Thoughts on the closure of the Dutch Museum of National History

My first guest geek Jasper Visser (don’t worry – there’s another geek speak coming soon) has just announced on his blog that his museum – the Dutch Museum of National History (INNL) – will no longer operate from 1 January 2012, following the announcement of funding cuts by Netherlands’ secretary of state responsible for culture.

This is a terribly disappointing – although not entirely surprising – thing to have happened. When I first met Jasper at MW2011, I spoke to him a little bit about the INNL network – the museum website that won the Best of the Web award for innovation – and at the time, he mentioned that it was possible that his institution could close at any time. I dismissed the possibility… coming from Australia, where our politicians are generally fairly centrist in action if not always in rhetoric, I didn’t really take seriously the threat that someone might close such an interesting and innovative project for seemingly political reasons.** And yet only months later, here we are.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Seb about the INNL and he remarked how vulnerable it was, being a national museum in a politically unstable country, and moreso being a museum without objects. And its true. After all, our very concept of what a museum is and should be is grounded in the fact that museums are the places that house objects. In Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums, Ken Arnold writes (p4) that early museums had three strategies for creating knowledge, being “the telling of stories, the use of objects, and the imposition of order upon them.” The INNL did use objects – like the National Vending Machine, or selected objects through which stories could be told – but it did not house a permanent collection. Instead, it sought to excite people about Dutch national history through stories and projects. And with concepts like “The ‘Land of What If’, a room with alternative Dutch histories”, no wonder it was vulnerable at a time when cultural institutions were threatened by politics.

Despite – and possibly because of – its short life, the INNL raises lots of questions for me about the nature of museums, and what a museum is and should be. Can a museum preserve the past without objects? Does the provenance of a museum come from the provenance of its objects, or its people?

As much as I love and am captured by the ideas behind the INNL, I wonder whether it was always going to be a time-limited project. Reading the vision of the project, I always feel inspired – but without objects, a museum of this nature can only ever be as successful as the people who are behind it, and it is likely that with time and staff changes, a sense of inertia would gain hold.

Yet the fact that it was (or appeared to be) successful during its short life should absolutely inspire those of us working in museums with exhibits to consider how we too could excite people about what we do if we didn’t have our objects to rely on – if we were forced to find new and more creative ways to tell stories.

In the mean time, I’m not sure what Jasper plans to do – or if he will stick around in this field… He has something of the entrepreneurial/world changing spirit about him and I imagine he might want to move on. But I look forward to seeing what he turns his hand to next.

**NB: I’ve recently learned that funding has been cut for This is Not Art – an arts festival that runs annually in my home town. This year might be the first year in over a decade that it doesn’t run, and I am fairly sure that the reasons behind this are political as well… so maybe even in Aust, culture is never safe from politics.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the closure of the Dutch Museum of National History

  1. Thank you very much for this quick response to my original post. The questions you pose and the observations you make, show you’re one of the people who understood what we/I were doing at the Museum of National History. It’s a pity we didn’t get some more time to experiment further and find a definite answer to your questions from practice, rather than theory (although I do believe we figured out quite some valuable things).

    About objects:

    By definition, a museum is a building and a collection. Although these two are the raison d’être of a museum, I firmly believe they’re also the limiting factor in much of our innovative development.

    Should a museum show “old stuff” and paintings, or tell stories? I believe the story comes first, then the objects. A huge source of inspiration for me is the soon-to-be-opened 9/11 Museum in New York, where digital and anecdotical objects will support the main message of the museum. It’s about the story, not the stuff (although some of the stuff will be pretty impressive). Likewise, we collected stories and connections, rather than objects.

    Our recent project xwashier embraced the objects in the physical landscape, making them part of the story we want to tell. Many of these objects (castles, fields, landscapes) are really important to Dutch history, but impossible to make part of a traditional collection.

    I believe the raison d’être for a museum could as well be the story it tells, and the position it takes in society. I know this touches upon a much deeper debate and welcome all opposing thoughts, as I know there are many. If there’s one thing I hope to do, it is to shake up the old paradigms and get a little bit of discussion going:-)

  2. It’s really interesting reading your comment Jasper. I haven’t responded for a few days, because I’m just trying to think through it a bit.

    In some ways, it strikes me that what you at the Museum of National History have been doing almost goes back to a pre-museum approach – one based on oral histories and creating mythologies (telling stories) – and grounding them in the environment (xwashier), rather than in objects. So it’s a construction of history and of the past that is, in some ways, maybe attempting a far more traditional way of doing so.

    In his 1996 book, Pierre Nora writes about lieux de mémoire – sites of memory, like museums – in which he argues we record the trace of our memories because we no longer dwell amongst them – they are not maintained by oral traditions etc. I wonder whether something like the INNL takes a different approach.

    Still not sure of the answer, but it’s an interesting perspective/possibility. I will think more.

    (Nora, Pierre. 1996. The Realms of Memory: rethinking the French past. Volume 1: Conflicts and Divisions. P. Nora (ed.); English language edition edited and with a foreword by Lawrence D. Kritzman ; translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    New York : Columbia University Press, 1996-1998)

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