Timbered houses and refugee homes: how an open-air museum serves as a time capsule | Arts | DW | 29.08.2016
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Timbered houses and refugee homes: how an open-air museum serves as a time capsule

Many open-air museums in Germany reconstruct daily life as it was in olden days. But in Kommern, it is not just about the maintenance of centuries old monuments but about highlighting more recent architecture as well.

The Rhineland Open-Air Museum in Kommern is well-known for showcasing the architecture of the region with its ancient timbered houses. It mainly consists mainly of reconstructed villages surrounded by meadows and forests, with farm houses and workshops highlighting old trades like iron casting and wagon-making.

But things changed in 2007, when Josef Mangold was appointed the museum's director. The focus shifted away from looking exclusively at bygone centuries. Mangold created a special section of the museum called "Marktplatz Rheinland" ('Marketplace Rhineland') dedicated to showcasing the era from 1945 until today.

"It's time to jump into the future. Our goal is to tell the stories of people, and that's why we need to interview contemporary witnesses," Mangold says.

People count more than buildings

Kommern museum - refugee housing, copyright: DW/G. Reucher

Refugees seem to be a recurrent theme - in contemporary history and at the Kommern museum

The fictitious market place is surrounded by six gray mobile homes, moved there from the town of Krefeld where they used to serve as shelters for refugees from the former republic of Yugoslavia. One of the small rooms in the mobile home is preserved to look as though the refugees had only just left.

A former refugee appears on a monitor telling his story near the four beds in the room and starts telling the nightmare of his escape, breathing life into the sterile environment.

"Rarely has an open-air museum ever come so close to representing the present reality," says Raphael Thörmer, an ethnologist and museum guide.

The trend of highlighting the stories of people at open-air museums rather than just preserving old buildings started back in the 1970s and 80s, examining questions like "who used to live in these houses?" and "how did these people live?"

Ancient history versus contemporary structures

The marketplace also features the Watteler pub, which is presented in the architectural style of the 1970s. The interior of the red brick building is embellished with old-fashioned wallpaper. There's also an old pillow attached to the wall near the counter.

Thörmer explains that this is where the former innkeeper used to sit.

"Nowadays, we are able to find out more about people by inquiring about their family history, as we did in the case of the family Watteler," Thörmer says.

Old-fashioned taverns like the Watteler pub can be found throughout the region at almost every single street corner. However, Josef Mangold says that most of them will have disappeared in no less than ten years.

Kommern museum - pub, Copyright: DW/G. Reucher

Sausages and potato salad are still served in the old lounge of the Watteler pub like it was in the good old days

In the 1950s and 60s, many of the kind of old farmhouses that are featured at the Kommern museum were still in use. However, facing the threat of being demolished they started to be used for other purposes. This turning point came about as a result of Germany's so-called economic miracle after World War II, which was accompanied by the rapid industrialization of rural areas. These ancient farms were no longer fit for mass production and could not keep up with new technology.

Subsequently, Blacksmith's shops were turned into car repair shops, and residential buildings into taverns. From the 1960s onwards, ethnologists tried to save these ancient buildings from destruction by transferring them to open air museums, where they were rebuilt one brick at a time.

Museum director Josef Mangold says he also wanted to use the marketplace to show how that reconstruction process took place: next to the Watteler pub, you can see the original barn doors of the old farmhouse the tavern took over.

Kommern museum - Josef Mangold, Copyright: DW/G. Reucher

Josef Mangold not only runs the open-air musuem but is also an avid collector of miniature VW buses

"Two farms on average were given up each day during those times when everything had to transition [to fit a new purpose]," says Raphael Thörme, who is also in charge of the marketing department of the museum. Back then, it wasn't as difficult as it is nowadays to add new buildings to the museum's collection. This has changed dramatically, Josef Mangold adds.

"Nowadays, we can't drive around and just chose which house we would like to purchase. Many historic buildings have been placed under conservation."

Many old houses throughout the region can no longer be uprooted and are now being restored right where they are in order to continue to be in use.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The majority of the Kommern museum, which opened in 1961, is still made up of antique farmhouses.

"The oldest building here is a granary from the Lower Rhine region from the 15th century," Mangold explains.

Kommern museum - farmhouse, Copyright: DW/G. Reucher

This house from Kessenich, Bonn, was transferred to the Kommern museum in 1958

Various building clusters at the museum represent different architectural styles from different provinces, such as the Rhineland, the Eifel and the Lower Rhine. The respective surroundings of those regions have also been rebuilt around the structures, including stables, vegetable gardens and meadows.

A short distance away from the central from the marketplace area visitors discover the Westerwald cluster, with chickens are running around between timbered houses as the hay dries on the meadows. Elsewhere, a number of adobe buildings paint an idyllic picture surrounded by flowers, vegetable gardens and goat stables. Each one of these clusters is characterized by its distinctive regional features. For instance, while in woodland regions, homes were made of timber, people living in mountainous areas used bricks to build.

The Kommern museum started to apply this principle of recreating small landscapes in a holistic fashion according to their local styles long before other open-air museums followed suit.

Kommern museum - Bernd Phiesel, Copyright: DW/G. Reucher

Bernd Phiesel shows children how to make use of various tools

Against such inviting backdrops, it is difficult to image the harsh realities of life in former times, says Josef Mangold. That's why the museum staff add a layer of disorder to the displays on purpose, for instances by not making the beds in the refugee mobile homes.

"An open air museum should not look like a picture book," Mangold tells DW, adding that the purpose of the open air museum has nothing to do with aesthetics.

"I always get a fit when I hear people say 'Oh, look how beautiful life used to be!'"

It's hard to maintain traditional crafts

As is the case at other open air museums, members of staff take on roles to explain to visitors what the various trades of the past entailed. Some dress up as cooks while others let you in on the secrets of smiths. For example, the Eifel cluster contains the farmyard of a wagon-maker who once used to manufacture carriages and farming tools for the peasants.

Bernd Phiesel, a master craftsman in carpentry who has studied traditional techniques, comes to the museum twice a week to play the role of a wagon-making, demonstrating how various items once used to be produced. This ancient profession has, however, long disappeared, says Phiesel:

"It has been absorbed by modern car engineering," he explains, adding that some of the museum's initial staff from when it first opened were still trained in traditional crafts.

"Nowadays, we need to train our employees in traditional crafts ourselves, as these professions have already ceased to exist," says museum director Mangold.

This is proving to not always be an easy task, since a lot of the traditional knowledge has been lost. That's one of the reasons why Mangold always keeps the future in mind, routinely asking visitors whether they would agree to pass on their houses, items of daily life or instructions of their professions to the museum.

After all, the present, too, will one day be part of the past.

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