Vrijheidsmuseum Freedom Museum
2020-03-27 | By Lynette Croxford
Perched on a hill in the green countryside of Groesbeek near Nijmegen, Arnhem and the German border, the Freedom Museum seems, at first sight, to be covered by a massive white parachute.
This is an homage to the 82nd US Airborne Division, which, amongst others, landed in the area as part of Operation Market Garden during World War Two. The largest airborne operation in warfare history attempted to take command of the Maas (Meuse), Waal and Rhine bridges, outflank the heavy German defences, gain entry into northern Germany and bring a quick end to the war. Although the Allied Forces fought valiantly, the historic battle during nine days in September 1944 is seen as a failed operation as, after successfully retaking Nijmegen, the Allies failed to capture the bridge at Arnhem, the elusive ‘Bridge Too Far.’
Liberation and freedom
Formerly the Liberation Museum, the museum’s name was changed to Freedom Museum in 2019, a result of collaboration between German and Dutch historians to focus beyond World War Two towards the freedom that crosses borders and transcends nationalities. For historian and museum curator Rense Havinga, it was important to still focus on the importance of the Liberation, but we still live in a world where “one person may be liberated but someone else was not.” The museum centres on the ‘four post-war goals,’ freedom, peace, prosperity, safety.
Alongside the new name came a new building, built with the latest heating and lighting technologies and using recyclable materials to be sustainable and with as small a carbon footprint as possible. The new building’s modern interior and well-designed layout aid an interesting and educational historical journey.
A must visit
The Freedom Museum is located in Groesbeek, just outside Nijmegen near the German border. Details and opening times can be found at freedommuseum.com (Information throughout the museum is in Dutch, German and English).
The museum focuses beyond the war to freedom that crosses borders and transcends nationalities
Much time and attention has been paid to the visitor’s experience–a warm welcome awaits from the friendly volunteers who are available to advise how best to navigate the exhibitions and get the most from any visit. The permanent exhibition starts with a film depicting how the war affected the population and the impact of the fighting and deprivation.
Interactive media installations draw visitors into the lives of ordinary people who endured the horrific effects of war. Personal accounts from local residents on both sides of the border give an eerily realistic impression of what it might have been like to be German or Dutch at the time. The exhibition route leads from before the war, through the merciless occupation, celebrates the euphoric Information and witnesses the post-war rebuilding of Europe and the Netherlands.
Particularly poignant are the snapshots of those coping with the war in the best way they could. Artefacts and factual accounts bring the memories to life in a humble but dramatic way. The most startling reminder of the ever-present intensity and ferocity of wartime is the re-creation of an air raid shelter interior.
Operation Market Garden
Another well-executed exhibit is the Operation Market Garden simulation–a scale model of the local area with interactive media that guides through the actual events, timeline and outcomes and brings the operation to life. It is an excellent way to understand the geographical challenges and the impact on both sides of the frontline, and gives perspective to the immense effort and determination of the Allied forces to bring an end to the war.
Great war museums inspire awe and disbelief and serve as a memorial to those who fought and died, whose daily courage, humility and creativeness can seem almost unfathomable to a modern visitor. Tales of resistance, small acts of defiance and the many lives saved by the kindness and generosity of ordinary people lend a very human quality to the Freedom Museum.
An exhibit of lives lost by each nation during the war depicting the numbers sent to fight and never return home to families and loved ones is one truly heart-stopping moment. Liberation, at the end of the journey through the museum, comes as a mighty relief, even to the visitor.
‘Freedom Square,’ the final room, shows a film investigating the meaning of freedom in current times–if war can be looked at in a different light; at the effects of terrorism; at the rise of nationalism; at the threat of climate change; and at both peaceful and violent protesting. While these images are both thought-provoking and alarming, they also give a sense of hope and aim to help us understand one another, our values and what–if anything–we are willing to die for.
Overall, the Freedom Museum’s thought-provoking journey through history is well worth the few hours spent here.
The museum also has a temporary space which changes exhibits periodically. At the time of my visit a pictorial exhibition of the occupation, Liberation and Allied looting in the Nijmegen region was an interesting look at the behaviours of liberating troops and their interaction with the local community.
In the area
A short drive from the museum, deeper into the countryside around Groesbeek, is the Canadian War Cemetery, a beautifully-maintained but jarring reminder of the many young lives lost in the battle for freedom and liberation in the area. The white gravestones with the maple leaf etched above the names and ages of the men who perished are a stark visual reminder of the ravages of war. Well worth a visit.
About the author
Lynette Croxford is a British freelance copywriter and translator living in Delft with her husband and daughters.