The village museum

Behind each small, local museum that dots the countryside in the West is a vision, 
a commitment to the past and heritage, writes
B. N. Goswamy

‘A view of a street in the town’. The Dorf Museum, Niederlenz, Switzerland.

AS I settle in to write this piece from Zurich, the ‘Night of the Museums’ — that exciting, energising event that has come to be a feature of this lively city — has just come to an end. People have thronged the streets from sunset onwards, museums have stayed open long past the normal hours. Local tram-and-bus networks have been plying all night to ferry visitors from one museum to another to yet another, and art and craft and knowledge and fun of every description has come swimming into the ken of countless people. Lives have undoubtedly been enriched.

Taking my attention away, however, at least for the moment from that flurry of activity, and from major museums like the Kunsthaus or the Landesmuseum or the Rietberg — all in Zurich city — I wish to write here of another kind of museum that dots the countryside of the West: the Village Museum.

Sadly, we, in our land, know virtually nothing of small, local, ‘village museums’, but I am tempted to write about them because I am convinced that we need to. For behind each village museum is a vision, a commitment to the past and to heritage. Undoubtedly, some village museums were founded so as to attract tourists, and thus to make some money. But to most of them there is much more than that: the pride of communities becomes involved in them, and a sense of history takes over. I intend to go into this further, but my thoughts in this regard are touched off by a small museum I happened to visit some time back in Niederlenz, the little Swiss town between Zurich and Basle.

Quite unpretentiously, and simply, it is named the Dorf Museum: ‘dorf’ being the word for village in German. It is located inside an old, almost ancient-looking house with an enormous sloping roof typical of the region; a small sign leads the visitor to it; it is open only for limited hours and on limited days although appointments can be made. It is run by two simple, honest people: Hans Rudolph Hauser and his wife Jolanda Hauser. There is no entry fee; you can take photographs of every object inside; you will even be shown willingly, as I was, several documents relating to the founding of the museum. But once he is inside it, for the visitor the past seems quickly to return; the clock of time begins to wind back.

For one is suddenly surrounded, in every single room of this large, double-storey 300-years-old house, by objects and documents upon which the breath of history lingers. A shelf brim — full of carpenter’s tools — neatly arranged along the wall, peers down at you; an old chimney stove — the kind people used to warm themselves over in bitter winters, as also to cook on — rises in one corner of a room; sepia-coloured photographs of the ‘village’, complete with old street signs or familiar landmarks, occupy one wall; a bank of outmoded but evocative telephones stands atop a time-worn table.

There are showcases filled with fading old documents written in cursive hands — sale deeds of properties, invoices, wills, receipts, and the like; a small room has all the appearance of an old single-teacher school-room, complete with a blackboard, desks and pens, illustrated charts telling children how to cross streets on which cars had begun to ply. Old spinning wheels, exquisitely made wedding dresses, aged watches and grandfather clocks, tin toys, pottery and rugs, painted portraits of long-forgotten men and women by unknown artists, broken-down hand-pumps, hand-painted peasants’ cupboards, handbills advertising elegant new toiletries: this is the kind of stuff the museum houses piles of. But — and this is a matter of obvious importance — all things relate to the soil, to old Niederlenz. There are, in the small town, people for whom this is what ‘real’ Niederlenz was once like. Things have changed, but the past continues to live through these inanimate objects: silent reminders of times gone by. Once one starts looking for them, one finds village museums everywhere: not only in Europe where one almost naturally expects to find them, but even in that relatively ‘new world’, the United States.

In the US, apart from famous tourist attractions, such as a whole reconstructed village like Williamsburg featuring pre-Revolutionary lifestyle, in remote little places, there are museums set up by small-town historical societies, or by self-aware and caring local communities of immigrants: the Germans, the Poles, the Greeks, the Norwegians, and so on, those whose ancestors moved to the new land and made it their home.

There is a desire to preserve memories and a pride in the enterprising spirit of those who came from long distances, braving hardships but persisting. Then, there are all those European places that have ‘village museums’ of a different order: with preserved and reconstructed old dwellings and shops, reflecting life in the past. One thinks, thus, of the well-known Monchhof village museum in Austria, bordering upon Hungarian lands, where ‘the past times can still be sensed’, as brochures tell you. Old houses dot the open-air museum, where dwellings with their furniture and items of daily use, and craftsmen’s shop with their tools and products, shown exactly as they used to be once. Here, one is told with candour, there is much to learn about the spirit of the people of the past, "their joys and griefs, their comfort and security", and of course, "the restrictions and forces within that society".

In Romania, again, there is the ‘village museum’ called Muzeul Satulut, near Bucharest, extending to over one hundred thousand square metres and featuring as many as 272 peasant farms and houses from all over Romania: one of the oldest and biggest outdoor museums in Europe.

I find all this of absorbing interest. But in speaking about these large ‘village museums’, one has moved away, I realise, from the simple and easily reproducible — I say this in the context of what can be done even now in our own land — village museum of the kind in Niederlenz that I began speaking about first. Here, all it took a retired couple to set up a museum was imagination, and a sense of commitment to local history, as also to the old ways of life. The Hausers were not wealthy people: Hans Rudolph was an employee in the local post office before he retired. They are also not academics with learned goals in mind. But with passion they set about their task: buying up an old house, collecting objects, scouring homes and friends’ families for identifying things that they had no further use for, and then putting them together as a labour of love. In the process, they have been looking at life differently, and asking time to unspool itself as it were.