The Netherlands State Secretary for Culture, Medy van der Laan, spoke contemptuously of the museums under her charge in a newspaper interview. Rather than conserving, displaying and explaining the objects in their care, she said, they should be exerting their efforts to attract minorities and kids to the museum. For all their shortcomings, this the Dutch museums do not deserve.
In an interview in NRC Handelsblad, the Netherlands State Secretary for Culture Medy van der Laan characterized the work of “most" of the museums under her care in these words: "They are too predictable. The visitor too often gets what he expects: painting on the wall, stuff in a showcase, add a label. They don’t surprise you."
If she were writing criticism of avant-garde art, these comments might be appropriate. But she is talking about institutions that necessarily involve a degree of predictability. In this they are no different than theaters or movie houses, restaurants or sport events. You buy a ticket to enjoy an experience of a certain familiar kind. For most museum visitors that experience involves the display of objects on walls and in cases. Some museumgoers enjoy lots of information and innovative presentations, others like to be left alone with the object. Museums all over the world are struggling to find the right match for their audiences. To criticize an institution for fulfilling conscientiously one of its main functions is spitefully unfair.
Van der Laan also speaks belittlingly of the commitment of museums to the conservation of their collections. “For the last decades most museums have mainly been concerned with conservation. They maintain the collection and display it neatly. They keep themselves very busy that way." This is van der Laan’s way of dismissing a program, known as the Delta Plan for Cultural Preservation (1990-2000), that made Dutch museums the envy of museums worldwide. Supported by Medy’s predecessor Hedy d’Ancona, the Delta Plan was a concerted effort to extend the life of museum objects through improved administrative and technical husbandry. This was a vastly necessary operation that of course demanded the intense concentration of museum directors and staff for a number of years. To speak of the project as a way of “keeping yourself very busy" is once more offensively unjust. Medy wants museums to devote themselves instead to attracting adolescents.
It is too bad that Medy van der Laan feels it necessary to resort to such cheap shots in order to distinguish herself as a maker of cultural policy. It is too bad for her in the first place because she needs the cooperation of the museum world for her new paper “Conserving in order to bring about." Van der Laan wants museums to reconsider the social function of their collections, to define their missions more precisely and to reformulate their activities accordingly. This is all well and good, although it is not as new as she wants it to sound. (With a touch of megalomania she calls it “the first coherent vision on museum policy in thirty years.") As director of the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage from 1997 until 2003, Rik Vos hammered again and again on the point that museums cannot accumulate objects just for the sake of accumulating them. The sheer numbers and amounts involved, he said, demand of museums – especially those that take conservation seriously – that they look critically at the functioning of their collection.
Adding injury to insult, van der Laan is also introducing competition for funding, stacking the deck in favor of museums that answer to her own need to be surprised. Would it surprise her enough to go to the Mauritshuis next year and find out that the museum sold Carel Fabritius’s all too predictable Goldfinch to raise money for a teenage outreach program?
© Gary Schwartz 2005. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 17 December 2005.
After writing and submitting this piece I learned from the Art Newspaper of a recent report by the Rand Corporation, A portrait of the visual arts: meeting the challenges of a new era. One of the conclusions is apposite to the column:
Demand for the visual arts takes two principal forms: appreciation and collecting. The fact that the popularity of both of these forms of demand has increased significantly in recent years is often seen as a sign of great success in the field. However, a closer look at the statistics underlying these trends suggests a less rosy story. The growth in museum attendance, for example, appears to be largely due to population growth and rising education levels, not to higher levels of attendance by those at specific education levels. Indeed, the socioeconomic status of museum audiences does not appear to have changed significantly, despite the efforts of museums to attract more diverse audiences. Moreover, underlying societal trends – €driven by changing leisure patterns, increasing population diversity, and more intense competition from the entertainment and leisure industries – suggest that new growth in demand will not come easily.
The Rand report was published last summer, making it all the more incomprehensible that in November a Dutch state secretary should lay responsibility for a world-wide phenomenon at the feet of Dutch museum people. There are other shortcomings for which they can rightfully be taken to task, but this they don’t deserve.
Medy van der Laan is not the first holder of her office to be seized by the conviction that the future of Dutch museums depends on their ability to cultivate parts of the population that show little interest in them, kids and minorities. Behind this seemingly progressive attitude is something nastier, a resentful disinclination to allow committed museum audiences to enjoy themselves as much as they do. Related to this is the often repeated phrase that museumgoers are an “elite." The smaller number of people who fly to a distant football match of their team or a concert of their favorite band and pay a multiple of a museum entrance charge for a ticket are never called an “elite."
I can understand that the private nature of art enjoyment irritates people who do not experience it. But when a politician, even a philistine politician, is put in charge of state museums and cultural policy, you expect a modicum of respect from them for the community they are appointed to serve. Sadly for the Netherlands, Medy van der Laan is not even exceptionally bad at her job. The entire present government is a barely mitigated disaster; equally disastrous is that the opposition has been unwilling to bring it down. The way things are going, there is a better chance that Bush will be driven out of office than Balkenende. That is something of a comfort.
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