Bokrijk is a park and historic museum complex in the municipality of Genk in the Province of Limburg, Belgium. It’s well known for its open-air museum which displays a large collection of historical buildings from across Flanders, presenting the history of rural life in Belgium. The domain is 5.5 square kilometers in area and hosts an important botanical garden (arboretum) and also Flanders’ largest open-air playground..
The history of Bokrijk
On March 9, 1252 Arnold IV count of Loon and Chiny sold a forest, that was situated between present Genk, Zonhoven and Hasselt, to the abbey of Herkenrode. This forest was called Buksenrake (‘buk’ =beech, ‘rake’ = a part of land). The name later evolved into Bokrijk. The Cistercian abbey of Herkenrode (in Kuringen near Hasselt) built an abbey farm, dug out fish ponds and started forestry practices. The abbey farm was cultivated by lay brothers and from 1447 onwards functioned as an ordinary tenant farm. It remained the abbey’s property until the years of the French Revolutionary Wars. In 1797 French Revolutionaries seized all properties of the Cistercian abbey and the same year they sold it to a private investor from Maastricht.
Subsequently, the buildings were neglected by many owners until 1890. In that year the Maris-Vanhese family demolished the residential area, but left the outbuildings. They built a neo-classical castle, but were unable to complete it. In 1896 it was sold to the Count de Meeus who did finish the castle. The Count owned a local iron mine until the outbreak of World War I. During the war he sold the land and castle to a Jewish family from Germany. In 1919 the Belgian State seized the land and sold it to the Central Credit Bank of the Farmer’s Union. They set Bokrijk up as a model farm. Due to a crisis and eventual bankruptcy of the Farmers Union, the model farm failed.
The open air museum
On the 21 March 1938 the provincial government of Limburg acquired Bokrijk. Governor Hubert Verwilghen inspired the acquisition. Verwilghen strived for the creation of a public domain that would combine culture and nature. His vision would be realized years later under the dynamic impulse of provincial governor Louis Roppe. On 6 October 1953 the Provincial Council of the Province of Limburg decided to create an open-air museum in Bokrijk. With the post-war industrial revolution and the increasing development projects of the 1950s, Flanders’ living environment was drastically changing. Agricultural buildings of important cultural and historical value for Flanders were disappearing from the landscape. Dr. Jozef Weyns was appointed to coordinate the project and remained in function as first conservator of the Open Air Museum of Bokrijk. The museum opened to the public on 12 April 1958 as contribution of the province of Limburg to the Expo’58 (Brussels World’s Fair).
Nowadays there are 148 authentic buildings that form the heart of the heritage collection. Also in the collection are some 30,000 pieces of everyday life from the 17th century to 1950. It has been designed to be interactive and includes staff who take on the roles of people from different time periods. The oldest building dates back to 1507. Although the emphasis is on farms and farming, there are other examples of village life such as a Smithy, a School, a Church, a Brewery an Inn and several craftsmen buildings. Due to changes in Belgian heritage law, buildings can now only be preserved in situ. So the collection of buildings in Bokrijk that had been moved here from all over Flanders can no longer happen.
The museum’s preserved buildings are centred in three clusters on the site which are arranged by the geographical region of origins
“Kempen”. This region lies between the Scheldt polders and Maaskant in north-east Flanders. The museum has reproduced the traditional timber based farm dwellings typical of the region as it was over a century ago.
“East and West Flanders”. The region of the museum that represents East and West Flanders has no village setting. Instead there are a number of buildings that show the characteristic work places and housing.
“Haspengouw and the Maasland”. The region of Haspengouw is known for its fruit and traditional square farmsteads. In the museum this region is represented by a copy of the village of Ulbeek as it would have looked in the 19th century. The buildings are arranged around the village square with two ponds and predominantly lime trees. Actors provide interactive experiences in the church and the school.
Additionally there is a fourth area dedicated to The Sixties in the south-west corner of the site (it is a must for music lovers).
We really enjoyed every single minute in Bokrijk. It showed clearly and realistically how people used to live and worked in these dark ages. Old country houses, barns, churches, many historic buildings had been moved “brick by brick” to this beautiful site. The many old farmhouses, wind/watermills and even a whole section of old town housing from Antwerp were so amazing. There were several buildings that were manned by craftspeople demonstrating old traditional trades (Lots of old fashioned games to play well set out with instructions in English as well). There were members of staff dressing in period costumes in most of the houses and enacting life in the past. To sum up there was plenty to see even by hop on and off coach and there were cafeteria facilities on site. We spent easily a full day in this lovely “museum” with our kids. At the museum shop professional photographer takes pictures (for 5 euros) of you in old vintage clothes.