ASTRA Museum is the largest ethnographic open air museum in Romania and one of the largest in Europe, dealing mainly with pre-industrial rural communities, researching and showcasing traditional rural communities from the entire country. All together it exhibits more than 400 old buildings representative for traditional Romanian civilization and for ethnic minorities (houses, barns, entire homesteads, churches, mills, fulling-mills, saw-mills and other pre-industrial rural buildings) on more than 100 ha at the outskirts of Sibiu, the former European Cultural Capital in 2007. ASTRA Museum’s mission is to invest in programs meant to enhance the cultural life of its communities and to encourage people to include tradition as an active part of their daily life.
A shift of perspective
The open air museum was established at the beginning of the 60’s, as a Museum of Folk Technique, its focus being on the technical side of Romanian rural patrimony. This purpose lead to its unique collection of mills, oil and fruit presses, sawmills and peasant industries. Since the 90’s, the message has changed, so the museum developed gradually from collecting tools and implements that showcased the ingenuity of the simple, genuine farmer, to the complexity of life in the villages, filling all the gaps in the picture of rural Romania with houses and barns, pubs and bowling alleys, swings, churches or schools. Widening the perspective went even further by creating a living context around the exhibits, actively involving contemporary rural communities in various programs, events and festivals.
Open Heritage project – preparing a better infrastructure
Centered on collecting and research, audiences were left aside and the Visitor was not the focus of museum activities. The museum needed a turning point to re-connect with its communities. Financed by EEA Grants, the Open Heritage project (2014-2017) was a real mile stone, totally changing the optics and opening up the museum not only physically, but symbolically as well. The Open Heritage project means that for the first time in the open-air museum the necessary infrastructure was built in order to generate and validate the whole Romanian rural story, regardless of ethnic origin.
The results concerning the infrastructure can be summed up to: 1/3 of museum’s collections got better storage conditions, 45 employees got better working conditions, almost 1000 objects from the museum’s collections were exhibited for the first time and more than 300 craftsmen had a new shop (the Folk Art Galleries) to sell their products and have a constant income source during the year.
Open Heritage project – focusing on Intangible cultural heritage
But the main result is the new program which highlights the cultural diversity of the country. Anima ASTRA is a new program for contextualizing the collections with real, genuine people from the villages – farmers, craftsmen, singers and dancers, local cooks, involving the visitors in different corners of the museum to engage in co-creating new meaning to old collections.
More than 70 craftsmen were involved, trained and got paid for cultural animations and interactive workshops each year during the Anima ASTRA program. Not only to revive, but to find new purpose for old skills and knowledge in contemporary world, proving that ASTRA Museum became “a museum that opens to the past and guides for the future” (Piet Jaspers).
The Path of ethnic minorities’ is a new way of exploring the open air museum that promotes diversity of cultural expressions and the intercultural dialogue by showcasing the common traits and mutual influences of different ethnic groups that live and work together in the Romanian villages. Some of the households included on the Path were transformed in flexible and adaptable learning settings, capable of recreating an authentic environment and genuine atmosphere.
More than 60 communities with different ethnic backgrounds participated in activities that got their voices heard out loud in the museum events. This activity became their business card and generated since other programs outside the premises of the museum.
Learning is at the core of all cultural activities organized by the museum, developing innovative ways for better communication of its collections to the public, in general, and to children and young people in particular, turning regular visits into experiences based on multisensory activities tailored for different age or social categories.
Learning Diversity is a new educational program that aims to raise cultural awareness of ethnic diversity and facilitate the access of a wider public, especially young people, to the multi-ethnic heritage collection. Targeted mainly on the families with young children, the new program uses playful educational instruments and activities, bringing diverse approaches to unveil the beauty embedded in cultural diversity, the similarity of every day gestures, skills and habits.
During the educational workshops, participants engage in interactive cultural animations (scenarios) which connect, by a consistent narrative provided by the museum educator, several monuments together to emphasise the link between crafts and people in a traditional village.
The program has also un-assisted component, in the form of a quest, a scavenger hunt, with the help of 11 themed booklets, available for free at the entrance in the museum. It is a playful tool that engages all members of the family by reading short stories, finding clues, solving energizing tasks and receiving the reward of discovery and spending quality time together
Bringing relevance upfront
Trying to be relevant to contemporary communities, ASTRA museum completely changed the curatorial approach on exhibitions, too, bringing contemporary issues like migration and kitsch, showing the differences and similarities, ups and downs of economic situations, and how the communities deal with current circumstances. Designing flexible and adaptable exhibitions, permitting to rotate objects and create periodically new narratives or to host other exhibitions, workshops or meetings. The museum uses its large, rich collections in a way that fits in today’s main issues of migration, sustainability and biodiversity.
Since 2014 the number of visitors went up by 58%. In 2019 more than 635.000 people visited or participated in the cultural events organized by the museum. No matter how large, the museum offers visitors numerous possibilities to explore and learn about the heritage at their own rhythm, at their own pace and will, catering for their needs, providing facilities, proposing opportunities, creating links.
ASTRA Museum is a place for sharing passion and discovering quality experiences, a place where people can learn from the past, share their passion for folk art or learn about old skills and find new ways to re-use them for the future.
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