In 2018, the Rijksmuseum – the Amsterdam-based national museum dedicated to art and history of the Netherlands – welcomed more than 2.3 million visitors.
This doesn’t come as a surprise to me. My office is at a stone’s throw from the Rijksmuseum and when I pass by (or, as it’s often the case, cycle by), I always see throngs of tourists making their way to the museum’s entrance.
But 200 years ago, when they started to spawn across Europe, national museums weren’t founded just to issue entrance tickets. They were also established to celebrate national pride, to represent the DNA of national identity.
At the time, nation-states were emerging from the ashes of ancient regimes and decaying empires. Nationalism was a propulsive force of progress and political development.
At the opposite, the comeback of nationalism in contemporary Europe is under the sign of conservatism. The nationalist political parties of today’s Europe fight against the disruptive force of new political institutions like the European Union.
What can then be the role of national museums in this time of rampant nationalism? What’s left of “national” in contemporary national museums? And, more in general, how can national museums remain relevant in today’s society?
To address these questions, I reached out to art historian Martine Gosselink, who has been acting as head of the Rijksmuseum’s history department since 2009.
As I mentioned, I work really close to the museum, so it was easy to drop by at Martine Gosselink’s office to pick her brains about these matters.
For clarity’s sake, I divided the interview into three parts. First off, we discussed how and why the Rijksmuseum was founded. Afterward, Martine Gosselink described what she thinks is the role of national museums in contemporary society. And finally, we discussed the much-awaited exhibition on slavery in the Dutch colonial period that will open at the Rijksmuseum in September 2020.
Davide Banis: I read that the Rijksmuseum was established in the year 1800, seven years after the Louvre. Can you explain how was it founded, who was involved, and what was the purpose of this new museum?
Martine Gosselink: What was founded in 1800 was the National Art Gallery, that was the precursor of the Rijksmuseum.
The actual Rijksmuseum was founded a few years later, under Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother and king of Holland at the time.
The museum changed location several times until, in 1885, it arrived here, in the place where it has been ever since.
You have to imagine that this area, at the time, was sort of an empty desert: no houses and no people. Maybe just some cattle in the fields around here.
After centuries of protestant domain, Catholicism was regaining power in the Netherlands during those years. And that’s why the building reminds of a Catholic cathedral, with the mosaic floor and the stained glasses. If you look at other national museums built in Europe during the same period you’ll see that, at the opposite, they look like Greek temples…
The god of this museum-cathedral is our national hero, Rembrandt. The whole museum is built around him. Interestingly, Rembrandt became the Dutch national painter only in the 19th century.
Before Rembrandt, our national painter was Pieter Paul Rubens but, in 1830, Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands and they ‘took’ Rubens with them. So, we had to come up with a new national painter and we picked Rembrandt. He has been iconized.
50 meters from my office there’s The Night Watch, one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces. Of all the 8,000 objects of the collection, this painting is the only one that has never been moved, that has never been relocated. It’s also in this sense that the museum is literally built around Rembrandt.
As you said, when the Rijksmuseum moved here, this area was the countryside. 200 years down the line, everything changed. How did the museum evolve over the centuries?
Yes, everything changed but the collection has remained merely the same, besides numerous acquisitions. What changed is the way we look at the objects. If you move an artwork only 30 degrees, it tells a completely different story…
In general, during the 20th century, the Rijksmuseum played an important role in shaping our national identity. People were visiting it as part of their civic education.
Differently from other important museums, the Rijksmuseum is “national” also in the sense that almost all the objects are made in the Netherlands. And in this sense, it’s pretty unique.
But I think it took a while for Dutch people to fully realize how national this museum is. I myself only understood it when I started working here, in 2009.
At the time, the museum was in refurbishment. Dutch society was coming from a decade of turmoil, also because of the murders of politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and of director Theo Van Gogh in 2004.
There was a big debate going on around the issue of Dutch identity.
At the same time, it became evident that what was at display here represented mainly the governing elite, just a thin layer of Dutch society throughout the ages. The objects about the everyday life of normal people went to other Dutch museums.
In particular, the colonies were my main concern. They form a big part of our history and, of course, only if you understand colonial history you can understand how the Netherlands became the Netherlands.
We do have beautiful and powerful colonial objects in our collection but, at the time, they weren’t very well explained and there were small texts to describe them. Better than nothing, but not enough.
So we came up with the idea of publishing a series of books about the relationship between the Netherlands and its colonies. The purpose was to recollect awareness about history and our self of the past. And maybe just to explain why we do have those objects in the first place.
I think the books were helpful to understand our colonial history and an important step at trying to make every single Dutch person with roots in one of those countries feel welcomed in the museum.
So, to go back to your question, I’d say that one of our roles in this time is to make everybody feel at home, to be here for all Dutch people (and, of course, for the many, many tourists, that goes without saying).
And, in doing so, to look beyond our contemporary national borders and realize that there’s also a mutual, transnational heritage that is important to display.
For example, you can also make an exhibition together with another country’s museum, and that’s what we’re doing with the Indonesian National Museum in Jakarta at the moment.
In 2020, an exhibition on slavery will open at the Rijksmuseum. I read that the exhibition will focus on slavery in the Dutch colonial period, spanning from the 18th to the 19th century and that the aim is to testify to the fact that slavery is an integral part of Dutch history and not just a dark page that can simply be turned and forgotten about. How did this exhibition come together? And can you elaborate more on what do you think is its purpose?
I hope that the exhibition will raise a debate about the role slavery played within all layers of Dutch society. And that it will be a way to honor the enslaved people.
What we’re trying to evoke is awareness, never a sense of guilt. This is very important to emphasize. Awareness that slavery is something not that far from us, that it is part of our history, that the sugar Dutch bakers used until the 19th century came from plantations enslaved people worked at.
More in general, historical awareness of what this structural system based on violence, aggression, and de-humanization represented at the time.
To go back to your first question, we first started thinking about this exhibition in 2010.
2021 will be the 400-year anniversary of when the Dutch West India company was founded. In 2002, we made an exhibition titled “The Dutch Encounter with Asia 1600-1950”, and we thought of making a follow-up exhibition in 2021: “The Dutch encounter with America’s”. And, of course, slavery would have been an important part of it.
But then the museum’s director said: “Why don’t we dedicate the whole exhibition to slavery?”
“But how can we make an exhibition without objects?”, I thought. The enslaved people didn’t own anything.
The director challenged us to try it anyway, and that’s how we got started.
And, final question, what are other exhibitions you’d like to work on in the future?
I like the concept of “tolerance” and of the Netherlands as a “tolerant country”. But tolerance can also mean indifference: “I tolerate you because I can ignore you”. It’s almost like there’s a “practical tolerance” and an “ethical tolerance” and they are two quite different things. I’d like to work more on this twofold concept with an exhibition.
And of course, I want to keep working on all the other exhibitions, dedicated to more usual chapters of Dutch history.
Sometimes people ask me whether I feel negative about our Dutch national history but I say no, not at all. I’m very proud of the Netherlands and to be Dutch. It’s just that we have put some layers of varnish on our history and it’s time to remove them.
Credit header image: John Lewis Marshall for the Rijksmuseum
This article was originally published on Forbes.com
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Join us for the second of our Kinder Conversations - the Sky has a Limit.
Following our investigation into the Future of Meat in February, we've turned our attention to the sky. We'll be talking about whether air travel can be more sustainable, and how.
We're delighted to be hosting this event in collaboration with our friends at TQ, the Amsterdam tech hub where we're based.
📅 When Monday 17 June 18:30 - 20:30
📭 Where TQ, Singel 542, Amsterdam
🎯 Why should I fly Kinder? To hear about the latest research and technology making air travel more sustainable. To find out what you can do to reduce the impact your flights are having. To share a drink with like-minded travelers, and sample some of our vegan snacks (including beloved Professor Grunschnabel ice cream, as seen at the Future of Meat event)
Here at Kinder, we believe that greener travel is one of the key ways in which we can tackle the climate crisis. Travelling green can mean a lot of things, but right now we’re concerned about the aviation industry.
If aviation were a country, it’d be a top 10 polluter - and C02 emissions from air travel are growing many times faster than any other form. We’re already in a very dangerous position, and although there are many potential solutions, we sometimes feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what to do about it.
That’s where Kinder Conversations comes in.
Kinder Conversations is a series of events which delve into the biggest issues facing the world.
At the Sky has a Limit, we’ll be bringing together representatives from research and technology, the aviation industry and the not-for-profit sector to talk about sustainable air travel. We’ll hear more about the problem, and a lot more about the solutions.
Plus, there’ll be time to get a drink from TQ’s bar (buying a drink helps our friends from TQ support more events like this), try some vegan ice cream, and chat to fellow travellers about the steps you can take to travel greener.
✈️ Are you ready to #flykinder? Then secure your boarding pass here.
I don't have a driving license and when pressed about getting one by friends tired of chauffeuring me around I usually say I will only get one if I can drive something cool, like the Batmobile or a flying car. Unfortunately, I might have to honour that promise as it seems that flying cars are finally taking off (alas, no commercial Batmobiles in sight).
Indeed, several promising startups around the world are working to deliver the "car of the future" over the next few years. Like the Dutch company PAL-V that showed off a limited edition of its flying car at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland.
The PAL-V is a hybrid between a car and a helicopter (or more precisely, a gyrocopter), able to reach a top speed of 160 km/h on the tarmac but also get airborne in just 5 minutes, hitting airspeeds of 180 km/h over a range of up to 500 km. But since buying a PAL-V will set you back around € 350,000 I might have to pass on this one. Moreover, flying this beauty requires not just a driving license but also (understandably) a license to fly, and that's just too much for me.
Thankfully, other companies are developing vehicles that need no driver at all. Aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter, for example, is working on Nexus, an air taxi capable of taking off and landing in the middle of a city (whereas the PAL-V still needs a runway, albeit short, to get airborne).
Called VTOLs (short for Vertical Take Off and Landing), these aircraft aim to become sort of an Uber of urban air travel, bringing customers to the opposite part of the city or even to a nearby city in a matter of few minutes.
If you're at JFK airport in New York, for example, and have a meeting in Manhattan, instead of embarking on a 1-hour, Cosmopolis-style taxi ride, you could just hail a flying car and be downtown in 5 minutes.
Futuristic as it may sound, concrete plans to make it come true are underway. Earlier this month, German startup Lilium successfully completed the first test of its new five-seater Lilium Jet, an electric vehicle that, according to the company, will have a range of 300 km and a top speed of 300 km/h.
The reason electric flight is such an exciting area of research is not just because flying taxis will allow a handful of high rollers to drastically cut on their commuting time. Electric flying cars might be really good for the environment too.
A recent study published by Nature highlighted that, in some cases, flying cars could eventually be greener than even electric road cars, cutting emissions while reducing traffic on increasingly busy roads.
Moreover, developments in the field of flying cars could also boost the research on electric flight at large, including long haul electric flights, sort of the Holy Grail of aviation. And, as known, the civil aviation industry needs to find effective ways to lower its carbon emissions as soon as possible.
However, as explained by Hugh Hunt in an article on The Conversation that we republished here on Kinder World, "gaps in necessary technology and practical uncertainties beyond the cars’ promising physics mean that they may not arrive in time to be a large-scale solution to the energy crisis and congestion."
Let's get this one thing straight: most people prefer flying to other modes of transport, and we seem to do it more and more often. The airline industry is booming and 4.1 billion passengers have been transported last year. Almost every figure one looks at shows the impressive increase in flights over the last two decades.
Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Association for Flight Transport proclaims: “In 2000, the average citizen flew just once every 43 months. In 2017, the figure was once every 22 months. Flying has never been more accessible. And this is liberating people to explore more of our planet for work, leisure, and education. Aviation is the business of freedom."
However, this ‘business of freedom’ runs on fossil energy carriers as planes still almost exclusively fly on kerosene. Kerosene is a fuel produced by oil refining and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major product of burning kerosene. The 2-5% of all global CO2 emissions the aviation industry emits is caused by its fuel consumption (and choice). And unlike other fuels like diesel or gasoline, airlines don't pay taxes on kerosene in most countries — making cheap air travel possible.
In 2018 Europe’s biggest airline Ryanair became number 9 in the list of Europe’s biggest CO2 emitters and still claims to be the ‘greenest and cleanest airline’. Andrew Murphy – the aviation manager at the European Federation for Transport and Environment — argues that Ryanair the new coal when it comes to climate pollution. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, on the other hand, dismisses such claims by saying the claims are ‘’complete and utter rubbish’’.
Other airlines, like KLM who partly uses renewable jet-fuel, are acknowledging the problem but they aren't too far behind Ryanair on the list of emitters.
The growth of the industry is not expected to slow down. India and China are the biggest growth markets, the latter alone is building 200 new commercial airports in the next ten years. Moreover, industry forecasts suggest that emissions will rise by 700% until 2050 which amounts to more than 4% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.
If we want to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, every the average earthling has a quota of two tons of CO2 per annum but just a return trip between New York and Amsterdam generates three tons already.
Compared to other modes of transport planes are the biggest CO2 emitters per travelled kilometre followed by cars, buses and finally trains which are the least polluting. The CO2 emissions, however, are only one half of the medal. The impact of flying on global warming is different than most other transport as it happens in the air high above the ground where the processes that cause or reduce global warming happen. These include CO2 and nitrogen oxide emission but also cloud formation, ozone and soot as well as methane reduction.
The climate impact of the emitted greenhouse gases in the stratosphere are three times higher than on the ground. Flying also causes condensation trails and fog clouds in certain weather conditions. Such clouds can have a warming or a cooling effect on the climate. One way to improve the climate effect of flying would be planning better routes where warming clouds are avoided and the formation of cooling clouds is favoured — our current routes have an overall warming effect.
So, hypothetically, some flights with clever flight-route planning might even reduce global warming. However, as we don't have time to hypothesise, we need to find and urgently implement other ways to bring down the impact of flying, like using better fuels or even better planes.
This article was written by Eric Schuler for Kinder World. Schuler is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam and works on new industrial sustainable chemistries to turn captured CO2 into useful things such as plastics or fuel. He's also a photojournalist with an interest in climate and land-use change.