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Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Curious Case of the Nelis Dutch Village

First, it is enjoyable, and you should go. Second, it is a little bit of a public history anomaly, which might make it more interesting.
Established mid-20th century, the founding of the Nelis Dutch Village is described as a completely rational extension of the tulip farm that the Nelis family owned and run in the first half of the century. As you ramble through the tulip gardens, you are greeted with distinctly dutch looking buildings, attractions and artefacts. It is a celebration of Dutch culture.

But the interesting part is it is a celebration of just Dutch culture, not Dutch American culture (besides the Nelis family history). The mandate of the park seems to be to bring a part of Dutch culture to the United States. But then again, apart from some artefacts like an amazing player organ, they things they are presenting are not Dutch, but in fact just in a Dutch style. Like there are buildings and costumes from different provinces in the Netherlands, but none of them were made in the Netherlands, just in a style that is identifiably Dutch. And it is a bit of a rag tag representation as well, basically what nineteenth century antiquarians collecting people's national character would consider truly 'Dutch.'
For comparison, the closest thing I can compare it to is the Skansen park in Stockholm. In fact, this is, according to Skansen, the model for all of these history parks which present a nineteenth century nationalist view of nationality. And Skansen owns up to this part of its history. But the buildings brought from all over Sweden are just that, actually buildings that are now being preserved by Skansen. The Nelis Dutch village is not preserving artefacts as a result of a nationalist impulse to preserve culture. It has skipped the preservation part and gone right for the nationalist impulse.

Like Skansen, the Nelis Dutch Village also has some turn of the century rides and a park, which I think most health and safety officials would balk at. For instance, they have a sort of small zipline which is unmanned, so it is simply up to parents to keep their kids safe, and I did see one kid tumble off the 4 ft. high platform while I was there.
Perhaps the most interesting thing there is the museum, which houses a collection of dolls with different Dutch costumes, and gives some very patchy information about Dutch culture without much explanation. For instance their exhibit about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is controversial when it doesn't need to be, because Zwarte Piet is and should be a controversial thing to American audiences, but an interesting (maybe slightly controversial) part of Dutch culture, that is not being adequately explained here. It is just presented, without comment and without much information, so that all it looks like is that slavery is condoned in Dutch culture, which is totally inaccurate. The museum does not have much, but shows the nationalist impulse that drives the park by showing only old customs and images of the Dutch royal family.
The bottom line is that I am not sure what to make of it. I liked it, I did, but my public history self was also cringing the entire time that I was there, thinking things like 'what is your mandate' and 'where are the safety precautions' and often just 'what?'.
A museum which is not representing anyone or any history in particular, and a theme park without a lot of rides or safety standards, it does educate about folk customs, folk dress, different kinds of architecture and food. The staff put a lot of work into the demonstrations, and they are worth seeing, as is the whole park. But all of it presents an idealistic vision of a general Netherlands, that may have in part still existed when Harry Nelis settled in Holland Michigan, or at least existed as a vision in part formed by turn of the century intellectuals caught up in nationalism before the advent of WWI. What it does represent is a tendency for displaced peoples to romanticize their roots, and hold on to and honour customs, languages and practices that become defunct in the original homeland, and it is perhaps the best example of that that I have ever seen.