Just got back from a few days in Holland where I discovered Museumpark Orientalis just outside Nijmegen. This is an extraordinary place – a very big religion theme-park, with a whole series of venues scattered through a large wood. It was begun in 1911 by a Catholic priest, Arnold Suys, in alliance with the remarkable artist-cum-ethnographer Piet Gerrit and the architect Jan Stuyt. The original plan was for a major pilgrimage centre with a Bible Museum on the side; the great basilica was never built, but the open-air museum became a hugely successful visitor attraction, drawing Catholics and Protestants alike.
The Acting Director is Jan van Laarhoven, who generously spared time to tell us something of the museum’s story and future plans.
The museum was severely damaged in the war, and the post-war collapse of religious identity in the Netherlands brought the museum to the brink of closure. Instead, the museum reinvented itself, with a new message to present to visitors the three great monotheist religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Thanks to this clear new purpose, significant popular support, and an impressive volunteer force, the museum is steadily building back to sustainability.
There’s a lot to see. The new introductory exhibition imaginatively addresses the origins and commonalities of the three ‘Religions of the Book’. Then you go off on a trail that takes you through a Jordanian Jewish village (with synagogue), a Syrian farm, a caravanserai, an Arab village (with mosque), the birthplace of Christ, a Roman town and a Bedouin camp. Many of these are large and impressive, as well as carefully researched. Each has costumed volunteer interpreters who focus particularly on the many school parties. There are some oddities, like discovering an Ancient Egyptian temple at the end of a Roman street, and the new Omani fishing village, full of Omani tourism promotion, seems to owe more to funding opportunities than to the ‘Holy Land’ theme.
Still, the place is fascinating, both for its early 20th century origins and for its present purpose. I begin to realise that the American, and now Asian, tradition of the religious theme-park has European roots too.