230 Nation building on Museum Square

The self-stated mission of the New Rijksmuseum, now under construction, is to "tell the story" of Dutch history and art. In doing so, the museum distances itself from the Number One museum in all other European countries and enters the realm of nationalistic institutions such as the Israel Museum, which mounts a markedly tendentious presentation of the local past.

The guiding philosophy behind the New Rijksmuseum is to "tell the story" of Dutch art and history. (See the outstanding, recently renewed Rijksmuseum website, www.rijksmuseum.nl.) In adopting this aim, the Rijksmuseum takes effective leave from the great national museums of Europe. In no other country does Museum Number One concentrate so deliberately on the local national identity.

I had to think of the New Rijksmuseum on a recent visit to a national museum that does tell a story of that kind, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Most of the permanent collection is draped emphatically around the Jewish state in the land of Israel. The archaeological section leads like an arrow from a 250,000-year-old prehistory to the fulfillment of Holy Land destiny in Biblical times. The Old Testament, with its obsessive focus on the Jewish people and the Jewish God, is brought into play as if it supported the findings of modern archaeology. It does not. The Bible is more of a headache than a help for archaeologists. Certified ancient Hebrew sites are thin on the Eastern Mediterranean ground. Archaeologists continue to debate whether the kingdoms of David and Solomon existed at all.

Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, whose dominance over the area for thousands of years does not have to be proved, are confined to niches in a final hall named with historical chutzpah Neighboring Cultures. Medieval and modern history is presented only with reference to the Jewish communities of the Diaspora – the rich ones, at that. The subjects of the European paintings tilt disproportionately to the Old Testament. The fact that they were painted by Christian artists and had Christian meanings is overwhelmed in this context. In the Impressionist and modern-art galleries Jewish artists are overrepresented.

How can a Jewish Israeli child learning history from the Israel Museum escape the flattering impression that the world centers around her? What will a Palestinian Israeli child feel about being shut out of this presentation of a country in which his ancestors may have lived forever? As interesting and professional as the Israel Museum is, the display raises upsetting historical and ethical questions.

The religious-nationalist bent of the Israel Museum can be excused as a defensive reflex by a country under attack. What excuse is there for the Rijksmuseum to adopt a religious-nationalist program? For that is what seems to be shaping up on Museum Square: an updated version of the all-Dutch Holland of 19th-century Protestant collectors. For them, the historically obscure Pieter de Hooch was quintessentially Dutch because he glorified the kind of daily life for which they felt nostaligic. The infinitely more prominent Jan van Scorel, keeper of the Vatican collections, friend of Italian colleagues and Flemish humanists, was for these very reasons an unDutch "Romanist" despite his birth in North Holland and despite his great gifts. This is not the we-feeling that is sometimes praised in the Dutch self-image, but a members-of-our-club-feeling that purges half the culture in order to arrive at a suitably satisfying picture of Dutchness.

It’s not too late for the Rijksmuseum to turn its concept inside out. To encourage it, let me report that the tendentiously story-telling galleries of the Israel Museum were nearly empty when I was there. The crowds were thronging to see exhibitions of Japanese art from the Khalili Collection and Sports in Art in the children’s wing. How many times can you listen to the same story, especially one dripping with a transparently self-righteous moral.



© Gary Schwartz 2005. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 11 March 2005.

Het Financieele Dagblad has indeed, as threatened previously, transformed its weekly supplement, in which my column has been appearing since September 1997, from a broadsheet to a tabloid format. (The word "tabloid" is avoided; in the Netherlands the format is called "compact.") To go along with this move toward trendy journalism, the length of the columns has been reduced from 900 to 500 words. I have mixed feelings about this. The greater length gave me the opportunity to illustrate, explain and qualify my remarks. At 500 words, there will be less background and less nuance. (One thing I would have liked to add to this column is that building a nationalist message into a museum presentation renders you particularly vulnerable to self-deceit. The Israel Museum experienced this recently when serious doubts were raised about one of its prime displays – and most expensive acquisitions – an ivory pomegranate with an inscription linking the Temple Mount to the Jewish cult. I might also have written a paragraph on the other similarities and of course the differences between Israel and Holland.) However, I am convinced that a shorter piece will be read by more people and that a column can benefit from brevity. We’ll see what happens.

Last week I experienced a high point in my life. From Sunday to Tuesday I ran the eighth annual congress of CODART, the international council of museum curators of Dutch and Flemish art of which I have been director since its inception in 1998. (This is not a counting error; the first annual congress, CODART EEN, was held two months after we started.) Since I will be retiring as director this June, the membership took leave of me with speeches, presents, applause and an Internet page of heartwarming compliments. In my reply at the congress dinner, I dedicated my directorship of CODART to Loekie, whose help in CODART as in all parts of my life was inestimable. I do not expect anything else like this to occur again in my professional life, and I cherish it deeply. My relationship to the members of CODART – 110 of them, from 25 countries, attended CODART ACHT – is, without exception, marked by warmth and trust. This stands in occasional contrast to my relationship to my fellow specialists in Dutch and Flemish art, especially in Rembrandt studies. About this and about CODART more on other occasions.

The publisher of my book on Rembrandt, Jan Martens of Mercatorfonds, is at the London Book Fair this weekend, with fresh new material, 23 pages on Rembrandt’s drawing and etching techniques. It is an illustrated glossary based not on general principles, like most sections of the kind, but on Rembrandt’s practice, with striking examples. A lot is riding on his success in selling co-editions. I now have four-and-half months to finish the book.

Responses to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

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