Curating an authentic past

The future and fate of the Open-air museum.


The role of the open-air museum in the future is an uncertain one. The scenographic approach to landscape is an idea that has changed radically in recent years, and landscape space can now be understood as a dialogic relationship between people and their environment. The arrangements and collections of buildings types were formed on ideas of romanticism and nationalism, but as shifting notions of culture and identity change, the types of knowledge and experiences these museums construct today are put into question.

The idea of the open-air museum developed out of the desire to aestheticise the past. Architectural artefacts were relocated to construct ‘ideal’ representations of picturesque landscapes. This new type of museum developed at the end of the 19th century in Scandinavia, shortly after the artistic, literary and intellectual movement of romanticism. The idea popularised national history and became a method used to propagate nationalism through the aesthetic arrangement of architectural representation.

Over the 20th century this museum type was soon adopted by many nations in Europe, North American and Russia. As modernisation brought upon the industrialisation of tourism, historic architecture now functions as a prime cultural medium. National history and curatorship have been ubiquitously linked as historical monuments are aestheticised and commodified. However, in Western Europe as “the grip of nationalism over perceptions of the past has weakened in the past 10-20 years, a key element at the basis of the ‘natural’ role of the museum in a political and ideological sense has vanished.”3 Whereas, in contemporary Russia, “questions the role of the open-air museum on both sides of the continent is uncertain, however, while many open-air museums in the West have attempted to change with shifting notions of culture and identity, This thesis argues Russia’s open-air museums play the role of ‘romantic escapism’ and maintain strong ties with nationalism. Russian nationalism is complex, however it is used “formulate a critique of the present and a nostalgia of the past.”


In this context, this text examines Kizhi State Open-air Museum. It sets out a design problem of arranging an open-air museum in contemporary Russia against a very complicated backdrop. The museum is the largest of its kind in Russia, it comprises a multitude of wooden architectural artefacts that have been removed and reassembled on the island of Kizhi, from all over Northern Russia. The ideas for this thesis developed from my observations whilst visiting Kizhi island in November 2012. My initial interests in the phenomenon of curating an ‘authentic’ past through the assemblage of historical monuments, led me to question the methods used by the museum to construct memory and identity, and explore its particular depiction of the region’s history.  I have developed my research out of a dialogue with my own design work, but intrinsic to the analysis in this thesis is the theoretical framework on the changing notions of landscape, “as an aesthetic object," towards a ‘dialogic’ understanding of landscape “as a cultural form”. This thesis applies the idea that memory is formed through architecture and landscape, to explain how the emphasis of the experience constructed at Kizhi Open-air museum, is put on the monument of the wooden architecture itself, rather than the ethnographic character of its site. The museum is re-orientated towards the recreation of the ‘aesthetic function’8 of the artefacts. 

To what extent do they reflect todays reflect current local knowledge and today’s aesthetic values, over those of the times when the monuments were originally built? This text argues that the existing model of Kizhi State Open-air museum is in need of change. The methods used by open-air museums to communicate history, has divided historians. The question most explored, is to what extent the museums are a stage for entertainment and reenactment, over the traditionally roles and functions of the conventional museum? An essential role of the museum is providing a perspective on the depiction of history and putting history into perspective. It could be argued that under the pressures of tourism and the recent appointment of a new museum director, that Kizhi is becoming more and more of a stage for fantasy. The thesis maintains, that as a National Open-air museum, Kizhi has a responsibility to democratise history and communicating Russia’s cultural heritage. It should not just provide a destination for tourists who are in search of the sublime, as represented in Isaac Levitan’s ‘Above in Eternal Peace’. (below)

There is little critical discourse on open-air museums and it is rare to find correlating definitions of what one exactly is. Through textual and drawn analysis, the next chapter will explore particular cases where other open-air museums have reinvented the museum’s model and adapted over time. As a place that has been idealised and idolised over time, the third chapter explores the components that have formed its identity and symbolic image today. The following chapter will then examine how the particular aesthetic experience curated on Kizhi island, lacks historical perspective. It discusses the disconnect between the architectural representation. 

The text discusses at the role of the curator and explores a dialogic approach to the museum’s curatorial practice,s through textual analysis, imagery and a sequence of drawings. The final and concluding chapter evaluates the analysis from the previous chapters to form suggestions and consider possible interventions that could implement change to the museum, in the “philosophical context within which decisions are to be made.”

Written sources that critically examine the phenomenon of architectural representation in open-air museums are scarce, and those that focus on Kizhi Island are even rarer still. Subsequently, the evidence for this thesis has been collected from a wide range of sources, including academic texts, UNESCO reports, historical maps, paintings, photographs, interviews and conversations with local people on Kizhi island and neighbouring cities of Petrozavosk and Murmansk that resulted from my field research visit. The imagery and drawn analysis can be found at the end of each chapter.

This discourse of this thesis locates itself the fields of architectural and landscape heritage. It is driven through a historical research method and the theoretical analysis of the approaches unearthed from this. Most importantly this thesis is an earnest call for the protection of this most “fragile part of the cultural heritage of Russia”