A Peek at Dutch (Art) History at the Stedelijk Museum

By Danielle Carter

The Stedelijk Museum has acted as a key supporter of contemporary art in general—commissioning the first Richard Serra piece intended for public space, for example—, but has also played a particularly important role in the stimulation of Dutch contemporary art. The museum, for example, commissioned the work of Ed van der Elsken, the preeminent Dutch photographer of the 20th century, and later organised a retrospective of his work.

Despite the international nature of the collection and exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum, there are undoubtedly a significant number of Dutch works on display at any given moment. One of these – the Appel Wall, a mural made by the Dutch artist Karel Appel (1921-2006) – is permanently on view and embedded in the walls of one of the galleries.

Karel Appel, Mural (1956), in the former restaurant space, Stedelijk Museum, photo John Lewis Marshall

The colourful composition—consisting of a bird, a human figure, and a flower—could barely be contained within one wall. This former restaurant space has since been converted into a gallery and greets visitors as they enter one of the main galleries on the right hand side of the museum.


Appel is known as one of the founders of the CoBrA art movement in 1948, of which the Stedelijk museum has a distinctive collection. The CoBrA movement included risk-taking artists from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam (hence, the name CoBrA), but was founded mainly by Dutch and Belgian artists, whose work, although not warmly welcome in the Netherlands, found favour in Denmark. In its typical artist-supporting, experimental fashion, the Stedelijk Museum held the first major exhibition of CoBrA art in 1949 under the title ‘International Experimental Art’, which caused much public disturbance and, after one night of poetry reading, a public brawl.

De Stijl

Installation view, Gert Jan van Rooij

Aside from its respectable CoBRA collection, the Stedelijk Museum is among one of the most significant holders of De Stijl artwork. This art and design movement—of which Piet Mondrian is the most famous—is characterised by its linear or geometric style and its focus on primary colours. The collection at the Stedelijk Museum includes key pieces by Theo van Doesburg and famed Dutch architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld.


Amsterdam School

Finally, furnishings from the Amsterdam School, an architectural movement of the early 20th century are also found in the Stedelijk Museum. The movement’s goal was also to create an architectural experience, blending interior with exterior; thus, furniture design uniquely reflects many of the characteristics of the architecture. Founded on socialist ideals—the architects often constructed residential buildings for the working class, government institutions, and schools— the Amsterdam School-style furniture served to expose factory workers or government employees to art on a daily basis, with the idea that this would improve their daily lives. Although Amsterdam School furniture often resembles Art Deco of the same period, the design is unique to Amsterdam because Amsterdam’s multicultural society influenced it with motifs from Japan, Indonesia, and Sweden.

The beloved former director (1945-1963) of the Stedelijk Museum, Willem Sandberg (1897-1984), was essential in moulding the Stedelijk Museum into what it is today. During his tenure as director, Sandberg sought to ‘open’ the museum, which he did by constructing a restaurant, opening a library available to the public, and initiating the establishment of educational activities for children. To this day, the Family Lab—a room in which children and families can make art inspired by the surrounding collections—is central to the Stedelijk Museum.

The renovation of the Stedelijk Museum also transformed the aesthetic and symbolism of the Museumplein. Commissioning the Dutch architect Mels Crouwel, the Stedelijk Museum sought to renew its building: the entrance was moved to face the Museumplein, the museum was extended forward onto the Museumplein, and the white addition to the building serves as an extension of the Sandberg interior that made the museum famous. Furthermore, all of the public events at the Stedelijk Museum take place in the new extension of the building, so that these events take place almost literally in the public space of the Museumplein.

Stedelijk Contemporary

Today, the Stedelijk Contemporary program ensures that young artists are represented in the museum, both by organising temporary exhibitions of their work as well as by commissioning works by these emerging artists and collecting their works into the permanent collection. In this way, the Stedelijk Museum collection is very dynamic and energetic, and continues to contribute to the formation of innovative art and artists on a global scale.

The Stedelijk Museum reveals the tumultuous and energetic recent past of Dutch history and art as well as continuing to support the development of emerging artistic talent both at home and abroad. The changing exhibitions and permanent collection are an exciting glimpse into the development of Dutch and international modern and contemporary art.

The museum is open 10:00-18:00 daily, and 10:00-22:00 on Fridays.  Join us for a private tour at the Stedelijk for a deep dive into modern art with one of our specialist private guides!


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!


Ed van der Elsken at the Stedelijk Museum

Ed van der Elsken, Meisje in de metro, Tokio (1984) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collectie Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Observing Human Behaviour through the Camera Lens

by Danielle Carter

The new exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum explores Ed van der Elsken’s (1925-1990) infatuation with photography and film throughout his life. The exhibition takes its name from a film that van der Elsken made for Dutch TV, The Verliefde Camera (The Infatuated Camera), for which he won the national prize for film art a year later. Due to van der Elsken’s longstanding relationship with the Stedelijk Museum, the venue is the perfect fit for this remarkable reflection on his life and work as a photographer.

The exhibition walks through phases of van der Elsken’s life, which are punctuated by photographic habits, tendencies, or projects. Unlike some artists, who do not gain acclaim until later in life, van der Elsken began working in the photography sector early on. Around 1945, he picked up street photography in Amsterdam—documenting strangers that he saw in the street in a personal manner—and he began working for Magnum’s photography lab in Paris in 1950, just to quit a few years later to pursue street photography once again. Edward Steichen, the ambitious photographer and curator at the Museum of Modern Art, even selected one of van der Elsken’s photographs for the famous Family of Man exhibition (1955), which was organized as a photo essay elaborating on the human experience. The exhibition, van der Elsken’s works, and even van der Elsken himself would eventually end up touring the world for several years.

The exhibition pays due respect for van der Elsken’s favourite medium—photobooks. The rooms throughout the exhibition are generally organized by either his location—in Paris, central Africa, Asia, or the Netherlands—or by his photobook projects.

In Paris—where van der Elsken began to establish himself more professionally as a photographer—, van der Elsken documented his domestic life with his partner, Hungarian photographer Ata Kandó, and her three children, but he was also preoccupied with his paid work at Magnum Photos and with compiling his first photobook. These domestic images implicate van der Elsken as a photographer: his film strips hang from the ceiling, segmenting an image of Kandó’s children; his reflection and his direct gaze confront us in other images, especially in an image wherein he and the lens of his camera peer over Kandó’s shoulder as she scrutinizes herself in a mirror. The intimate tone of these images, as well as his urge to return to street photography, lay the foundations for the rest of his career in photography and film.

Ed van der Elsken, Vali Myers voor haar spiegel, Parijs (1953) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collectie Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Although van der Elsken is perceived as one of the most important Dutch photographers of the 20th century, his filmic works also became a significant part of his oeuvre. Van der Elsken’s frustration with the delay in publishing his photobook documenting his 14-month around-the-world trip with his then-wife Gerda van der Veen led him to pursue film. Particularly striking is the film that addresses the illness that consumed the last months of his life. This video is very personal and honest, deliberating on his confrontation with his illness more than he did with his own family, which, in the end, seems to be a fitting opening to an exhibition in which van der Elsken’s very personal and confrontational style of photography becomes apparent.

Throughout van der Elsken’s career and throughout his travels and various photographic projects, van der Elsken remained committed to his passion for observing and documenting humanity and human nature. The themes throughout the exhibition and his oeuvre remain clear: street life, daily life, and the reality of the average human, perhaps even the commonalities among these average people despite their different ethnicities, nationalities, or appearances. Even when van der Elsken was asked to photograph an exhibition for the Stedelijk Museum, van der Elsken’s camera captured the people visiting the exhibition and their reactions to and participation in the exhibition more than the exhibition itself.

Despite van der Elsken’s adventurous spirit, he always returned to the Netherlands. Amsterdam sparked his interest in youth and the rebellious spirit that would become ever more prevalent in the ensuing decades, and he got his start with street photography in Amsterdam. His confrontational, witty, and honest method of photography might even be described as typical of Dutch character.

The variety of objects in the exhibition—the wall-sized reproductions of his photographs, the audio for interviews, van der Elsken’s films, van der Elsken’s scribbled notes as he tried to organize and design his photobooks, and digital film flipping through the pages of van der Elsken’s completed and published photobooks—provide an immersive experience in the like and work of van der Elsken.

De Verliefde Camera (The Infatuated Camera) is on show at the Stedelijk Museum through 21 May 2017. The Stedelijk Museum is a modern and contemporary art museum located on the

Museumplein in Amsterdam. The museum is open 10:00-18:00 daily, and 10:00-22:00 on Fridays. An adult ticket to the museum costs 15 euros.


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.


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.


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: http://onmuseums.com/2017-conference


‘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.


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.


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.