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Bart Rutten: we need to keep a close eye on parents in the Miffy museum in particular

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'The spontaneous breeze should be planned at least 15 minutes in advance. After all, you have to buy tickets for a block of time. When you enter our venue, you immediately see all the security measures we have taken to protect staff and visitors. There are huge screens to separate the flow of visitors. There's a chance you won't get lost in our museum this time because the route is marked on the floor.'

Listen to the interview here

Bart Rutten, artistic director of Utrecht's Centraal Museum is in remarkably good spirits. The museum is open again, and that feels good: 'But let's also be honest, it varies quite a bit with the crowds. Sundays are always a bit busier, but those who used to hate all those large groups in the museum should really take their chances now. Some speak of an old-fashioned luxury, from the days when we were not so public-oriented and it was still a small group visiting the museum.'

You would almost forget it already, the quiet streets, the closed art buildings, now that everyone has the chance to indulge in all that beauty again. Yet life is not yet normal. Office staff still just work from home, for example. What was life like for Rutten, during the smart lockdown?

'Looking back, it's been quite a while. The Wednesday, before Friday the 13th, we thought we would just have an opening that Friday of the smaller exhibition 'The Sleeper Sofa that opened eyes', about the Martin Visser sofa. Everything was ready, but in two days there was suddenly this lockdown. I was absolutely sad that this public place, a place of the city, was suddenly closed.'

But he also saw something wonderful happening: 'When we were closed for a week, I already realised that it was going to last much longer. So we decided to run the whole programme for a quarter. Everything was postponed, and then it all had to be arranged with the lenders. The summer exhibition 'The Walled City' includes a couple of very big loans from abroad. Then the question is whether we can move those to 12 September. Behind the scenes, we were working full force to adapt to the demands of the time.'

And so there had to be a new routing of the public. That was a separate challenge: 'The museum consists of three different buildings tied together in a very complicated way. For the general public it doesn't make much difference, they mainly come for De Stallen and there the route is just straight ahead. However, a cloakroom has been added, as the one downstairs is only accessible via a narrow staircase. So as a result, we now have a manned cloakroom.'

And not only that. It also looks good, thinks Bart Rutten: "Of course it is a museum that had some challenges in terms of physical space, but let me first of all say that I have an insanely good team. That dealt with all the challenges very cleverly. Now I sometimes visit colleagues to see how they have solved it, and then I think: well, we have done a damn good job.

How then? 'We asked the architect who did the last renovation to think with us. He came up with a PVC-like material, between perspex and curtains, in a pretty bright orange colour. This is much more durable than perspex and also fireproof. As a result, it has become an intervention that is very visible, so you can clearly see that attention is being paid to your safety, and you can also see that it is a temporary solution, which could well last a bit longer.'

So temporarily permanent? 'I went to see how others had solved it, from post offices with strings from the suspended ceiling, with a wood, to full design applications. We are not quite at the top, but it is functional, beautiful and tightly organised. I am quite proud of that. There was even a traffic expert who cited us as an example of a museum that got it right.'

Of course, with many small halls, it is still difficult to maintain one-half meter occupancy. An usher in every venue? 'There are ushers at strategic points, they also walk around. That way you keep an eye on things from an overall view. The most important thing is counting at the door. People book in advance and only a limited number of people are allowed in. We do use timeslots for entry, but after that you can stay as long as you want. Although experience shows that after an hour and a half many people want to have a cup of coffee in the museum café or have lunch in the garden.'

That is almost as it normally goes, but there are exceptions, it turns out: 'That freedom just doesn't apply to the Miffy Museum. There we have a completely different strategy. That we really call visitors every other block to make room for the next block. At Miffy we are at a considerably lower maximum capacity, I think around 25 per cent. We also take into account that parents and toddlers are much more unpredictable. Parents always eagerly go after their own toddler.'

There is another way: 'At the Rietveld Schröder House, it is also unique. Anyone who has already been there once, I would almost recommend going to see it again now, because it has a very special setting: you are allowed to walk through it unaccompanied. You get an audio tour in pairs.'

Is the Central Museum ready for another wave?

'I think this is the reality as long as there is no vaccine. Then you have to constantly be able to scale up and scale down. We now know better what that means. The biggest uncertainty is the financial factor. We are in good shape, thanks to government support, so we can still parry this blow this year. If we go down structurally in visitor numbers, from the opulence of the past three years, with more than 350,000 visitors, to under 200,000 or maybe even less, it will have serious consequences.'

'Every week we now update the forecasts. We have wonderful dashboard budgets where we can turn the figures, to keep an overview. I hope we can weather this storm and that it is a temporary storm, which will eventually pass. So that it clears up for our museum. Precisely because we were doing so incredibly well in recent years. We were emphatically seen as a place. By Utrecht, but also by the rest of the country.'

There is now a different development: there is suddenly a very different, much younger audience inside: 'It's a pity we don't have much run-up from the rest of the country, because public transport is still discouraged. Regular museum visitors come by train. So when we're open now, it's not full either, because mainly the older audience is still looking at it.'

'Last Sunday, we had full day with lots of visitors, and our volunteers wrote in the daily report that they thought it was such a special time because there were so many young people in the museum. They get comments that people are amazed at how much fun they have. And of course they are. That younger generation normally has a full agenda with concerts in Paradiso and going out. Now they rely more on their own region, so we get newcomers lapping up what we have to offer.'

And then there is the city. Bart Rutten is proud of Utrecht: 'In Utrecht, the municipality intervened well when the crisis started. A weekly consultation was immediately set up with all colleagues and other stakeholders. We exchange experiences, share solutions. We consult with other art institutions, and perhaps very special exchanges will take place as a result. I can't say much about that yet, because it's all still in the discussion phase, but it could be very nice.'

'That cooperation, and that mutual openness, is unique for Utrecht. I worked in Amsterdam for a very long time before this, and that was different. The vibe of this city is very good. It's a pity the biggest party animal is leaving us now, and I'm talking about Mayor Jan van Zanen. He was very good for the city and for the atmosphere.'

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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