The Role of Museums in an Evolving World

A Reflection on the ‘Museums, Citizenship and Belonging in a Changing Europe’ Conference

by Danielle Carter

29 November 2016

The ‘Museums, Citizenship and Belonging in a Changing Europe’ Conference took place at the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden as part of a larger effort supported by Sharing a World of Inclusion, Creativity and Heritage (SWICH) and the Research Center for Material Culture (RCMC).

This is one of a string of conferences this year (see our recent posts on the Inclusive Museum Conference and the Reinwardt Academy Symposium) that has focused on the ethical responsibility of museums when faced with a world in which demographics are rapidly changing. In the words of Wayne Modest, the head of the RCMC, museums must seek to speak to the ‘differentiated citizens’ of contemporary Europe.

Over the past half-century, museums have steadily turned their focus more towards visitors. This becomes increasingly difficult, however, when the demographic of desired museum visitors is changing. How can museums differentiate their approaches for each individual museum visitor? And how can they do so in a way that is inclusive, significant, and meaningful?

The conference also featured a variety of speakers—reflecting the theme of the conference—, including professors and researchers in anthropology, museology, politics, and sociology; artists from Lebanon and the Sápmi tribe of northern Sweden; as well as museum professionals from Canada, the Netherlands, and beyond. This variety of perspectives moulded a nuanced voice on the history of ethnographic museums, the demographic of contemporary visitors, and the potential pathways for (ethnographic) museums into the future.

Although it is impossible to summarise the entire conference here, I found the words of Assistant Professor of Sociology, Dr. Rolando Vázquez, and the director of the National Museum of World Cultures, Stijn Schoonderwoend, particularly pertinent.

As a sociologist, Dr. Vázquez’s expertise lies within colonial thinking. Ethnographic museums have almost entirely sprung out of colonial collections; the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, for example, was established as the Colonial Museum in 1864 to display objects of cultures from Dutch exploration and conquests around the world. Dr. Vázquez, however, made a distinction between ‘colonisation’ and ‘coloniality’. Although colonisation has technically ended for much of the world, coloniality—including residual effects of colonisation such as racism, discrimination, and the dominance of the mono-cultural, Western perspective—still continues. As institutions embedded in this history—many ethnographic museums were established in order to commemorate world cultures that were soon to be erased and absorbed into or replaced with the colonising Western culture—, ethnographic museums must be especially aware of their role in educating about the history of colonisation, as well as helping to dismantle coloniality.

The director of the National Museum of World Cultures, Stijn Schoonderwoend, gave an overview of his vision for how ethnographic museums can move forward into the future, evolving from their colonial histories into a more diverse and progressive future. The ethnographic collections that he leads have formed a mission ‘to inspire world citizenship’. Rather than having a clear definition of what this is, however, he has an idea in mind of where he wants to go, a point on the horizon to which the ethnographic institutions aspire.

Significantly, Dr. Vázquez also pointed out the phenomenon of the ‘double erasure of coloniality’. This double erasure refers to the initial attempt to erase foreign cultures and replace them with the dominant colonizing culture as well as to the unwillingness to admit to the colonial past. Furthermore, he stated that there can be no justice without epistemic justice; thus museums as educational institutions have the power—and the responsibility?—to make a difference. As Schoonderwoend stated, ‘education is central in the concept of world citizenship’. In educating about colonisation as well as attempting to incorporate multiple voices into the museum and its collections, ethnographic museums can pave a brighter future for both their collections and their populations.

The SWICH project is supported by the European Union’s Creative Europe programme. It brings together ten partner museums over the course of four years (2014-2018) to discuss and develop ideas about how ethnographic museums can participate in the establishment of forward-looking practises confronting the increasingly diverse populations of Europe. You can find out more about SWICH project activities by visiting their website.

The RCMC is an institution embedded within the National Museum of World Cultures, which includes the Tropenmuseum located in Amsterdam, the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, and the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal. The National Museum of World Cultures describes itself as a ‘museum over mensen’ (a museum about people), which was especially relevant for the focus of this conference. The RCMC stimulates interdisciplinary research about the ethnographic collections of the three institutions of the National Museum of World Cultures.


Impressions of Landscape: Daubigny, Monet, and Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum

by Danielle Carter

Van Gogh is largely known for still life paintings such as Sunflowers or small landscape paintings created from the view from his window such as Starry Night; however, Van Gogh felt most at peace when he was in nature, and many of his paintings depict rural landscapes. After living with his brother in Paris for about two years (1886-1888), Van Gogh escaped to the more rural town of Arles, positioned in the south of France. This is where he painted many of his most acclaimed paintings. He was more inspired by the landscape and environment of southern France than he was by metropolitan Paris. As he told another artist, Bernard, in a letter in 1888: as he painted, he was ‘surrendering myself to nature’.

Theo and Vincent often discussed their favourite artists in their numerous letters. Millet, one of the forefathers of Modern Art and Realism, was always on the tip of Vincent’s tongue, but Daubigny, famous for his landscape paintings, was also a favourite of Van Gogh’s through the years. Van Gogh saw Daubigny’s paintings in 1875 both at Goupil and Cie—the art dealership where he had once worked and where Theo continued to work for the majority of his adult life—and the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Van Gogh even mentioned Daubigny’s name, among the names of several other artists, justifying his goal to become an artist in many of his 1880 letters. From Van Gogh’s perspective, Daubigny injected feelings and emotions into his landscapes, which Van Gogh found much more relatable than the realistic, photographic depictions of landscapes of some of his peers.

Daubigny’s interest in light and reflection, as well as his loose brushwork, formed a connection between him and the Impressionists, who were about a generation younger. He was both acclaimed and criticised among established artists and critics, but his work was often shown at the Academy, which was the authority on art at the time. His position as an artist whose work was shown at the Academy’s highly acclaimed annual exhibition gave Impressionists hope. His realistic depictions and looser brushwork opened the door for other Impressionists, especially when he was on the board of the Academy and permitted some Impressionists to display their work there. This would give a lot more recognition and legitimacy to the Impressionist movement; thus, he truly served as the link between the Academy and the Impressionists.

Although Daubigny’s work began with more somber tones and colours — as can be seen in Moonrise at Auvers (1877), he began to take note of the Impressionists’ use of colour when working with reflections, light and landscapes. The Impressionists had been inspired by his loose brushwork, but they in turn influenced him as well, in much the same way that Van Gogh was inspired by the brighter colours of the Impressionists’ work after his brief period in Paris.

Van Gogh’s pleasure in painting outdoor scenes continued when he moved to Auvers-Sur-Oise near the end of his life. Daubigny had spent much of his life and career painting here, especially focusing on the Oise river that flowed through the town. He even constructed a studio boat—a project that Monet would copy in 1873, allowing him to paint the river and its surrounding landscape from a more immersed perspective, rather than from solid ground.

In 1890, Van Gogh painted two images of Daubigny’s house and garden in Auvers-Sur-Oise, even giving one, which can be seen in the exhibition, to Daubigny’s widow. The comparisons drawn among these three artists in this exhibition largely focus on the work from the last year of Van Gogh’s life, during which he worked and lived in Auvers-Sur-Oise. In some cases, Daubigny, Monet and Van Gogh painted nearly the exact same subjects. The poppy fields in Auvers-Sur-Oise, for example, or the farms bordering town.

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By focusing on the works of Daubigny, Monet, and Van Gogh, this exhibition details the evolution of the work of an artist, Daubigny, who had a great impact on the Impressionists—both politically and artistically, as well as on Vincent himself.

The exhibition Daubigny, Monet, and Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape is on view at the Van Gogh Museum through to 29 January 2017 and is included in the museum ticket price.



Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age: What Not to Miss

The Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age: What Not to Miss

by Danielle Carter

featured image: Rembrandt (1606 – 1669)  The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman, 1656

If you can’t get enough of Dutch Golden Age art at the Rijksmuseum, the Hermitage Amsterdam is a wonderful additional option to expand your knowledge with the exhibition: Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age.


image: Elvert Ezinga

From late 2014 through to the end of this year, the Hermitage Amsterdam, in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum and the Amsterdam Museum, is hosting an array of portraits from the Dutch Golden Age, including some of the oldest civic militia portraits from the period. A Squad of Civic Guards (1529) by Dirck Jacobsz. is the oldest in the gallery and features civic guards who appear far different from the likes of the men in Rembrandt’s (1642) The Night Watch, which is displayed in the Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum. These older civic militia portraits reveal the typical way of painting civic militia portraits. The men are lined up in efficient rows in a manner that equally displays all of their faces. Furthermore, seeing these civic militia portraits grouped together in a hall more accurately recreates the way they would have been hung at the time. During the Dutch Golden Age, there were 20 districts in Amsterdam, each with its own civic militia. The Night Watch, along with at least seven other civic militia portraits, would have hung across from and next to one another in the Arquebusier’s headquarters; thus, viewing these portraits together at the Hermitage Amsterdam is almost a glimpse of what it would have been like to view these paintings back in the 17th century.

Highlighted in this exhibition are thirty so-called “brothers and sisters” of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. These additional thirty paintings help to give more context to the importance of group portraiture during the Dutch Golden Age, especially as these portraits were not limited to civic militia portraiture and that their function was often to display wealth and justify status in a society that largely lacked royalty and aristocracy as a means of establishing hierarchy. One example of these paintings is The Governors of the Binnengasthuis (1617-1618) by Cornelis van der Voort, which is the first portrait of a group of governors of a charitable institution. Such a painting can be compared with Rembrandt’s The Syndics, which can also be seen in the Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum. As with Rembrandt’s painting, Van der Voort positions his figures around a table in order to demonstrate their administrative skills, which were important for the governors of these guilds and organisations. During this time, nearly everyone (except for the very poor) belonged to some sort of organisation or guild, but some were hierarchically more esteemed than others, demonstrating the wealth and status of its governors or board members. The surgeon’s guild was at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of guilds and Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman (1656), not to be confused with his famous The Anatomy Lesson (1632) at the Mauritshuis, depicts the Surgeon’s Guild in Amsterdam performing its annual autopsy.

However, unlike the paintings displayed at the Rijksmuseum, many of the group portraits now featured at the Hermitage Amsterdam emphasise the importance of charity and social welfare during the Dutch Golden Age, both as a means of structuring society as well as a means of supporting the Netherlands economically. In other words, as with civic militia portraits, getting oneself painted as the governor of a charitable institution was a way of expressing one’s status and wealth in society. The people depicted in The Governors of the Binnengasthuis, for example, paid approximately 318 guilders each, which is equivalent to nearly 4500 euros in today’s currency. Obviously, these people had to be quite wealthy to have themselves included in these paintings, which would often then be hung in public places to further parade the subjects’ wealth.

The significance of these charitable institutions during the Dutch Golden Age also indicates the relatively high level of social welfare in the Netherlands compared with its European counterparts at the time. These social welfare institutions, such as hospitals for lepers or orphanages for children of victims of the plague, were often seen as economically responsible: social unrest was deemed as negative for the economy.

The Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age at the Hermitage Amsterdam is structured in such a way that allows visitors to follow the narratives of four residents of Amsterdam at the time, revealing the struggles of these people in attaining power and status in a time of social and financial mobility that was nearly impossible in other societies dominated by royalty and aristocracy. The entire exhibition is worth consideration, but the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman and the hall of group portraits (mostly featuring governors of social welfare institutions) are unmissable in this exhibition.

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located at Amstel 51, it is open daily from 10.00-17.00, with a ticket price of 15 euros for adults and 5 euros for children aged 6 to 16 (children under 6 are permitted free admission). For a custom private tour of the exhibition, please contact us.


The Lucas van Leyden Altarpiece in the Rijksmuseum

Danielle Carter

Images courtesy of Olivier Middendorp

Presentation in the Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum is taken very seriously.  Only the most famous of Dutch artists are displayed here, often with their names adorning the arches and capitals of the hall when the museum was built in 1885, and again during its subsequent renovation from 2003 to 2013. Thus, each time a new piece is hosted in the Gallery of Honour, it is a notable event.

This year alone, Anish Kapoor’s works were hosted in the Gallery of Honour, opposite Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride and The Syndics; and a newly acquired wedding portrait by Rembrandt, known affectionately as Maarten en Oopjen, was displayed adjacent to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch before its planned restoration. Since August, the Gallery of Honour has also hosted The Last Judgement (1526-1527). For the next two years the Rijksmuseum will be home to this altarpiece by Lucas van Leyden (1491-1533). The work has rarely been seen outside of Leiden, where it typically resides at the Museum de Lakenhal, which begins major renovation and expansion this year.

It is, however, not only an honour for this altarpiece to be shown in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour, but an honour for the Rijksmuseum to be permitted to show such a piece at all. According to the Rijksmuseum’s director, Taco Dibbits, The Last Judgement ‘is the most important surviving altarpiece in the Netherlands.’ With its nearly exclusive exhibition in its hometown of Leiden, the fact that this altarpiece has been selected to be exhibited in Amsterdam is quite notable.

Lucas van Leyden is an important piece in the puzzle during the Netherlands’ transition from Medieval to Northern Renaissance motifs and styles. He was the apprentice of Cornelis Engebrechtsz, among the first significant painters from Leiden, who is mostly known for his devotional imagery; he was in conta

Lucas van Leyden, Het Laatste Oordeel. In de Eregallerij van het Rijksmuseum. Foto: Olivier Middendorp

Lucas van Leyden, The Last Judgement. Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum. Photo: Olivier Middendorp

ct with artists such as the famous German printmaker, Albrecht Dürer, who influenced van Leyden with his modelling of figures and his compositions; and he drew his inspiration for anatomically correct depictions of human bodies from Italian Renaissance artists such as Raphael. Van Leyden was also a pioneer in crafting narrative in his artworks, which is also evident in The Last Judgement, in which he depicts believers and sinners with angels or demons ushering them towards heaven or hell upon their death.

The Last Judgement is typically viewed as Lucas van Leyden’s most important and impressive work. Van Leyden gained prominence during the Northern Renaissance as a talented printmaker and engraver; however, he painted the triptych, The Last Judgement—one of the three altarpieces that he painted— near the end of his life and career (he died at the young of 39 from tuberculosis) and it has since gained much art historical clout. Another of van Leyden’s altarpieces, The Dance around the Golden Calf  (ca. 1530), is part of the Rijksmuseum’s permanent collection and can be seen in the rooms on the Middle Ages and Renaissance, precursors to the Dutch Golden Age artists whose works are typically displayed in the Gallery of Honour.

The Last Judgement was commissioned by the Catholic Church of St. Peter in Leiden in the 1520s. Due to the conflict between the Netherlands and the Spanish Kingdom, however, which was initiated largely due to Spain’s imposition of the Inquisition in the Dutch provinces, Iconoclasm endangered The Last Judgement and many other Catholic works in churches and elsewhere throughout the country. After years of suppressed Protestantism and Judaism, the Dutch lashed out against Catholicism as they gained their independence from the Spanish, often damaging or removing religious images, in general, but Catholic images specifically. In order to save The Last Judgement, the city authorities of Leiden captured the altarpiece and it has since been in the hands of the municipality. Since 1874, the altarpiece has been on display at the Museum de Lakenhal, in cooperation with the municipal collections.

For many tourists to the Netherlands, the scope of Dutch history and art history is relatively limited to the likes of Amsterdam or perhaps Haarlem and The Hague. The exhibition of this Leiden masterpiece provides a unique opportunity for Amsterdam’s visitors to have a sneak peek at masterworks from other areas of the Netherlands; notably, Leiden, which is also the hometown and birthplace of Rembrandt, who owned a complete set of van Leyden’s prints and likely saw this van Leyden altarpiece in his youth.

In the last 450 years, The Last Judgement has only left Leiden twice—during World War II, it was hidden in Limburg; and it was exhibited once at the Rijksmuseum in 1958, punctuating this historic moment in which it is displayed at the Rijksmuseum.

You can see The Last Judgement in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour from 23 August 2016 until 23 August 2018. To book a private tour of the museum with one of our expert guides, please click here.


Reflections on the Inclusive Museums Conference

Reflections on the Inclusive Museum Conference

by Danielle Carter

The Inclusive Museum Conference was held this month from the 16th to the 19th of September at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The inaugural conference was held at the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Netherlands in 2008 prompted by the assassination of Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the controversy that followed. Van Gogh’s killer, a Dutch-Moroccan purportedly associated with a Dutch terrorist group called the Hofstad Network, attached a note to Theo van Gogh’s body that critiqued many Dutch politicians and their Jewish associates.

This prejudice sparked a lot of controversy in the Netherlands and worldwide. The Netherlands education sector reacted with the Dancing with Diversity initiative, which attempted to include a broader range of cultures and ethnicities in the heritage sector. This tension furthermore motivated the executive director of the Inclusive Museum Conference, Amareswar Galla, to found the conference and the associated Inclusive Museum Knowledge Community to encourage “strategies and have a dialogue that is inclusive for all people.” Furthermore, the goal of this knowledge community and these conferences is to help museums and museum practitioners to deal with post-colonial multiculturalism. 

The conference is hosted in a different city and country each year. This year, the conference was hosted by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Centre in Cincinnati, Ohio. The theme was urbanism, inclusion, and cultural freedoms with sub-themes of visitors, collections, and representations.

A broad range of topics were addressed at the conference, ranging from Dr. Louise McWhinnie’s presentation of how the country of the United States can be viewed as a museum in and of itself -with its hotel signs and billboards acting as museum objects within this museum space – to Sarah Graves’ presentation on volunteer motivation and retention in museums. The broader conversation throughout the conference, however, focused largely on the inclusion of various groups within the museum as well as how to include visitors of different abilities in the museum.

Regina Carswell Russo, Chief of Communications at the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati, explained how marketing and advertising can help to make a wide variety of people feel more comfortable and included into art and museum spaces. In other words, using advertising to represent a wide range of people removes a potential barrier to visiting these spaces. As Tonya Matthews also said during the conference, “When we have institutions that keep people like this out, we’re inadvertently holding ourselves back.” Tony Lawson and Jessica Urban of the Cincinnati Children’s Museum approached inclusiveness in the museum space from the perspective of making the museum more accessible for children on the autism spectrum who can often be irritated by the overwhelming sensorial experiences of interactive exhibitions at hands-on children’s museums.

The inclusion of different races and ethnicities in the museum was a hot topic at this conference – especially due to the location of the conference, the current state of racial relations in the United States, as well as the Underground Railroad Freedom Centre’s position at the historic intersection between free and slave states during the American Civil War.

The focus of the next Inclusive Museum Conference is Diaspora, Integration, and Museums and will be held the 15th to the 17th of September, 2017 at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. You can find more information, submit a proposal, or register for the 2017 conference here: