Being at the mercy of violent, catastrophic storms has been one of the defining features of Dutch life over the last thousand years; and for all that time the people of the Netherlands have responded by trying to tame nature. The struggle to contain water is ingrained in society and etched into a landscape of polders. I’m not sure if those ‘rumours’ about webbed feet are true, but given the history there’s a reasonable evolutionary chance…
In 1932 the Dutch government took a momentous decision: they built a dyke. Dyke building being something of a national pastime this shouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but the Afsluitdijk was no ordinary dyke. Stretching for 32km it was designed to seal off the Zuiderzee from the North Sea, bringing to an end centuries of frequent, vicious floods. The decision to build the Afsluitdijk came after a hugely destructive storm in 1916 that smashed dykes, flooded vast tracts of land and left many dead.
The Afsluitdijk was built to prevent this from ever happening again, but taming nature came at a heavy price for the fishing villages and towns that relied upon the Zuiderzee for their livelihoods. Constructing the Afsluitdijk destroyed a way of life that had existed around the shores of the Zuiderzee for centuries. The communities and traditions that had been built on fishing and seafaring began to wither and die.
The fishing fleets that once sailed from the towns of the Zuiderzee caught herring, a cash crop that made the region wealthy. The Afsluitdijk prevented the fish from coming in, and the boats from going out, a calamity for dozens of communities. The Dutch relationship with herring continues unabated though – seeing someone eat pickled herring early in the morning still sends a shiver down my spine. One of my Dutch friends considers it a hangover cure; I consider pickled herring an incentive to never be hungover.
Enkhuizen is known as Haringstad, or Herring Town. Its relationship with the oily fish is emphasised on its coat of arms, which incorporates three herring, each wearing a crown of gold, on a shield being held by a woman. It is fitting then that here in 1948 the Dutch government took steps to preserve the traditions and way of life of the Zuiderzee fishing communities. A plan was concocted for an open air museum constructed as an archetypal fishing village on the shores of the former Zuiderzee.
The museum is split in two, an indoor and an outdoor museum, the latter recreating a traditional fishing village. They didn’t just build replicas of buildings, they brought the original buildings from across the region to Enkhuizen. There is a fascinating black and white short film in one of Enkhuizen’s restored houses, including the surreal sight of huge buildings being transported along roads and canals. It took 35 years for the outdoor museum to be opened to the public, but it was worth the wait.
There are 130 buildings in the museum-cum-village and many of them are inhabited which, when you think about it, is a bit weird. A museum that is a reconstructed 19th Century fishing village is inhabited by 21st Century humans; not only that, the inhabitants wear traditional clothes, shops are actually shops selling things, workshops continue long lost crafts, and herring is smoked in the traditional manner to be bought and eaten by visitors.
The residents role play being late 19th or early 20th Century villagers, going about their business largely ignoring the throngs of tourists snapping photos of them. Traditional clothes, and particularly traditional hats, from across the region are worn and there are plenty of clogs on display. The general rule in the village is, if a door to a building is open you can look inside. It’s a fascinating and illuminating experience, but it must be a truly odd existence for the handful of inhabitants.