Everything Is Bigger at Open-Air Museums

Everything Is Bigger at Open-Air Museums

DAYTON, Ohio — Every Sunday from May to October, Larry Weinstein plays music for people here in Dayton, on the towering Deeds Carillon, which rises above the city’s south side. Suspended between four limestone columns, the carillon’s 57 bells cover two octaves and play in response to Mr. Weinstein’s touch on a keyboard.

The 15-story tower is a beloved landmark. It is also one of many extra-large exhibits at Carillon Historical Park, a 65-acre open-air museum focusing on technology and innovation.

Open-air museums, as their name implies, display their collections outdoors, often because of the size of the artifacts — though there is a wide variety in subject matter. A museum in Japan features a hotel entrance and lobby. In Germany, prehistoric homes can be toured.

While the size of the exhibits can be jaw-dropping, the museums are not simply guardians of the tangible. Their curators say they are demonstrating the birth of an idea, acknowledging a developmental pivot point or preserving an era.

Opened in 1929, Greenfield Village is actually just one part of a complex of museums and schools assembled by Henry Ford (and known together as the Henry Ford). The village is arranged like a small American town, using historic buildings, vehicles and equipment collected from all over the United States.

The 83 large artifacts in the museum demonstrate America’s transition from agriculture to industry, and highlight the history of the people who designed, worked or lived in them.

“Ford wanted to remember the hard work and values of creating a country like America, and he wanted those to be preserved so people could learn from them,” said Patricia Mooradian, the president of the Henry Ford.

For example, the tenacity required to endure and challenge slavery is explained through audio recordings of slave stories, piped into the small cottages where they lived on South Carolina’s Hermitage Plantation.

Visitors can tour Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory and see how the inventor’s first experimental electric-lighting system was put into use at the Sarah Jordan boarding house, where his lab workers lived.

Exhibits like these “provide a unique immersive educational experience,” Ms. Mooradian said. “Don’t ignore the power of an artifact. When I can put my hands on something, that memory stays with me.”

Visitors can interact with the exhibits by watching wool be spun or by moving around the village in a historic steam train. Sometimes, museum presenters explain the artifacts using iPads and other technology and prod people to consider how they, too, can contribute to society.

“Our whole museum is about the future,” Ms. Mooradian said. So when visitors are impressed by someone in the past, “they can think, ‘I can do that, too.’”

Greenfield Village may also own the original home of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Dayton’s most famous sons, but Carillon Historical Park has the 1905 Wright Flyer III, the brothers’ first “practical airplane.”

In addition to the Wright brothers, there were many others in Dayton who played important roles in the industrialization of America. They called themselves the “Barn Gang” because they worked in the backyard barn of the engineer and inventor Edward Deeds. That barn, now part of the museum, was the workshop for ideas like car ignitions and refrigerators and calculators.

The Wright Flyer III, which is a national landmark, is perhaps the museum’s most famous exhibit. But the exhibition space is important as well because figuring out how to show it off was also Orville Wright’s idea. He designed the circular structure that gives visitors a 360-degree view of the Flyer.

“It was the world’s first pilot’s last project,” said Alex Heckman, vice president for museum operations.

In another tribute to the longevity of some inventions, a 150-year-old brewery at the park still makes beer using original methods and serves food — so the exhibit does double duty as the museum cafe.

The recorded history of Iceland spans more than a millennium, but its transition from an agricultural feudal state to modern society was compressed into just seven decades.

“For 1,000 years, daily life basically did not change much,” said Andri Gudmundsson, the managing director of the Skogar Museum on Iceland’s southern coast.

His open-air museum features several reconstructed turf homes — rustic stone and sod-roofed dwellings that Icelanders repeatedly rebuilt and reused for centuries.

Residents and tourists “are often dumbfounded and fascinated” by the homes, Mr. Gudmundsson said, often finding it “hard to believe people used to survive here in these conditions.”

During the concentrated period of development that began after World War II, thousands of turf homes were destroyed, according to Sigurjon Baldur Hafsteinsson, a professor of museum studies at the University of Iceland. This was not only to make way for modern buildings but also because Icelanders were embarrassed by the difference between Iceland and other European cultures with multiple layers of developmental history.

“Today I would say that opinions of Icelanders are changing toward a more favorable appreciation,” Mr. Hafsteinsson said. Now, turf homes tell a story of the rugged resiliency of the nation’s Viking descendants.

Thousands of years ago, people lived in wooden cabins perched above lakes in areas that are now Germany and Switzerland. Scientists believe that the homes were constructed on a foundation of wooden piles driven into the lake bed.

The remnants of these lake homes and other artifacts from 4,000 to 850 B.C. are part of the five-acre, open-air Pfahlbaumuseum Unteruhldingen, also known as the Lake Dwelling Museum, on Germany’s Lake Constance. Twenty reconstructed lake homes depict life in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

A walk along the elevated footpath above the lake allows visitors to get a feel for life in this prehistoric community. In 2006, two German families got a chance to do more than use their imaginations: They were invited to move in for two months as part of the television series “Stone Age — The Experiment.”

In an article addressing the educational value of the museum, Gunter Schöbel, the museum’s director, said, “Dry scientific data are not themselves appealing to the public.

“A visitor these days is able to discriminate between an artificial theme park and the authenticity of an open-air museum that explains the present through the reality of the past.”

While many of the 67 buildings on exhibit at the Museum Meiji-mura in Inuyama, Japan, are huge, the museum focuses on a narrow but important four-decade slice of history, beginning with the fall of the feudal shogun era. The museum’s focus is the evolution of Japan’s social, political and technological changes as seen through its architecture from 1868 to 1912.

The most significant artifact, according to Souichirou Inouse, a spokesman for the museum, is the entrance hall and lobby of the Imperial Hotel, which opened in 1923 and was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

As Japan’s traditional wood structures gave way to stone and brick construction, the Imperial Hotel, made of concrete and lava stone, was defining Japan’s modern skyline. The hotel is “a piece of architecture that symbolizes Japan’s modern era,” Mr. Inouse said.

The story of change demonstrated in factories, bridges, schools and even the 1907 gate of a prison is told alongside more humble structures like barbershops and bathhouses. Rumbling by all of this are Meiji-era electric streetcars from Kyoto that transport visitors on their day trip through Japan’s recent past.

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