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Ethnological and Economical: on Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde and making the most of it

On 14 October 2013 I attended and evening organized by the association of friends of the National Museum of Ethnology (Vriendenvereniging van Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde). Speaker was Stijn Schoonderwoerd, director of the museum. He spoke of the career-route that lead to his current position. He's an economist with an interest in culture. This can be clearly noticed in his ideas on the running of his museum and the museum world in general.

Schoonderwoerd described a trip to Japan, where the museum recently had a travelling exhibition. Appearently, in Japan, it's the newspapers that organize travelling exhibitions. Over there, they think highly of Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, which has a large collection of Japanese prints. A few years ago in The Netherlands however, the ministry of culture put the museum on a list of museums that could be closed. Just like the Afrika Museum. Earlier this year the ministry of foreign affairs decided to cut fundings on KIT, the institute for the tropics that runs the very popular Tropenmuseum (museum on the tropics) in Amsterdam. There's a new plan to save all three museums; Schoonderwoerd reveiled that these ethnological museums will be merging into one organization, holding on to three visitor locations with their own identities.

Definition matters
Schoonderwoerd sees the museum as a creative work environment. In the cultural field, things are being created; museums create exhibitions. Museums compete with other ways of spending leasure time. He thinks this an interesting challenge. This competition is only getting stronger, since the leasure-market is growing. The number of museum visitors is growing too. But how long will that developement last?
Someone in the audience mentioned the research task museums have. According to Schoonderwoerd, only four museums in The Netherlands, amongst which the Volkenkundig, are still obliged and get funding to do research on their collections. Which makes me wonder what this means in relation to the ICOM definition of a museum, of which research is a part.

Schoonderwoerd thinks 'marktwerking' (letting the public decide on what they're willing to pay for something on offer and therefor whether or not these goods or services will be continued to be offered or will be taken off the market, vs. cultural institutes like museums being mostly dependant on government funding) in the cultural world is not such a bad thing. Until recently, the Volkenkundig got most of their income from government funding. It was a lot of money, when you compare it to the modest amount of visitors at that time. He thinks it good that this is reviewed critically.
The Volkenkundig has a good collection and international renown. It's not very well known in The Netherlands, however. The museum's research task isn't well known either. This was holding back sponsors.
They also didn't have a proper connection with groups in society. This limits social relevance. It's a museum for ethnicity, but pretty much everyone in the room was white. Roeland and I stood out for our young age, as 30-somethings. This illustrates the commonly noticable situation of active Dutch-born seniors being a very important group of consumers of culture. Depending on the subject of a museum, it can be hard to be relevant to people from several different backgrounds, and younger people don't have as much time to spend on culture as pensioners do.
Last but not least, one may wonder whether ethnological museums are still relevant in today's world. Asking that question might prompt people to question the right of existence of such museums. I think that they still are relevant; even though people travel a lot more now than they did when ethnological museums came to be, not everyone can afford to do so. The people that can, usually don't get to see every nook and cranny of the world. An ethnological museum can fill in the blank spots on their map, and, as was mentioned during the evening, introduce travellers to the cultures they're about to visit. For the people who can't travel (much), an ethnological museum can still offer an important way of getting familiar with other cultures. An ethnological museum also teaches about how our culture relates to other cultures, and how it did so in the past (not always in a good way, something from which we need to learn).

An accesible collection
96% of the museum's collection is stored at a depot in 's-Gravezande. The collection is fully digitized. But that doesn't automatically means easily accesible to the public. Schoonderwoerd spoke about giving priority of making these digital data attractive for the public above complete digitization. Complete digitization won't draw attention to the museum, thus enlarging its support base in society. Providing attractive forms of digital access to the collection will. The museum is also planning on showing objects in certain area's of the museum rooms in a way similar to that in which they are stored in depot. That will make a slightly larger part of the collection visible without costing too much effort. The focus of that area will be quantitative, not esthetical or informative. This makes me think about the depot behind glass I saw at Musée Quai Branly last summer. Schoonderwoerd also wants to have more temporary exhibitions. He hopes to utilize more of the collection's potential.

It all boils down to making yourself, as a museum, relevant to the public and making that relevance widely known. And to make the most of what you have. Spoken like a true economist. A good message. But I did leave with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Cutting back on funding isn't such a good thing, when that means that museums not only have to sack people, but can't afford to fill key positions when they open up. Having to do with a little less than before brings out a surge of creativity, I can agree with Schoonderwoerd to that degree. But too much cutting back can be harmful to the collection when there's not enough money ro take proper care of it, and can limit the possibilities of a museum to do things that appeal to a wider audience and that are relevant to society. Cutting a bit, here and there, carefully, giving the museums time to adapt and to find other sources of income, can be a good thing. But the combination of cut-backs and demands in the cultural world over the past years have made the knife into a blunt axe.
This guy is relatively new to the museum world, but it makes me wonder whether there are more people in there thinking like that. Museums shouldn't close their eyes to the negative effects too much cut-backs have on other museums that get a heavier beating, and let those museums take the hits, hoping that this keeps them out of danger. Because trust me, it won't. You might be next. Museums need to close ranks and work together, to make the most of their collections and enlarge their social relevance. Having each other's backs gives them a stronger position battling cut-backs they wouldn't survive. And the more social relevance, the less support for these cut-backs and the more the investment of government funding is worth it.

Geplaatst op 21-11-2013.
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