First open-air museum

First open-air museum

Living heritage

First open-air museum

The old wind mill in use

The walls were a richly stained red. No, no it cannot be blood. But I cannot compete with the imagination of darkness. My dismissive laughter has already dissipated amidst the smoke I can now smell in the damp, stinky air. Only the rain intrudes from the outside world. The house is beginning to close in. I hurriedly breathe into the hollow of my hand just to make sure there’s no tobacco on my breath. There is none. And then I find the exit.

 It was just a tobacconist’s shop after all. The dismissive laughter vrooms back like the first flush of happiness. This is what atmosphere does to you. And the creators of ‘Den Gamle By’ know that very well.

Den Gamle By or ‘the old town’ in the heart of the city of Aarhus in Denmark is celebrated as the “world’s first open air museum of urban culture.” But its look and feel is nothing like what the word museum conjures up. Once you open its ornate gate and step on to the cobbled footpath (and immediately spot a grand pitch-black hackney carriage with stunning ebony-hued horses and a fully-suited horseman), you know you are willing to be carried away by its painstakingly careful recreation of a world that’s no longer ours.

The ‘old town’ is celebrating its centenary this year. Its creation in 1909 by teacher and translator Peter Holm is itself a fascinating story. Six years earlier, Peter Holm was witness to the dismantling of a fine big house which was later renamed as the ‘Mayor’s House’. He got the house re-erected at a national exhibition in Aarhus in 1909 and thus was opened the world’s first open-air museum. From 1909 till he retired as director in 1945, Holm saved 50 historic houses from demolition and also managed to find enough funds for their re-erection at ‘Den Gamle By’, spurred by the passionate realisation that if somebody did not save those houses, a whole chunk of Danish urban culture would be lost for ever.

Today, the museum is a cozy little town full of picture-postcard half-timbered structures that house everything from a 19th century shoe-maker’s shop to an early 20th century tobacconist’s shop to a toy shop, a clock museum and several other representations of everyday life of the past centuries. But that’s not all. What’s special about this place is that it can be a fully-fledged living, breathing, working town if given half a chance!

You can actually meet the town drummer (like I did) and walk away shyly when he gives you a broad smile; you can stumble into a dark kitchen in the merchant’s house, led by your nose which smelt baking bread, and actually see that a lady who does not look unlike a merchant’s wife is instructing a kitchen maid who is in fact baking bread! Shake your head in wonder and go to their backyard only to come upon peat ready for the fire and a brood of chickens cackling away in joy. You walk further along, still in bewilderment, when a youngster who looks remarkably like a farm hand of the previous century shouts ‘goodag’ while he is merrily pumping water from the rusted pump in the yard. The last straw is suddenly coming upon a narrow canal with a curved bridge curling across its short width, brown ducks blissfully floating along and what looks like an ancient ferry tethered to the shore and a boatman casually waiting by.

The creators of the museum believed that if urban culture has to be preserved, it has to be displayed in its living, breathing form to the visitors. Thus, people in period costumes go about living their life in front of your eyes (and scaring the living daylights out of unsuspecting souls like me). The merchant and clergyman’s houses have working kitchens with wrought-iron stoves and open hearths, the baker’s shop actually sells cakes, soft rolls and bagels made from old recipes and there is a flesh-and-blood coppersmith toiling away in his dark shop, fixing nails to a board!

Now you see why I thought I smelt tobacco on my breath. There must have been a tobacconist glumly rolling a cigarette in a musty corner I didn’t peer into!