Slow Food: Still Lifes of the Golden Age at the Mauritshuis

By Claire Bown

The new exhibition at the Mauritshuis ‘Slow Food: Still Lifes of the Golden Age’ is a real feast for the senses.  It’s also the first exhibition to be devoted to the development of meal still lifes in Holland and Flanders from 1600 onwards.

The inspiration for the exhibition comes in the form of a painting acquired by the museum in 2012, ‘Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels’ by Clara Peeters. There are a total of 22 works on display with masterpieces on loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Washington’s National Gallery of Art, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels (c.1615)

The 17th century saw the rise of a new specialism in painting with artists painting richly laid tables piled high with appetising delicacies – bread, cheese, fruit, oysters, lemons and olives – alongside fine glassware, gilt goblets, earthenware jugs and fine Chinese porcelain. These depictions of prepared food – without human figures – literally invite the viewer to pull up a chair and start eating.



Nothing is unplanned in a still life. Usually painted on a wood panel but sometimes also on a copper plate, compositions are normally in horizontal format with the table extending across the entire width of the painting. Bright colours are avoided so that all the attention can be focused on the differences between materials and surfaces. A neutral background enables the carefully arranged foodstuffs and objects to jump out. Objects are placed together closely on a tablecloth (often, wool, linen or damask) and are often but not always overlapping.

An eye for details

What astonished me walking around this exhibition was the extraordinary precision with which the food has been rendered – the crumbly cheese, the creamy butter, the texture of the bread. The longer you look at these paintings, the more details you are rewarded with – light reflecting off a silver knife or a wine glass, the muted sheen of a silver tazza – all reflecting the superb craftmanship of these paintings. If you linger longer, you will also notice hidden details – Clara Peeters includes not only  her signature on the silver bridal knife in ‘Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels” but also her self-portrait. On the pewter lid of the stoneware jug, you can see the refelection of a female face with a white cap. This hidden self-portrait appears in a number of other paintings not least in ‘Still Life with Flowers and Delicacies’ (1611) where Peeter’s face appears four times on the shiny surface of the pewter wine jug.

But what do these pictures mean to today’s viewers? Art historians have attempted to attribute meanings to the genre but it is not straightforward. Are they a display of wealth, abundance and prosperity or a call for moderation? Or perhaps they provide us with a warning of the transience of life, of mortality itself? We should perhaps exercise a little caution with interpretation in this exhibition and focus instead on the astonishing detail and craftsmanship of these artists and allow ourselves to experience the paintings much in the same slow and leisurely way as you would savour a good meal.

Slow Food – Still Lifes of the Golden Age in the Netherlands runs from 09 March to 25 June at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Book a 2 hour custom-made private tour with Thinking Museum and see both the permanent collection and the new exhibition!


Museologists, Communities, Crises and Commerce

This year I had the pleasure of co-organising two events around the 40 Year Anniversary celebrations at the Reinwardt Academy. On 11 November I was one of the Co-Curators/-Creators for the RTWA40 Years Festival and led a marathon session on building an exhibition in 11 hours. On 10 November I organised, in conjunction with two fellow Alumni Mark O’Neill and Erin Caswell, the Master of Museology Alumni Symposium on ‘Communities, Crisis, Commerce: When can Museologists Make a Difference in the World?’

Thinking Museum guide Danielle Carter attended the symposium on 10 November and reflects on the morning session here:

Museologists, Communities, Crises and Commerce: The 2016 Master of Museology Symposium

By Danielle Carter

Museums and museologists are often concerned with how museums can maintain their relevance in a rapidly changing world. The Reinwardt Academy hosted this symposium just a couple of days after the shocking and controversial United States presidential election, which made the theme of the conference—Communities, Crisis, Commerce: When can Museologists Make a Difference in the World?—especially pertinent.

The three keynote speakers each addressed one of the three sub-themes of the symposium: Marlous Willemsen from Imagine IC spoke about communities, Deborah Stolk from the Prince Claus Fund discussed crisis, and Taco Dibbits from the Rijksmuseum answered questions about commerce.

Sharon MacDonald, whose name you have likely seen as the author or editor of a fundamental museology article or book, opened the conversation with a presentation on co-criticality and creative engagement, new concepts that she is currently developing. MacDonald remained optimistic about the role of museums in the tumultuous landscape of contemporary society. Contrary to the sweeping trend of co-construction and visitors’ ability to contribute their knowledge, skills, and interpretations in the museum, MacDonald reminded us that museums should embrace expertise; not only the expertise of the museologist or the museum as a whole, however, but also the social and cultural expertise that visitors might hold as well, necessitating creative engagement with communities.

Courtesy of Anneke Groen

The Imagine IC organisation, as Marlous Willemsen elaborated, focuses on ‘heritage-making in super diverse contexts’ as well as ‘emotion networking’. Heritage can be a sticky subject in multicultural societies, but Willemsen pointed out that heritage is what we decide, it is simply what or how we give meaning to the term in reference to the past and with a conception of the future. Willemsen argued that emotion is the ‘social aspect of feeling’, meaning that heritage foundations that can instigate emotional shifts in its visitors or participants are likely encouraging these people to experience the everyday of someone else, developing empathy for different cultures.

During the question and answer panel following the speakers’ short keynote speeches, the speakers agreed that museums and cultural institutions should not try to impose a narrative, as Taco Dibbits, said ‘it doesn’t work’. Instead, these cultural and heritage institutions should encourage thought among visitors, which seems especially relevant in our increasingly polarised, ‘post-fact’ world.


‘At Home in Holland. Vermeer and his Contemporaries from the British Royal Collection’

At Home in Holland: Vermeer and his Contemporaries from the British Royal Collection
29 September 2016 – 8 January 2017

By Wendy Fossen




This autumn, at the Mauritshuis, we are welcoming back a select number of Dutch 17th century Masterpieces from the British Royal collection. It is a unique show, for her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II is very fond of her Dutch collection and the British Royal family have never before allowed so many works to leave the country. The public will be delighted by the quality of painters like Steen, Vermeer and Dou, who was by the way more appreciated than Rembrandt in his day.

Many of today’s art collections once belonged to a royal family; the collection at the Prado, the Louvre and even our own Mauritshuis (the original name of the museum is the Royal Picture Gallery!) The British Royal Collection is one of the largest collections which is still intact and still owned by a royal family. It was King George IV in particular, who spent astonishing sums of money collecting Dutch art in the 19th century. These works of art are scattered around the countryside of the UK in the Royal Palaces, the most famous of these being Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The British Royal Collection can boast 8000 pieces, whereas the Mauritshuis only has 800.

As far as Dutch 17th Century art is concerned, the British royals seem to have had a preference and fondness for scenes of everyday life, and in particular comic scenes. These genre pieces, as we call them, feature Dutch folk chopping onions, selling grapes, or fighting in front of an inn. Also popular were the scenes with a sexual connotation. Rich townspeople, and maybe also King George himself, will have amused themselves and their company with these naughty and comic scenes.

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman ('The Music Lesson') by Johannes Vermeer. On loan to the Mauritshuis collection, The Hague.

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (‘The Music Lesson’) by Johannes Vermeer. On loan to the Mauritshuis collection, The Hague.

Many of these 17th Century  scenes – which were not only amazingly well painted – had a moralistic meaning which often remains quite hidden for the modern viewer. Gerard Terborch, for instance, painted scenes with moralistic messages which were not always immediately clear, not even for his contemporaries. One of the highlights in this exhibition is also such a puzzling piece: The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer. This work was bought by George III in 1762 and shows a lady and a gentleman at a virginal. The room is lit by the stained glass windows from the left, there is a chequered black and white marble floor, and on the right we see a table covered by a Persian rug. The warm colours of the rug contrast beautifully with the brilliant white jug placed on the rug, Against the back wall we see the two figures standing near a virginal, a sort of piano. When we look closely at the painting we see that the lady is looking in front of her, but her reflection in the mirror, which hangs against the back wall, shows a different position: she is looking at the man standing next to the virginal. Why did Vermeer do this, what was he suggesting? Or should we forget about these presupposed hidden meanings and simply enjoy the beautiful perspective, light and colours for what they are?


Jan Steen (1626-1679) ‘A Woman at her Toilet’, 1663 Courtesy of Mauritshuis, Den Haag

Subtleness is certainly not to be found in the works by Jan Steen. He usually is not so secretive in showing the meaning of the painting, it more like ‘what you see is what you get’. My favourite is Woman at her Toilet. As a voyeur we look through an arched doorway, very richly decorated with garlands and Corinthian columns, and we see a lady sitting on a canopy bed. Once again a chequered floor, this time black, white and red, leading up to the bed with a floor mat and again a table with a Persian rug on the right. All this is painted with sublime technique and beautiful colours, but the scene distracts you from this. The lady is taking off her stocking and the marks above her calves show she has worn them all day. Is she smiling at us as if we were her customer walking out of the room and glancing back one more time?
This work by Jan Steen, and the 22 other works in the exhibition, offers us just a glimpse of the magnitude of the British Royal Collection – this exhibition is an opportunity not be missed! Go and see ‘At Home in Holland: Vermeer and his Contemporaries from the British Royal Collection’ at the Mauritshuis in The Hague from 29 of September until 8 of January next year. If you are interested in finding out more about these hidden meanings, join us for a private guided tour in English. Contact us for more details.

Wendy Fossen Casadellarte26LRArt historian Wendy Fossen holds degrees of the Universities of Leiden, Amsterdam and Canterbury, UK. Wendy teaches art history in Dutch and English and works as a museum guide for Thinking Museum as well as at the Mauritshuis and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. When she is not at home, she works as a tour guide in Italy for SRC Cultuurreizen and SNP Wandelvakanties.  For more information please take a look at Casa dell’Arte’s website.


Museum Opening: Museum Voorlinden

We sent our very own Danielle Carter to the opening of a brand new museum of modern and contemporary art in Wassenaar; the Museum Voorlinden. Here’s her thoughts:


Photo courtesy of Danielle Carter

Wassenaar is mostly known across the Netherlands as the classy town that houses the royal family. Now a chic, new neighbour is now garnering additional attention for this little town that sits between Leiden and the Hague: the Museum Voorlinden, which opened its doors to the public yesterday on the 11th of September.

The Museum Voorlinden is nestled among cosy suburban houses, puddles of lavender and dandelions, and a sprawling green oasis. The modern and contemporary art collection is the new project of Wim Pijbes, the former director (2008-2016) of the Rijksmuseum, which Pijbes famously guided through its arduous renovation. After an admirable tenure at the state-owned and -funded public Dutch Golden Age-centric museum, this switch to a privately-owned modern and contemporary art museum is surely a new challenge for the director, whose campaigns at the Rijksmuseum also included opening the museum further to the public with efforts such as uploading the collection online.

Like many modern and contemporary art museums, the Museum Voorlinden embraces plain white walls and minimal contextual information; however, the Museum Voorlinden encourages a narrative in the way that the museum is organised, fosters a flow to the museum visit through the museum guidebook, which directs the visitors through the spaces in an ordered sequence and pairs together artworks that seem to have conversations with one another. This was particularly evident with Sherrie Levine’s (2011) Monochromes After Seurat: 7-12 and Andy Warhol’s (1986) Camouflage and, perhaps more overtly so, with Magritte’s (1931) La Malédiction and Marcel Broodthaers’ (1966) La Malédiction de Magritte. The army green hues in Levine’s Monochromes seem to directly echo Warhol’s Camouflage, which stands across from Levine’s work in the exhibition hall like a mirror, giving the entire room a feeling of wholeness and completeness. In a similar fashion, Magritte’s and Broodthaer’s works face one another from opposite walls, almost as if Broodthaer’s sculpture were greeting its original inspiration.  

Roni Horn (1955), Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar [foto: Antoine van Kaam]

Roni Horn (1955), Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar [foto: Antoine van Kaam]

Overall, the Museum Voorlinden is an excellent option for a short day trip from Amsterdam for lovers of modern and contemporary art, as well as those looking for a small quiet getaway from the city. The Museum Voorlinden is approximately one and a half hours distance from Amsterdam’s city centre. To reach it, take the train from Amsterdam Central Station to Den Haag Centraal and bus 43 from platform G. After 8 stops, get off the bus at Wittenburgerweg and you will have a quaint fifteen to twenty minute stroll down the Zijdeweg and Buurtweg to reach the museum. The entrance to the museum is slightly less pedestrian-friendly than Amsterdam (cars, bikes, and pedestrians all share the path leading to the museum—and there are many more cars here than in Amsterdam), so be aware.

You can purchase a ticket online or at the museum in person. Tickets are 15 euros each for adults (please note that the Museumkaart is not valid) and you can choose to book your ticket for the morning (10.00-13.00) or the afternoon (13.00-17.00).  You can also find more information about the sculpture garden at the Clingenbosch estate—and book a tour—on the Museum Voorlinden website.


Tuinontwerp door Piet Oudolf Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar


The Significance of Rembrandt’s Marten and Oopjen

Danielle CarterWe are delighted to welcome Danielle Carter, owner of Tangible Education and museum educator for Thinking Museum, to write for us. You can learn more about Danielle’s research, educational and practical experience here.


There have been numerous images of Rembrandt’s Marten and Oopjen (1634) splashed across billboards and walls throughout Amsterdam for the past few months. Some solely featured Marten’s extravagant shoe. Some featured Oopjen’s coy half-smile and smouldering eyes. However, it’s hard to really understand the significance of these portraits without more context. This is where we, at Thinking Museum, can assist: the importance of Marten and Oopjen from the museological, historical, and art historical perspective.

From a museological standpoint, the display and acquisition of these paintings is what counts. These paintings have only been shown once in public—in 1956 in the Rijksmuseum for Rembrandt’s 350th birthday. Other than that, they have remained in private hands over the past three and a half centuries—unseen by the public eye. Thus the fact that we have the special opportunity to see these paintings is quite amazing in itself. Furthermore, these paintings were revealed in the Rijksmuseum shortly before Rembrandt’s 410th birthday (on July 14th of this year), a serendipitous arrangement that has given me goosebumps several times. The paintings will go into restoration for a year starting in October, so they will soon be out of the public eye once more.

Additionally, these paintings were—to say the least—pricey. Paintings by Rembrandt are hard to come by and a situation in which one (or two!) comes onto the market is very rare. Even more importantly, however, is that the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre partnered to purchase these paintings. This is unheard of in the museum world thus far, but seems to be a solution to a prevalent issue in the contemporary art world; the fact that private collectors are able to outbid public museums and artworks are thus swept into private collections rather than preserved for the public eye. Technically speaking, the Louvre purchased Oopjen and the Rijksmuseum purchased Marten, but the two museums have agreed that the two paintings will remain together forever. The two paintings are married just as the couple once was.

Historically speaking, these paintings indicate a large amount about the Dutch Golden Ages. During this time, the Netherlands was waging war with the Spanish crown to gain its independence, after which it would establish a republic (rather than a monarchy). During the Dutch Golden Ages, royalty are typically the only ones who have full-length portraits painted; Rembrandt has painted these two “civilians” in this manner, symbolising the status of the wealthy in the Netherlands as well as the (lack of) status of the aristocracy. Oopjen herself was the heir of her long-established Amsterdam merchant family’s fortune in trading gunpowder and grain, whereas Marten was the son of an Antwerp merchant who fled from the cruel Spanish regime enforcing the Inquisition at that time. Again, societal structure was much more based on affluence rather than aristocratic title, lending Rembrandt the authority to paint Marten and Oopjen in this manner that would typically be preserved for royalty.

Finally, for the art history lovers out there, there are many reasons to gawk at these portraits. Rembrandt was relatively new on the scene in Amsterdam at the time that he painted these portraits. They were painted during the same period that he painted The Anatomy Lesson, which is often regarded as the painting that initiated his fame as well as his status as the most prominent portrait painter in Amsterdam. However, because Marten and Oopjen were truly part of the elite, it is very plausible that these wedding portraits launched Rembrandt’s notoriety among the highest and wealthiest of circles in the Netherlands, skyrocketing his reputation—when he was just 28 years old.

Furthermore, these portraits are the first—and only—full-length, life-sized pendant portraits that Rembrandt ever painted. And he painted every single detail of them, rather than having one of his apprentices help with the fabric or background (as he often did with other paintings). These paintings are also relatively typical of Rembrandt’s style early on in his career in Amsterdam. Although the Night Watch (1642) is definitely his most famous painting, his technique and style becomes much more loose by that time, making the juxtaposition of these masterpieces in the Gallery of Honour that much more remarkable.

Make sure you get a chance to marvel at these two portraits at the Rijksmuseum before 02 October!


Interview with Katrina Posner, creator of ‘Ceramic Arts in the Golden Age’

This week Thinking Museum is proud to announce a new programme ‘Ceramic Arts in the Golden Age’ to add our growing list of in-depth tours. Conservator Katrina Posner has designed a special tour focusing on the wonderful ceramics collection in the Rijksmuseum. We caught up with Katrina to find out more:

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
 I grew up in Los Angeles and journeyed to the other side of the country for college, where I studied Art History and wrote my senior thesis on the American artist, Agnes Martin.  After college I joined the mass-migration to San Francisco, where I apprenticed to a paper conservator by day and took chemistry and studio art classes in the evenings. After four years of living the good life in San Francisco, I packed up and moved to Buffalo, New York to begin my studies in art conservation.  I decided to specialise in three-dimensional artworks, or as it is known in the US, objects conservation.  After two years in Buffalo and a year treating objects from the fantastic collection of Egyptian art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, I found myself back in Los Angeles with a Graduate Internship in the Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation department at the Getty Museum.  I eventually became a permanent member of that department where I was responsible, among other tasks, for the care and maintenance of the Getty’s collection of modern outdoor sculpture.  In 2013, my family and I decided to shake things up and we moved to Amsterdam.  I’ve since taken a step away from the ‘bench’ and have been exploring different ways to talk about our shared cultural heritage.

How did you come up with the idea for the new programme on ceramics? What was your inspiration?


Part of my recent explorations have been an attempt to consider the history of objects through the lens of my education and professional experience: art history and conservation together.  My impetus was the field of Technical Art History – where the ‘how’ of an object’s genesis is explored alongside the ‘why’ of its contemporary context.  This field invites art history, conservation science and the examination methodologies of art conservation to the same table, and through all of these facets we, as modern scholars, can really explore the internal and external components of an object.  


OK, so why ceramics?  I think clay is a very interesting medium for this kind of focus.
.  It is one of the four natural elements and it exists all over the earth, right there in the ground.  And, when it is combined with fire – another natural element – we get a hard-bodied vessel, plate, sculpture, building material.  The possibilities are, and have been, endless.  The Rijksmuseum’s ceramic arts collection contains examples from a wide range of time periods, cultures and aesthetics.  And, the ceramic objects are nestled in among all the other, sometimes louder, media.  Considering them closely is an opportunity to spend time with some very beautiful gems.  

What can visitors expect from the new programme? Who is the programme aimed at?


Visitors will take a journey through ceramics of the past 1,000 years.    We will look at porcelain from China and then European porcelain from the beginning of the 18th century, we will follow the trail of faience, or majolica, through the Middle East, into Southern Europe and then Northward to the Netherlands.  We will examine how developments, both on the other sides of oceans and the other sides of feudal territories, complimented and encouraged each other.

Because the tour is specialised and somewhat focused, it is for visitors who are looking to go deeper into the context of the ceramics of the Golden Age (and its preceding eras).  It can be a natural compliment to the time that a visitor had previously spent at the Rijksmuseum, or for the visitor who intends to look at the larger collection at a different time.  

What is your favourite object in the new programme and why does it appeal to you? What makes you keep coming back to it?


I am very fond of the Monkey who sits in the case with the other life-sized porcelain animals made by the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory.  The figure is so playful and focused and present.  I am partial to these animals because they were made at the tail end of a completely manic drive to crack the code of porcelain in Europe.  They are examples of a technical tour de force that are equal parts stunning and ridiculous.  

How does your work as a conservator influence your work as a museum docent?


I’ve always said that it is hard for me to walk through a museum’s galleries and not look for damage.  It is, unfortunately, wired into my approach to art – how is this object doing, how has it fared these five centuries since it was made, are we taking good care of it so that future generations will be able to marvel at its artistry? But when I push this sometimes distracting focus to one side and let in appreciation and wonder, I find these all make a good team.  I have had the great privilege of being able to touch many works of art.  I have looked inside the cavities of bronze sculptures with my own eyes and a flashlight, with a borescope, with x-rays.  I have spent quiet hours with a terracotta bust, encountering the hands of the artist through the fingerprints left behind in the hardened clay.  I have marveled at an Egyptian alabaster vessel from 1400 B.C.E. Its walls so even, its surface so smooth.  I know how to look, how to be careful, how to let objects tell their stories, and I look forward to sharing some of these experiences in the galleries.
You can find out more about ‘Ceramic Arts in the Golden Age’ here.

Making Art Accessible for Children

I first met primary school teacher and Cultural Education Developer Ruud van Ooij at our November 2014 Visible Thinking workshop. Since then we have met up again recently to discuss his inspiring art project which selects artworks and then pairs them with thinking routines and open-ended questions for use in the classroom by primary school teachers.  I asked him to write a guest blog post to explain more about the project which aims to make art more accessible to young children.  

The goal at the Nicolaasschool in Oss, where I work as a teacher, is to make children citizens of the planet. We want them to look at the world with an open mind and to develop social awareness. Therefore, we find the ability to reflect very important.

To make it as easy as possible for teachers to reflect with children, I am currently developing a set of cards with which teachers can look at and discuss art with their students. This project is being carried out with help from the Stedelijk Museum in Den Bosch and Kunstbalie. The front of each card will show the artwork and on the back there will be questions and information about the artwork and the artist. The questions will be based on Visible Thinking. It is a great way to structure thinking, and of course… make it visible! To learn more about Visible Thinking I followed a workshop with Claire Bown after having reading the book ‘Making Thinking Visible’ by Ron Ritchhart et al.

ruud blog post 1


Through using the routines in conversations, children learn to form their own opinions and at the same time are also confronted with other opinions. This will help them to listen and have respect for other views. With this way of looking at art there is no right or wrong, as long as you are able to explain yourself. Children become more aware of how to look without immediately giving an interpretation. I find this very refreshing

The artworks used in this project are from various sources. Working together with a few museums, some of the works can be viewed in real life. Some can be viewed around the corner from our school at Museum Jan Cunen, others for example are in the Stedelijk Museum in Den Bosch. This will hopefully help children find their way into museums!

To bring the art even closer to home, the project will also feature artwork that can be seen in the in Oss’ public space. What I notice myself is that you become so much more aware of the art you actually see every day, the artworks you don’t really ‘see’ anymore. By discussing these artworks in class you raise awareness of the art that’s out there, what details you can see and what the meaning is or might be. The connections between school and its cultural surroundings are strengthened.

Ruud blog post 3


Another way to make art more accessible is by including local artists next to other Dutch and international artists. The selected artworks focus most on modern art but covers a wide range of art disciplines, like paintings, sculptures, photography, street art and fashion and so on. The artworks also include a diverse range of cultural backgrounds. By selecting works children (and teachers) will be talking about, works or disciplines they  might otherwise not have looked at can be brought to their attention. This is done to make sure we teach our students to keep an open mind and introduce them to a lot of different art forms.

Visible thinking gives you great structures for conversations. With just one piece of art you can easily talk for half an hour. Because the routines slow you down, time flies by. It is fascinating to see how children can pick up thinking routines so quickly. They learn really fast to just ‘look’ first before giving their own meaning to the subject. I noticed how it is really important to use conditional language. There is so much difference in the feel of the questions “What is this?” opposed to “What do you think this might be?” It is exciting to see children becoming really enthusiastic about looking at art after only discussing a few works . With Visible thinking being used I’m positive that they will never look at art in the same way as they did before.


Drawing and Thinking in the Museum

Today we are starting a series of guest posts from people working and actively experimenting with using Visible Thinking. I got to know Bodil Eide and Paulo Borges at our most recent Visible Thinking Open Workshop at the beginning of March. Bodil and Paulo design courses for students and teachers of art, for people with a creative art practice and for art lovers looking for opportunities to spend more time looking at and learning from art. They offer ‘in-depth’ teaching, where people are invited to explore their real creative capacities through structured tools and strategies. 

My partner Paulo and I offer a series of different art courses, from foundation drawing classes, to art teachers training, to creative strategies for artists with a studio practice. We decided to do Claire Bown’s Visible Thinking workshop in Amsterdam in March, because we use a lot of art historical references in all of our classes. We see looking at art as paramount to developing one’s aesthetic sense and understanding of art as a language. When we heard about Visible Thinking we knew that it would be a great tool to incorporate in all of our classes.

CFB51E2D-842E-4E11-A701-E4767F4FFD7DWe were eager to put the routines she taught us into practice with our art students. We are currently teaching a group of adults observation drawing, and we decided to leave the classroom and do a full weekend with them sketching from the works in the museum of Arte Antiga here in Lisbon, that harbours a large collection of paintings and sculpture from the gothic to baroque era.

Drawing in the museum is a challenge that we are very mindful of. Our main aim for the weekend was of course to further enhance the student´s skills in regards to observation and drawing techniques. But we wanted them to make drawings that were sensitive to each works unique expression, and not merely making a flat, photo-like copy of the painting surface.  Another aim for us was that they’d look at diverse ways that the human figure had been represented at different times, and to convey the differences in feeling, expression and atmosphere in, lets say, a medieval pieta and a baroque portrait of a layman.

B68F87FE-EADC-4A1E-A45E-93191868BA2BThe Visible Thinking routines were perfect for our context. For those of you that know them, we did See-Think-Wonder, and Step-In. We did them with the group before each drawing session. Using the clever questions of the techniques, the students were invited to look and look again, to connect observations, listen to each other, and discover more and more possible ways to understand, receive and acknowledge the art work in front of them. They would go from being quite analytical, to also using their senses, feelings and insights. Then, beside our technical instructions about shading and markmaking with the pencil, their task was to keep this content in mind, to keep a connection to the reflection they had just done, and draw the artwork with the aim of not just copying it, but to show what they were thinking and feeling about it.

The results throughout the weekend were just astounding. We know, and we do our best to teach from this knowing, that one’s state of mind, the quality of one’s attention, one’s interest and empathy for what one is drawing, highly influences and changes the technical skill in each moment. A bored student will make a flat drawing. An inhibited and self-critical student will often make a stiff and hardly visible drawing. But in the next moment, that same student will draw like a master, if the right connection is made. And in the drawing sessions we did on these two days, all of our students made huge technical leaps. They started integrating their sense of light and shade, the use of line and mark, with a very mature and refined rendering of the human figure, as seen in the great art they were observing.

E4A7969C-26AB-457A-A5E2-E681668115BD   8A3CF8F2-0F08-44F8-B82D-B6981E57C090   701C61D6-1158-4539-8C9A-D2F3EF8FCB97   F31FC228-A2BD-48FD-AB03-1A34DEDF546A

Some comments from the students themselves about the weekend:

“I learned to see and feel the artwork. It became easier to convey what I felt in the drawing because I was looking with the eyes of the soul. I think it took me closer to the author.”

“I stopped being a mere spectator, and made an effort to penetrate the mind of the artist, trying to see the work from the inside outwards, identifying the artists state of mind and intentions. I think this made me draw the characters and their surroundings with more vivacity. ”

“There is always a stage of starting a drawing before things come together, and you are not sure if it is going to look alright or not. And you need to have some faith. Keeping a contact with the content felt like an anchor, something that guided me as I was drawing.”

From an art teachers point of view, it felt like the Visible Thinking made it possible for me to make full circle. The students stepped in to the attitude and intention of artists, connecting with other artists, through time and space. They forgot about being “good students”, their judgements dropped away, and they allowed themselves to receive and express the content they were connecting with. And this is what makes good art!

To find out more about Bodil and Paulo’s work, visit their website


‘Late Rembrandt’ Exhibition at the Rijksmuseum

‘Late Rembrandt’ exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. February 12 to May 17 2015.

On February 12 the landmark exhibition ‘Late Rembrandt’ opens at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the city where Rembrandt lived and worked. This is the first time that an exhibition has been dedicated to Rembrandt’s late works from the 1650s until his death in 1669. In collaboration with the National Gallery in London, more than 90 works from leading museums and private collections from around the world will be on display here in Amsterdam.

Rembrandt was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1606 and died aged 63 in 1669. Despite having achieved youthful success and prosperity, his later life was marked by tragic personal losses and professional setbacks, including the death of three of his children shortly after birth and the death of his wife Saskia in 1942. He suffered ongoing financial difficulties which resulted in his bankruptcy in 1652, the forced sale of his large house and his huge collection of props, costumes and naturalia. Later he also lost his common-law wife and only remaining son, Titus.

This exhibition demonstrates how Rembrandt, far from diminishing as he grew older, pursued a new artistic style in his later years experimenting with painting and printing techniques and new interpretations of traditional subjects. The late period of his life can be seen as the most innovative and individualistic of his career. The exhibition expertly examines the ten themes that characterised Rembrandt’s late art such as light, experimentation, self-reflection and intimacy.

NB: Due to large visitor numbers expected at the exhibition, private tours are not permitted. However, we are happy to purchase your timed ticket for you and to prepare you for the exhibition during our Rijksmuseum: The Dutch Golden Age private tour. For more details, contact us. Don’t miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition!


Field Trips that Teach Thinking Skills

Originally posted on Museum Questions:

Field Trips that Teach Thinking Skills

A number of people have reached out to me to share ways in which they, too, are exploring new approaches to school visits to museums. Some of them have generously agreed to write guest posts to share their ideas. 

The first of these guest posts is from Claire Bown, a freelance museum educator based in Amsterdam. Claire started her own company, Thinking Museum, in 2013. Claire designs innovative learning activities, workshops and training for museums and heritage organizations, and specializes in the use and application of Visible Thinking in the museum environment.

In order to mine these guest posts for ideas related to the bigger question – “What if we tried a whole new approach?” – I have added a few of my own thoughts at the end of the post, in italics.


photo - Claire Bown

In 2011 I joined the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam with the aim of creating a new English language primary school programme for a growing number of international schools in the Netherlands. These schools, free from the constraints of nationally imposed curricula, have long been able to embrace new and innovative ways of learning and teaching. From the outset, therefore, it was important to develop a programme that linked not only to what was being taught in international schools but also and, more importantly, to how it was being taught.

Indeed, there is a great deal of emphasis on the ‘what’ of museum learning: the content. For school groups, especially, there is still a strong need to cover and provide distinct content created to link to school curricula in order to appeal to teachers and school authorities. Whilst this content-based approach certainly has its benefits, defining museum school programmes by their ability to link to curricula limits the potential of museum educational experiences. For my part, I was interested in developing a programme that supplemented learning and complemented the curriculum and worked throughout the project in partnership with teachers from four international schools.  These teachers were an integral part of the research and development on the programme and dedicated considerable time and energy to discussing and piloting the new programme.

On the basis of results from research and focus groups, a new programme was developed based on a common theme of stories and storytelling. However, Stories around the World, as it was christened, was not a content-led programme but one that was guided by it. The main focus was to let students slowly explore and discuss objects for themselves using elements of Visible Thinking as a structure to guide their thinking and to help them practise and develop certain skills, such as careful observation, thoughtful interpretation and considering different viewpoints.

SATW Wonder

Visible Thinking is an initiative developed over a number of years by researchers at Harvard’s Project Zero in collaboration with various schools. At the heart of Visible Thinking are several practices that help to achieve these goals – such as thinking routines. These routines, originally designed for the classroom, are flexible mini-strategies that we adapted for use in the museum. They provide a structure for student-led discussions and encourage the exploration of ideas and also help to spark curiosity and provoke debate about the Tropenmuseum’s extensive collection. Each different routine encourages certain types of thinking – for example, observing and describing, reasoning with evidence, making connections and even wondering.This allows different types of thinking routines to be used easily around the museum for different objects and in a variety of educational programmes. In Stories around the World we used a mixture of historical objects, such as The Great Pustaha, with contemporary art objects and sculpture, such as Yinka Shonibare’s Planets in my Head: Literature.

Pustaha A-1389

The thinking routines trigger lively discussion facilitated by a museum teacher who encourages multiple interpretations from all group members. The process of using a routine also helps to teach students to work collaboratively and to listen respectfully to other student’s opinions. This is an inclusive method that grants even the quietest and most reticent of students the confidence to share their thoughts.

The programmes were launched in 2012 and have been enthusiastically supported by international schools. We discovered fairly quickly that thinking routines have a broad application within a range of subject and age group areas across the museum and two further educational programmes have been created for Dutch primary and high schools. Thinking routines have also been incorporated into adult programming and special events like Museum Night. Museum docents, once trained in using this method, start to incorporate the routines independently and flexibly into other areas of their work with other age groups and types of programmes. These routines can be easily applied in many different types of museums – not just art museums – to target and develop a wide range of thinking skills and promote engagement and curiosity.

When developing a skills-based programme for schools, it is important to manage teacher expectations from the outset and to build strong partnerships and collaborations with schools that can then understand and support the way the educational programme works. Teachers are often surprised (and sometimes even disappointed) that the students will only explore 3-4 objects in around 1.5 hours. Attitudes and assumptions change once teachers have experienced how the programme works in a completely different way to content-led programmes. Educational promotional materials and the museum website and/or blog should be used to their full advantage in explaining the benefits that the students will gain – that is, valuable skills that can be transferred to other locations and contexts.

Ideally, more research needs to be undertaken as to how many schools and students are taking these skills and routines back into the classrooms or their everyday lives and using them again. However, there are numerous possibilities for extending the learning possibilities further and to other contexts. Museums offer a different learning experience from the school environment and as such should not duplicate the learning that takes place there, but be duty-bound to offer a broader range of experiences for students demonstrating the full potential of what museum learning truly has to offer.


For educators who are offering and promoting programs that link to the school curriculum, thinking routines offer an alternative which may be attractive to teachers. For those who have designed programs that teach skills, thinking routines may support what you are already doing.The use of thinking routines during field trips is interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. If students know what to expect, it may be easier to create a specific culture and community in a short time. Ron Ritchhart of Project Zero wrote about this in the Journal of Museum Education in 2007. Claire has written about this on her own blog, here.
  2. These routines suggest a number of skills, or – better termed – habits of thought that we might consider teaching students in the museum. In this way, they support a broader exploration of possible goals for school visits to museums.
  3. I wonder whether thinking routines might offer museum educators strategies for ensuring that conversations are rigorous – open, but not so open that every answer is considered equal. This is a question many of us grapple with: How do we teach students what good, rigorous interpretation looks like, in the context of constructivist educational approaches? (See the post When is Inquiry with Art Philosophical Inquiry? for another approach to that.)
  4. Thinking routines, like Visual Thinking Strategies, are routines that teachers can use in their own classroom. This allows museums to work with teachers to create bridges between museum and school time, deepening impact.