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A museum with impact. How museums can raise historical awareness and offer people comfort, perspective and connection

More than a million Dutch people feel very lonely, according to the Health monitor 2012. Among them are more and more young people - all social media notwithstanding. Perhaps we could stop this 'loneliness epidemic' if we realised that none of us is really alone. What we so often forget is that we are directly connected to thousands of others: the people who came before us. First and foremost, our own ancestors.

We are dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. We see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.Bernard de Chartres, recorded by John of Salisbury (1159)

Until I was about six years old, I felt a natural connection with everything that surrounded me: the people in the village, my house, the animals. Then this naturalness disappeared, along with belief in gnomes and St Nicholas. I hadn't inherited a sense of God, we were 'nothing' at home. What remained was a strong bond with the family, until I started to detach from that too and suddenly felt lonely, just like any other adolescent.

Free fall

When I was 16, in the midst of my own adolescent angst, I desperately asked my father what the meaning of existence was and why everyone didn't just end it. Not something a father wants to hear, of course, so he formulated his answer carefully. He understood that my questions stemmed from the feeling that every life is a free fall, that I was an accidentally created organism, present for a very short time on a random planet in the midst of millions of other planets.

What he told me was, "You are not alone. You are connected through an umbilical cord to your mother, and she to her mother, and she to her mother. You are a link in a long chain". I clearly remember that answer made me realise, for the first time since I had left the magical preschool world behind a decade earlier, that I am indeed one with the world. That comforting feeling has never completely left me again. When you look at your own existence with historical awareness, you realise that you are part of something bigger. That sensation enriches my life. It is the reason I work in a museum; I want others to share in this.

All family

We are all genetically linked to the people who lived before us. Following the logic that every human has two parents, at the time William of Orange was killed by Balthasar Gerards in 1584, there were 16,384 ancestors of everyone alive today, whose dna we carry within us. If you calculate back even further, each of us would even have 8.5 billion direct ancestors walking around in the year 1000. But of course that is impossible: in that year, depending on which authority you consult, there were 250 to 400 million people on the entire earth. So what these figures show is that we are all the product of inbreeding (for instance, my own grandparents were second cousins and therefore share the same ancestors), but also that we are all related to each other. And this is not limited to country borders or continents.

There goes on Facebook an impressive video around in which patriotic Englishmen, Kurds and Bengalis go on a 'dna Journey' and discover that they carry dna inside them from all corners of the globe. Seeing this movie, tears run down my cheeks every time, because it shows that culture, nationality and race are so much more fluid than most of us realise. What a difference it would make to mutual tolerance if we realised this more: we are all family.

Connecting window

Historical awareness emphasises our interconnectedness and puts the delusion of the day into perspective. How many young people realise that the relationship between Muslims and Christians here and now is to some extent similar to that of Dutch Jews and Christians 90 years ago, or even Protestants and Catholics 50 years ago? Who is aware of how much the (Middle) East and the West have not only fought but, more importantly, acted and culturally influenced each other over the past 2,000 years?

Rutte III's in itself laudable initiative to give everyone who turns 18 a book about the history of the Netherlands and to let all children visit the Rijksmuseum, seems, given the other proposed measures, such as singing the national anthem daily in schools, to aim at fanning patriotism rather than increasing historical knowledge. Here, history education is used to affirm one's own national identity and thus emphasise the apparent contradictions between cultures, whereas historical awareness offers a window into what unites us, par excellence.

Traces of the past

I grant more people the depth that awareness of the past brings me. The strongest connection to our ancestors is evoked when I find their traces. When I walk around an old city, for example. When I feel sad, I find comfort in the sight of a cathedral, knowing: so many people have worked on this, so many generations. For them, life is over, but we are connected. Heritage makes their presence tangible and reminds me that I am not alone.

As a heritage sector, we are therefore uniquely placed to give people a foothold in a turbulent world. This certainly applies to museums, where we manage the tangible traces of the past and tell the stories. We wholesale that which created Huizinga's famous 'historical sensation' and can be a source of perspective, connection and comfort.

Unlikely stories

Fibula in the Fries Museum

One of the Fries Museum's masterpieces is a seventh-century fibula, a cloak pin found by a farmhand in a meadow near the Frisian village of Wijnaldum in 1953. In this one object lie unlikely stories. It is a jewel full of minuscule details, made of gold and precious stones. It is made with such craftsmanship that goldsmiths today would struggle to achieve the same refined quality. While I, and many with me, never had the impression that people in the early Middle Ages were or could be more advanced in any field than we are today. It was the dark ages, wasn't it? This object questions the idea that everything always gets better and more.

I find it purifying that we are not necessarily at the peak of world history right now. For the jewellery, the Frisian goldsmith also used Celtic motifs, inlaid with gemstone that research five years ago showed to be almandine is from India. And a global trade network certainly does not fit the image I had of people living on a mound in Friesland 1400 years ago.

This example shows that the world has always been much more complex and less one-dimensional than we often assume. Within the right wing of the political spectrum, people sometimes seem to prefer to put a bell jar over our culture, while our past shows that there is no need to fear exchange. That it has always been there and always will be, that that is how cultures are formed. A broader worldview reduces fear of the unknown and increases confidence in the future, things that are quite useful these days.

The exhibition as an argument

Museums can use their wealth of traces of the past and their vast knowledge about it to open up unknown worlds. They can play an important role in fuelling historical awareness, offering people comfort, perspective and connection. But historical awareness does not come naturally. Huizinga was a historian and I myself have been excessively interested in history since early childhood.

To arouse the same sensation in people who have at best basic knowledge of history and a latent interest in heritage, a museum has to be of good character. Then, in its presentation policy, the main objective should not be the display of knowledge but the impact on visitors. While a Rembrandt exhibition might still touch visitors tremendously if you simply hang the masterpieces chronologically and highlight them beautifully, for a historical exhibition, interpretation is essential.

Unbearable

Too often, however, even in cultural history museums, the object takes centre stage, often surrounded by abundant factual information. In the case of the cloak pin, for instance, this would include dating, place, material, the method of manufacture, the circumstances of the find, a sketch of life at the time et cetera. But that plethora of, mostly new, information is impossible for a museum visitor to grasp, and therefore has low impact.

Wanting to be complete and objective often results in incomprehension and indifference among recipients
Wanting to be complete and objective often results in incomprehension and indifference among recipients. To give visitors an unforgettable experience or life changing provide insights, museums must dare to interpret, dare to take a stand. Building an exhibition not around a subject in all its facets, but from a specific angle. A point of view, translated into a personal and palpable story.

Many exhibitions are possible on any subject, the challenge lies in choosing one and to stick to it. Not making the exhibition about the fibula, but an exhibition so that the story can be grasped. For instance, the fibula could be a masterpiece in a presentation that states that the dark ages not at all dark were, or in an exhibition that argues that what we now consider Frisian culture is precisely the result of a weaving of international influences. The exhibition as an argument, so that what we want to convey really arrives.

Goosebumps

How that works in practice? A good example is the by the Royal British Columbia Museum in Canada developed, international travelling exhibition on the Titanic. The way the objects on display were retrieved from the bottom of the sea is rightly very controversial, but it was a strong exhibition. The big underlying idea of this exhibition was that 'Titanic is a story about class'. Every room and theme in the exhibition carried an argument within this argument.

Visitors were given a ticket as an entry ticket that had belonged to one of the original passengers. They experienced the exhibition from a first- or third-class perspective. Porcelain crockery from the sunken ship was on display with a letter from a first-class passenger writing about a wonderful night on the ship. It contrasted sharply with the wooden planks one ate from in third class. Whether it was about what people ate or where they slept, how the ship was put together or how children were entertained; always there was only one conclusion: Titanic is about class differences.

Visitors to this exhibition ten years later still remember exactly what the presentation was about. The memory of the moment they found out at the end of their visit whether 'their' passenger had survived the disaster still evokes goose bumps in them today.

Theatrical drama

For the Fries Museum's major exhibition last year on nineteenth-century Frisian-English painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema, we worked with the same methodology. The central thesis was: Alma-Tadema has shaped all of our images of classical antiquity. The exhibition became a resounding success with jubilant (inter)national reviews and awards.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What I found particularly extraordinary: neighbours and vague acquaintances who had visited the exhibition started telling me what the one was about. "Do you know, Femke, that Alma-Tadema is responsible for our image of antiquity?" I had never experienced anything like that in my 13-year museum career. That visitors didn't get stuck afterwards with: "I went to an exhibition on Alma-Tadema/ Rembrandt/ Vikings and it was beautiful/ wonderful/ not my taste". They really got it.

Crying

We have also built the Mata Hari exhibition now on display at the Fries Museum around one perspective. Visitors are invited to empathise with her, to immerse themselves in her dramatic fortunes and discover what choices this Frisian girl made at key moments in her life to eventually make it to 'spy of the century'. Mind you, everything in the exhibition is the result of research, the objects are authentic and all claims are substantiated. But the position chosen means that we do not go deeply into, say, the feminist context, the Parisian beau monde or the myth-making after her death. Had we done so, visitors in our halls would not be crying now.

Visitor in Mata Hari photo Ruben van Vliet

The result is an exhibition, not as a scientific work or documentary film, but as a historical novel or theatrical drama. Naturally based on facts, but with only those facts that relate to the story. So focus, so that people understand. To be touched. And remember it.

Happiness

Museums have the opportunity to make their visitors truly aware of the history under their feet. Museums can realise this potential if they set themselves this goal in their presentation policy: to raise historical awareness. So that people feel more rooted, know about their rich history, but also realise that in the end we are all newcomers, once having come here from elsewhere. Wouldn't that make us all a little prouder, a little more connected to others, a little less lonely and maybe a touch happier? We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We are not alone. What a wonderful idea.

Femke Haijtema

Femke Haijtema is originally a sociologist, but lost her heart to the museum world in 2004. After several years as a marketer at Museum Het Rembrandthuis and as head of marketing at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, she returned to her heitelân in 2011. In Leeuwarden, she is head of audiences and presentations at the Fries Museum and Ceramics Museum Princessehof. In 2016/17, Femke took part in the fourth batch of the Leadership in Culture course from Utrecht University and Kennisland, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.View Author posts

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