Museumpark Orientalis is the oldest open air museum in the Netherlands. It was founded in 1911 as Heilig Land Stichting (Holy Land Foundation). The founders were Arnold Suys, a priest, Jan Stuyt, an architect, and the artist Piet Gerrits. Their idea was to give people the opportunity to visit the locations from the life of Jesus Christ without having to travel to the Middle East. This idea came to them during a joint pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1905. Under the assumption that the Middle East had hardly changed since biblical times Piet Gerrits lived in and travelled around what is now Jordan to collect ideas and data between 1906 and 1911. As the location for the reconstruction of the Holy Land an area was chosen in the hills between Nijmegen and Groesbeek, next to hamlet De Ploeg.
Originally, the Holy Land Foundation was a Roman Catholic ecclesiastical organisation, which fell under the diocese of Den Bosch. The first directors of the museum, styled as ‘Spiritual Director of the Holy Land Foundation’, therefore doubled as village parish priest (parish De Meerwijk). Tours of the museum would start at the entrance to the Church of the Last Supper (the Cenacle Church), which was also the parish church. A representation of the Last Supper in mosaic decorates the pediment above the entrance, and the interior walls are decorated with scenes from the funeral of Mary and scenes from the Acts of the Apostles. Next to the church is the former private hotel of the museum, the Pilgrim’s House Casa Nova, now in the possession of the Foundation for Aid of Women in Mental Distress (Stichting Hulp voor Vrouwen in Geestelijke Nood).
The original design of the museum was based on three routes. The first route followed the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. The second route followed the Passion. The third route followed Jesus' public life chronologically, using locations from first two routes. The buildings from the early days, such as the Palace of Pilate, the synagogue, and the caravanserai have become national monuments as of 2003. To generate revenue the area around the Passion route has since 1913 been in use as a cemetery. In addition to the unique garden tombs there is, tot his day, the possibility of being buried under one of the national monuments.
At the founding of the Holy Land Foundation more land had been bought than was needed for the construction of the museum. So when the museum was in need of extra funds this excess land was sold to private persons for housing. Thus a new village emerged next to the museum grounds. It was combined into one with De Ploeg, named Heilig Landstichting (notice the slight difference in spelling), and incorporated in the municipality of Groesbeek.
In the late 1960s visitor numbers declined dramatically and a reorganisation became necessary. The parish and the museum were split into two seperate organisations and the museum got its first full-time director. It was decided to redirect focus to the lives of ordinary people of the Holy Land, instead of the life of Jesus. The years between 1970 and 1988 saw the construction of a great number of new buildings in the museum. The Roman city street (modelled after Jerusalem) and the fishing village (with its own lake) date from this period.
Since the 1930s the museum carried the name Bijbels Openluchtmuseum (Biblical Open Air Museum) as a second name, below Heilig Land Stichting. In 1988 this was reversed. The museum was now officially named the Biblical Open Air Museum, with Holy Land Foundation as a second name. From 1992 onwards ‘living history’ (reenactors “living” in the buildings in the museum) are a permanent element in the museum. And from 1993 onwards the Islam, the third of the Abrahamic faiths, has a permanent place in our museum.
The current name Museumpark Orientalis dates back to 2007. Shortly after this name change, the museum went through some turbulence and had to temporarily close its doors. This period saw some major renovations, most importantly of all the buildings national monument status. Orientalis is back after a successful relaunch in 2012.
A video with old footage of the museum is available here.