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In dialogue with the 21st century public

In dialogue with the 21st century audience Presentation at the conference ‘Museums of the 21st century. New educational paradigms’, Sint Petersburg, 25 November 2015.

In 2010 the Education department of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen formulated a new mission statement, answering to the needs and challenges of 21st-century society. ‘The department of Education and Interpretation engages in a dialogue with the audience. She provides them with the means to actively make the art of the museum their own, aiming to create depth, enrichment and joy.’ In this presentation I would like to talk further on this mission statement and how we directed our activities towards this dialogue.

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen was founded in 1849, after a wealthy art collector F. J.O. Boijmans (1767-1847) donated his collections to the city of Rotterdam. Other private collections were added, amongst which the D.G. van Beuningen collection in 1958 and this is where the museum got its name ‘Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’. The museum owns a world-class collection of art and design from 1400 to present day. This profile makes the museum unique within the Netherlands. From its foundation the museum has been very much aware of its social context. We are situated in Europe’s biggest harbour city, which is populated by relatively low educated and less wealthy people. The museum has always made strong efforts to reach out to a broad audience, amongst who school children and working class people.

With this historical background our educational mission statement based on the concept of dialogue fits in very well. We aim to concentrate on a dialogue between both the institution and its public and between the artwork and its viewer. And this dialogue seems to be more urgent now we have fully entered a new era. What will be the main challenges for our museum professions in the future? What will be the questions our young publics will pose?  There is of course no simple answer to these questions. But if we just have a closer look at some of the main characteristics of our time, we immediately feel the friction between the conventional institution of a museum and the rapidly changing world. Our times are dominated by technology and information. The World Wide Web makes information, even specialist, accessible to everyone, everywhere. Our devices make sure we can inform ourselves every moment of our day, we can easily search our data. Machines have become very real extensions of our bodies, minds and lives. In this information and technology-based society, it is not knowledge we need from the institutions.  Networking, knowing how to find your way and creativity seem to be the leading 21st century skills. For a 21st-century art museum, it should not only be knowledge exchange that is leading. Most museums tend to hold on to its traditions, which are very similar. They were founded by the rich, taken over by the authorities and aimed at educating the people. Museums are knowledge institutions. Its employees are specialists and their work consists of sharing their knowledge to the people. This has been the practice since the 19th century and still is the main practice in museums, also the museum I work in. But this practice does not meet the needs of a 21st century public. Museums should not only present their own specialist selections to the publics, they should make its knowledge available and invite people to act on it.  The 21st century museum should foster collective ownership of public collections and activate people to gain inspiration and get involved. I can give some examples of how we aim to reach this dialogue in the most recent years.

Since ten years every Wednesday there is a freely accessible gallery talk by a member of our curatorial staff. This is a moment where the public can get in touch personally with the specialists of the museum. Since 2010 we also added the Question and Answer function in our Boijmans Tour, the online multimedia guide of the museum. Standing in front of an artwork in the gallery, or stumbling upon it at our collection website, they have the opportunity to pose their questions directly to the curatorial team. Our education team makes sure all questions are being answered, and that relevant questions are included in the tour so that future visitors can see these questions with the answers given by specialists. The Question and Answer function fulfils a demand, since we launched it, thousands of questions were already posed.

Quite different is our project Art Rocks, which is a national music competition in which musicians are invited to write songs, inspired by our art collection. In crossover programming like this real dialogues appear. Our task is offering some art historical information, after which a musician claims this piece of art and imposes his or her own personal meaning onto it, expressed in a piece of music. The results are magical; artworks seem to get a new life when the musicians are invited to give a live performance of their song in front of the artwork in the gallery space.

Also in our school programmes we started a very intensive dialogue. In 2012 we launched the Boijmans Maths and Language programme that evolved in close collaboration with two primary schools in Rotterdam and aims to connect maths and language teaching to art education. We offer these schools knowledge of our collections and give them the opportunity to fit this knowledge to their own needs. Underlying the programme is the conviction that art education in schools and during museum visits with your classes can attribute greatly to children’s skills in other subjects in primary schools, like maths and language. For three years we asked the artist Wolf Brinkman to give art lessons at the schools, and all children visit the museum several times. As a museum we learn from the experiences at the schools and the intensive dialogue with the teachers. Instead of telling the teachers what they should teach their pupils about our art, we asked them simply: what would you like your children to learn in our art lessons?

Also in our exhibition design we pay much attention by inviting the public to get involved. Two years ago we had the exhibition ‘Framing Sculpture – Brancusi, Rosso, Man Ray’. We decided not to just tell visitors about the working methods of the three artists, we asked them to experiment with their techniques. In three ‘studios’ – situated at the heart of the exhibition – visitors could use a virtual version of the same artistic techniques that were used by the artists. In a first studio they could build spatial compositions by using props and lightning as Brancusi did in his studio. The second was devoted to making a virtual version of photo collages Rosso practiced. In the third studio people could make a ‘rayograph’ images, based on Man Ray’s famous invention. The results were presented in the exhibition and online, so people could enjoy each other’s efforts. By doing or watching other people doing, the experience of the work of the three artists deepened. About 30% of the visitors really got active during their visit to the exhibition. And 68% told us afterwards that they’re activity in the exhibition added to their understanding of the exhibition.

A last example we are working at, its result is yet to come in Rotterdam. In 2018 we open a new public depository. No longer we will keep or collections away from the public, we decided to show all of it and offer visitors insight to the conservation and preservation aspects of the museum business. It will be housed in a spectacular new building next to our existing building. Its gesture is telling: the 21st-century should give people access, make its property visible, and share responsibility with the community.

Opening up the dialogue asks for real effort and interest in our public. It needs us to take one step back. Which is not an easy gesture: it is not our tendency to be reluctant in offering information about our specialism and educate the public. And for sure, not every dialogue is as interesting and rewarding. But I would like to leave some remarks on what a museum to my opinion could become, if we would open up and embrace the dialogue with the public.

  • The museum is for everyone
  • The museum adds to your development and worldview
  • The museum is a meeting place and a place for social activity
  • The museum is a place where you can enjoy yourself
  • The museum visit does not start at the walls of the museum, it can be anywhere and any time

By Catrien Schreuder, head of Education and interpretation, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam