The historical museums are creations of 19th century Europe and closely related
to the nation states, then under establishment. However, such museums do not
constitute a constant entity; they are changing throughout the century. In the first half of the century, their focus was on prehistory and the Middle Ages in order to document the deep national roots. Interest in the Renaissance and the succeeding periods belongs to the second half of the century, which is also characterized by the founding of new kinds of museums. These newcomers are all connected to another important feature of this period: the great exhibitions. This is obvious with regard to the museums of applied art, but also to the so-called folk museums that from their Swedish conception spread to other countries in Northern and Central Europe.
The article tries to analyze the early folk museums and their objectives, partly by looking at four very different pioneers in this field: the Swede Artur Hazelius – the real inventor of the institution, the Dane Bernhard Olsen and the Germans Rudolf Virchow and Ulrich Jahn. They are all experimenting with new forms of communicating, drawing upon inspiration from the great exhibitions and the new wax museums, with the aim to evoke a national consciousness among common people. However, at the same time, they are aware that they are laying the foundation for a new ethnographical study of European peasantries.