in a vibrant spectacle. The parallelism of media enriches and deepens the story.

Continuous change
After the sensory experience in the dome room, visitors enter the third room with "The Land and the World" A large panoramic film shows the Netherlands as we know it today and how it has evolved through the ages both geographically and geologically. Infographics and historic maps place these changes in a broader, international context. Graphic line patterns on the floor and walls reflect these connections.

The Canon as starting point
Rather than simply listing important moments in history, the canon aims to provide a wide-angle view on certain key themes. In the last space, an 18-m-long interactive wall offers a chronological overview of all 50 "Windows into the Past", showcasing the Canon of Dutch History in its monumental entirety. Here, visitors are invited to unlock more information and find connections between the Canon windows, or to play one of a series of interactive games. A digital expedition unfolds along the different Canon topics, and visitors of all ages can compete at an interactive table to win the family game.

The future of Dutch history
Dutch history cannot be told in one story or place. Rather than picking one institution, the Netherlands Open Air Museum started a network that exchanges, creates and diffuses the Canon of Dutch History. The Canon network stands for proactive cooperation between a growing number of cultural organizations, which bring Dutch history to the attention of its citizens. In the coming years, the network will expand into a balanced reflection of the Canon.

From the launch in 2017, important Dutch museums like the Amsterdam Museum, the National Museum of Antiquities and the National Maritime Museum have been involved in the Canon network. The network keeps expanding to this day, with more Dutch museums joining each year.



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