top of page
Featured Review

Places of pastness

Nostalgiascapes in the Netherlands

Olivier Rieter


Pastness is the creative way the past is used in the present. Days gone-by are often re-imagined or reconstructed for present-day purposes. In pastness historical accuracy is not always important. The phenomenon is about ‘a’ past, rather than ‘the’ past. The re-imaginings can give a positive representation of heritage, for instance in Walt Disney’s theme parks, or a negative grim one, like in the fantasy series Game of Thrones. Fantasy stories are the most common present-day expressions of pastness. They are situated in an ahistorical past. This ahistorical aspect of pastness makes the ‘just the facts ma’am’ historian not very happy; it is feared that for many media consumers Jamie Lannister is just as real as Godfrey of Bouillon or Jeanne d’Arc. Pastness is about atmosphere and mentalities associated with history, rather than about undisputable facts and proper use of archival or archeological sources.

According to archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf there occurs pastness when the public is confronted with what cannot be there but is shown anyway: the past that is placed in the present.(Holtorf, ‘Presence of pastness’ 38) Pastness is about ‘clothing Clio’ (a term by historian Stephen Bann). Clio is the muse of history and the way she is dressed stands for the ways the past is presented in the present. Attention should be paid to ‘the codes and conventions of history’ (Bann, Inventions of history 2) or the way a sense of the past is rhetorically constructed. It is about ‘history as mediated otherness’ (Bann, Inventions of history 119)

In this article places on the geographical map where pastness is used, are discussed. I focus on the Netherlands. My main aim is to show the various way a pseudo-historical atmosphere can be created: what elements in the built environment are being used to create this fabricated past?

Places of pastness and nostalgiascapes

In ‘places of pastness’ two concepts are combined: ‘places of memory’ and ‘places of the imagination.’ ‘Places of memory’ is a concept of French historian Pierre Nora. Nora discusses monuments and metaphors that are used as tools for remembering the past. This usage occurs as compensation for the loss of true historical connections according to Nora.

‘Places of the imagination’ is a concept introduced by Dutch cultural scholar Stijn Reijnders. At these locations the shared imagination of a society (often a country) or a group of media consumers is referred to. Reijnders mentions examples like inspector Morse tourist routes in Oxford or the castle of Dracula (Bran Castle, which in fact has not much of link to the famous story) as examples.

Places of pastness are places where the past is celebrated or constructed, based not on historical facts but on the imagination. When the pastness that is being expressed is positively colored these places of pastness can be called nostalgiascapes. A nostalgiascape is a place where nostalgia is constructed, often deliberately to make the visitor feel at home in the past.

Eight types of nostalgiascape

A nostalgiascape is a semioscape. A semioscape is a limited geographical space where a certain atmosphere is being constructed by the use of elements that have shared connotations. Examples of semioscapes are large gardens or parks (gardenscapes), monument groups (memoryscapes), themed restaurants, themed hotels and cruiseships (leisurescapes) or places like Las Vegas (gamblingscapes).

A nostalgiascape is the kind of semioscape where most elements in the built environment connote a positive connection with the past. Tourism scholar Szylvia Gyimóthy uses the term for Danish country inns. But the concept can be applied to other locations.

In the Netherlands and other European countries there are several types of nostalgiascape. I discern at least eight variants. First there is the theme park. Many (but not all) theme parks give an impression of ‘a’ past that is shown as a coherent and pleasant time period. The most famous theme park in the Netherlands is De Efteling in the South of the country, which was partly envisioned by Anton Pieck, the most famous Dutch nostalgic artist. After Pieck’s death his stylistic and thematic approach was continued. Fairy tales and folk stories are represented, both from Western Europe and ‘exotic’ cultures. These stories are shown as appealing. The Other, which is placed back in time, is shown as interesting but the creators of De Efteling have made no effort to really understand or accurately represent other cultures or the past. The past has also been made (commercially) aesthetic and (culturally) conservative as a period without social unrest.

De Efteling. Photo Olivier Rieter

A second common type of nostalgiascape is the Open Air Museum. The Netherlands has several of these type of museums that show the pre-industrial past of the country. The most famous Dutch Open Air museum in the Dutch Open Air Museum in Arnhem. Another important location is the Zuiderzeemuseum, where Dutch fishing culture around 1900 is represented. The houses and shops in this museum are actual survivals from the past, but restored and placed in a new artificial context.

Zuiderzeemuseum. Photo: Maria Dekeling-Rieter

A third type of nostalgiascape is the outlet, where designer products (mostly clothes) can be bought at somewhat reduced prices. These locations are often given an old-fashioned outlook to make the shoppers feel at home. It is supposed that the past has a connotation of class. These kinds of themed locations can be found in Lelystad (Bataviastad), Roosendaal and Roermond.

Outlet Roermond. Photo: Maria Dekeling-Rieter

A fourth type of nostalgiascape is the resort with a theme of cozy pastness. De Efteling has a resort like this (Bosrijk). In the North of the country (Friesland) there is another one: Esonstad, where a Frisian historical looking village was built to give the visitors a feeling of wholesome coherence associated with the past.

Esonstad. Photo: Maria Dekeling-Rieter

A fifth example is the castle. One of the most famous Dutch castles is Slot Loevestein. This is an actual survival from the middle ages. It is however also a location of fiction; the famous Dutch television series Floris set in the Middle Ages (with Rutger Hauer as the title character) was partly filmed there. Many visitors come to the location because it is seen as place of the imagination (Reijnders)

Loevestein. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

A sixth example of a nostalgiascape is the restored townscape. In restoring efforts the presentable or aesthetically pleasing aspects of the past are being restored and the less appealing aspects are being overlooked. In this way a coherent and pleasing past is being represented. A fine example of this kind of restoration is the fortified small town of Heusden, which was brought back to way it supposedly looked in the seventeenth century

Heusden. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Another example is the neotraditionalist neighborhood, an example of new urbanism, a building style that concerns itself with the wishes of those who want to live at a certain location, rather than with the ego of the architect. New urbanist neighborhoods often have a theme, e.g. the past. Houses are built that look old (or ‘oldish’) but are created in the present. In the Netherlands there are lot of examples, e.g. Brandevoort in Helmond, Haverleij in Den Bosch and Op Buuren in Maarssen.

Op Buuren. Photo: Maria Dekeling-Rieter

The eighth nostalgiascape I want to mention is the ‘bruine kroeg’ (brown pub). It can be called the living room of society in the Netherlands. Brown wooden tables, yellowish lighting, retro logos of beer brands and pictures concerning past people or styles on the walls, make these kind of pubs nostalgiascapes, a commercial concept developed to stimulate alcohol consumption. The brown pub is called ‘gezellig’ or cozy.

Café Weemoed Tilburg. Photo: A.J.A. Hendrikx

Connoting the past, revivals and survivals

The past can be evocated by the use of revivals and survivals. Survivals are genuine objects or buildings from the past, sometimes placed in a new context. Revivals are objects or decorative elements that connote the past, but are in fact new creations. Both phenomena can be used in combinations.

I want to mention some elements I encountered in the built environment during a nostalgic voyage through the Netherlands; elements that connote the past and thus contribute to a nostalgic effect.

Firstly at many places in the Netherlands there are traditional lamp posts as elegant looking decorative elements in streets. These lamp post contribute to an atmosphere of pastness. They look like they were created a century ago, but are often new creations.

Outlet Roermond. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

The facades of buildings can create a nostalgic effect too. In the Netherlands the stepped gable is characteristic. For many it connotes ‘Dutchness’. Stepped gables can be both survivals and revivals. The stepped gable connotes the Dutch 17th century, nostalgically called ‘the golden age’. Stepped gables are not unique for this time period however and are known in other Northwest-European countries too. The oldest example dates from 12th century Flanders.

Dordrecht. Photo: Olivier Rieter

Signboards can create a feeling of pastness: a charming reference to commercialism from the past. Sign boards are, like stepped gables, not unique for the Netherlands: e.g. Britain has them too (and they are also used as attractive props in places like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a themed attraction in Orlando).

Heusden. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Gablestones in places like Heusden in their decorativeness connote the past. They are reminders of the fact that ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’ (L.P. Hartley)

Heusden. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Door knockers are not used anymore for their traditional purpose, but as decorative elements that refer to past customs and past ways of communication. Sometimes a door bell is present right above the knocker. The pull bell is another nostalgic prop that is being used in nostalgia inducing surroundings.

Thorn. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Doors are the barriers between public and private spaces. They can be markers of nostalgia. Nostalgia has among other things to do with the need to limit the experiential world in order to cope with it. The entrance into a private space like a house is often decorated for a reason. It is a way to communicate to the outside world that those who live behind the door value the perception of others.

Middelburg. Photo: Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Gates are also markers of pastness. With walls and gates an effect of a limited space that is different from the surroundings is created. Towns with stone walls, city gates and guard houses are very rare in the Netherlands. In Esonstad visitors can enter the resort through a gate. They experience a rite de passage, crossing the border of time, into the past as holiday.

Esonstad. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Bridges can be very decorative. In a region with a lot of water like the Netherlands they are important as identity markers. They connote the save passage in a country that prides itself in winning the battle with the mighty waters. (Voltaire supposedly said that the World was created by God and the Netherlands by the Dutch.)

Bourtange. Photo: Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Animal figures in the built environment are examples of playful pastness. We also see them in haraldic images. Their decorativeness makes them different from modern(ist) streamline culture. Nature in these figures had been given a cultural expression, that in a sense expresses the victory of culture over nature.

Heraldic image on a replica of a 17th century ship in Bataviastad. Photo: Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Fountains are often graceful. They contribute to an overall ornamental effect in cityscapes and parks. Rulers like Louis XIV used them to express their power over nature (Versailles). Despite this political usage fountains are somewhat different from statues, because their function is in general less ideological. They do express however that a city is somewhat wealthy in that it can afford this kind of senseless display.

Dragon fountain. Den Bosch. Photo F. Tilemans

Statues are elements in public space that connect inhabitants and tourists to past great men and (very occasionally) great women. They are mentality set in stone. The onlooker is stimulated to value the cultural importance of the people shown. In the Netherlands there has recently been discussion about statues of colonial exploiters from the past. Should people be confronted with their likenesses that are given a permanent stamp of moral approval from society? Why should they be honored?

Charlemagne in Nijmegen, Photo Willem Nabuurs, Wikimedia commons

Mail boxes connote a traditional way of communicating from the days of ‘snailmail’. They also stand for a time period before neoliberal privatization of public services (not only the postal service, but e.g. also the Dutch railway company)

Deventer. Photo A.J.A. Hendrikx

Wood carvings connote craftsmanship that is associated with days gone-by. They stand for a pre-industrial past and a nostalgia for man-made objects associated with the guild culture of medieval Europe. This example of constructed nostalgia dates from the 19th century. (Castle de Haar)

De Haar. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Flags are pieces of cloth that are identity markers. They can contribute to national, regional or local identities based on a supposedly shared past. Flags and rituals concerning flags are part of identity construction and have to do with invention of tradition, a term by British historian Eric Hobsbawm, that has been influential among Dutch scholars. The flag shown here uses the image of two giants from a folk story together with a representation of ‘hunebedden (dolmen): this piece of cloth is an example of manufactured folklore or fakelore.

Flag of Esonstad. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Heraldry is related to flags and also contributes to an effect of pastness. A venerable past is suggested by showing decorative shields that among others things connote traditional values like a class society with an undemocratic importance of nobility. The aesthetics of heraldry hides this lack of democracy: it tries to make this unpleasant aspect pleasant.

Shield of OpBuuren. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Street names an can be spelled in an old fashioned way, in mediaeval or 17th century Dutch with the uses of ‘ae’ instead of ‘aa’ and ‘uy’ instead of ‘ui’ . Another ‘letter effect’ is the use of old fashioned fonts. These kind of fonts connote conservatism.

Veere. Photo Maria-Dekeling-Rieter

Decorative blinds are not part of modern streamline culture. The Dutch custom to paint blinds of houses near estates in the colors of the estate dates back from the 19th century, not from feudal times.

Castle De Haar. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Weapons connote the pride over past warfare culture. Cannons are examples of ‘out of use’ objects. Their only function is the creation of a historic atmosphere. They stand for the martial past stripped from unpleasant death and destruction. The placement of (authentic) cannons expresses a pride over battles fought in the past and the supposed beneficial or even aesthetic aspect of warfare

Veere. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Cobble stones or ‘kasseien’ make the visitor or inhabitant walk (on) the past. They are historical reminders that make the past literally be felt. Thus they contribute to the general feel and experience of ‘days-gone by’.

Bourtange. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Castle effects can be artificially created, e.g. by adding tilts and towers to modern buildings. In Den Bosch there is a neighborhood that looks like a castle: Haverleij (an example of new urbanism). A castle both represents social and economic well being and safety. Inhabitants feel shielded because they are being set apart from the surroundings. It is a somewhat unsubtle physical expression of the saying ‘my home is my castle’.

Haverleij. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

The sailing ship is an important example of Dutch culture. Sometimes 17th century ships are recreated as revivals e.g. in Bataviastad and the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. They connote the Dutch ‘golden age’. For some they also connote exploitation of other overseas peoples. When looked upon the ships like this their aesthetics turns morally ugly.

Bataviastad. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

The ‘bruine kroeg’ (brown pub) has an old fashioned charm of hospitality and pastness. Dutch beer culture with its countless brands is an export product the people of the Netherlands are proud of. The Dutch ‘bruine kroeg’ is not a themed attraction that is exported abroad, as opposed to the Irish theme pub which can be found all over Europe.

Deventer. Café de Heks. Photo S. Crawford

Decorative elements play a role in creating a nostalgic effect too, e.g. in tiles or floors. The attention paid to these elements connotes the importance of details, or even a slow (or less hectic) way of living.

Castle De Haar. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Advertisements from the past shown in signs or wall paintings can give surroundings an unmodern feel. Reference is made to advertising as a form of commercial craftsmanship that doesn’t have a slick connotation of mass produced ads from more recent times.

Esonstad. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Fortifications are sometimes artificially recreated in fortified towns to remember visitors of the martial past of the place. Its strategic importance is being valued as well as the engineering skills of the Dutch ancestors.

Heusden. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Towers can have a decorative function that refers to past building styles, often associated with the church. The Netherlands is a country that has an abundance of church towers. They are an integral part of local identity creation. The contours of many towns and villages are dominated by those towers. In recent years there has been much discussion in the Netherlands (and other secularized countries) about reallocation of religious sites. Most agree on the fact that church contours are an integral part of Dutch identity.

Fake church without religious function. Its actual function is to contribute to a general pastness effect. Brandevoort. Photo: Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Stained glass can be used to show decorative craftsmanship. This glass art is an important topic in the history of visual culture, e.g. in churches. Non-religious people can appreciate the windows, because of their sheer aesthetic appeal. The light and color make this type of pastness pleasing for the visual senses.

Sint Jan cathedral, Den Bosch. Wikimedia commons

Flower culture is important in Dutch history. Flowers don’t last long of course. This is different with planters. These can be made to look ‘oldish’( as revivals) but don’t have to be replaced often. These type of planters are markers of continuity and are thus an interesting part of Dutch flower culture.

Bourtange. Photo Maria Dekeling-Rieter

Conclusion. The imagined past; identity construction in the Netherlands

Inhabitants of the Netherlands are proud of their past. In many countries and regions the past is used to construct a feeling of being connected with others because of a shared history. Nationalism and regionalism are mostly socially and politically constructed cultural phenomena. Places of pastness and nostalgiascapes are locations where people find identity by coming into contact with visual stimuli that refer to the past: revivals, survivals and the combination of both in recontextualisations.

The reasons for creating and maintaining nostalgiascapes are diverse. Often there are commercial considerations for creating such spaces that are separated from their surroundings. The attention that is placed on markers of pastness is economically valuable (e.g. through tourism). Other reasons to create nostalgiascapes can be ideological (conservatism), political or policy based (when togetherness is constructed), artistic (when the past is shown as aesthetically pleasing) and educational (in Open Air museums)

It is not really possible to view the whole of the Netherlands as a historical museum or a themepark, like rural Britain, because markers of modernity can be seen everywhere too. The nostalgiascapes that are present can however be seen as enclaves of pastness in a modern world. Visiting such places, or even living there, can partly be seen as a coping strategy used in dealing with a complex present.

The Dutch nostalgiascapes seem to be somewhat different from such locations in Britain or France, because of building styles but also because of the emphasis that is placed on topics like the Dutch seafaring culture, beer culture or bicycle culture. References to such topics are part of visual rhetoric, which is about ‘symbolic processes by which visual artifacts perform communication.’ (Foss, 304) Design scholar Ralph Ball opposes postmodern approaches to design to practices from the previous period of modernity. Ball mentions theories about ‘form follows function’, ‘Less is more’ and ‘Decoration and crime’ as representative of a modernist interpretation of the built environment.

In postmodern approaches, on the other hand, eclecticism and decorativeness are valued as aspects of ‘richly diverse symbolic form’ (Ball, 3) The examples shown in this article are examples of an antimodernist way of creating eclectic pastness effects. Form doesn’t follow function. Rather the decorative form is the function: the details are symbols of constructed pastness. The abundance of details creates this effect (as opposed to the ‘less is more’ ideology of architect Mies von der Rohe). The postmodern approach to history is an example of heritage culture. Heritage scholar David Lowenthal claims that ‘as a living force the past is ever remade’. He adds: ‘to reshape is as vital as to preserve.’ (Lowenthal, 19). Heritage is about the function of the past in the present, whereas history is about the importance of the past for its own sake.

Deventer. Advertisement for a Dutch pancake restaurant on an old bike. The restaurant is called ‘Ot & Sien’ the title of a children’s book that is strongly associated with nostalgia in the Netherlands. Photo S. Crawford.

The visitor who wants to understand something of the self-perception of a people can find many clues in the way the past is used in the present. In the Netherlands the past is often shown as aesthetic or wholesome, something to take pride in. The negative or unpleasant aspects of the shared history often remain out of sight. Attention to trauma would spoil the nostalgic effect.


R. Ball,’ Embedded, introspective and poetic narratives in 3-dimensional design’ in: E. Zantides (ed), Semiotics and visual communication: concepts and practices (2014) 3-10.

S. Bann, The clothing of Clio. A study of representation of history in nineteenth-century Britain and France (1984)

S. Bann, The inventions of history: essays on the representation of the past (Manchester 1990)

S.K. Foss, ‘Framing the study of visual rhetoric. Toward a transformation of rhetorical theory’, in: C. Hill and M. Helmers, Defining visual rhetorics (2004)

M. Girouard, ‘Survival and revival’, in: M. Girouard, The return to Camelot. Chivalry and the English Gentleman (New Haven/London 1981) 15-28.

S. Gyimóthy, ‘Nostalgiascapes. The Renaissance of Danish Country side inns’ in T. O’Dell and P. Billing (ed.) Experiencescapes: tourism, culture and economy (Copenhagen 2005) 111-127.

C. Holtorf, ‘The presence of pastness: themed environments and beyond’ in: J. Schlehe (ed.), Staging the past. Themed environments in transcultural perspectives (Bielefeld 2010), 23-40.

C. Holtorf, ‘Pastness in themed environments’, in: S. Lucas (ed.), A reader in themed and immersive spaces (Pittsburgh 2016) 31-38.

H. Ibelings, Onmoderne architectuur. Hedendaags traditionalisme in Nederland (Rotterdam 2004)

K. Jenkins (ed.) , The postmodern history reader ( London 1998)

D. Lowenthal, ‘Fabricating heritage’, in: History & Memory March 1998, 5-24.

S. Reijnders, Plaatsen van verbeelding. Media, toerisme & fancultuur (Alphen aan de Maas 2010)

O. Rieter, Het patina van de tijd. Vormen en functies van hedendaagse nostalgie en nostalgisering in Noord-Brabant. PhD Thesis Tilburg University. 2018.

O. Rieter, ‘Nostalgiascapes en Nederlandbeelden. Over toerisme, immaterieel erfgoed en nostalgie’, in Volkskunde 2020, 4, 667-678.


Tag Cloud
bottom of page