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Home » About us » Reading Material » Part 2: Dutch Golden Age vs. Seventeenth Century the Debate

Part 2: Dutch Golden Age vs. Seventeenth Century the Debate

Black and White Instagram Photo during research for this lecture

Instagram post during researching this lecture series. Photo Tascha Sciarone

Twenty first Century

The debate between using Dutch Golden Age or Seventeenth-Century context is sketched in the first part. There we looked at how museums and national identity around the period of the Dutch Golden Age grew from political action in the Nineteenth Century. We mapped 200 years of museum and politics surrounding The Dutch Golden Age. And also highlighted individuals emotional connection to the term Dutch Golden Age. As the objects framed from this period is also deeply intertwined with a sense of Dutch identity, pride and personal enjoyment of seeing these objects. Museums are spaces where these objects are displayed and unpacked. And this lecture does not unpack the individual cultural objects from the Dutch Golden Age but unpacks how these objects are framed, presented and consumed.

In the previous post, the anthropologists Kaplan wrote that museums in the twenty-first century try to find a balance between national interests and the preservation of cultural heritage. Regardless of who is at the helm of power. International museum organizations (such as the International Council of Museums), museum professionals and academics monitor this balance (Kaplan, 2013). 

Museum no longer represents a nation-state in the same way as the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. Museums still play a very important role in the development of national identity. But as secular spaces of struggle and representation. Various identities can be defined and redefined within the space of the museum. Anthropologists, philosophers, historians, political scientists and sociology have started to look at their disciplines to investigate the role of a museum in today's society. From these diverse disciplines, we look at how political roles and policy have an impact on museums exhibitions. And how these exhibitions frame gender, ethnicity and class.

Debate in brief

The biggest problem with the term Golden Age is that it is glorifying that only after the elitist society and do not reflect on the larger whole. It was an extraordinary time for men to rise in wealth during the extreme class hierarchy period. Merchants became as rich as kings. There is a shift of power in social society. That power shift is what we are most attracted to at the time. However, the larger public was not nearly as healthy and wealthy as the gilded name suggests. It is a too-narrow definition for the entirety of development of the Seventeenth Century. The term also has too many nineteenth-century connections to outdated ideas on gender, class, race and identity. We are examining power relationships anew in this debate by focusing on new margins rather than power. All the debate asks, is to open up how we present and describe objects from this time. The examining of previous narratives is reflexive of the time we are living in. Reflexive meaning that we look at all elements are linked together and what that means for our cultural object so that the viewer can be more aware and evaluative relation to oneself and one's contexts.
With the big Blockbuster media hype behind all things, Rembrandt and the Golden Age in 2019 was the perfect moment for other museums to critically position themselves. There was enough media attention for this debate. The debate that started in the 1950s already.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte during a press conference after the weekly Council of Ministers. © ANP / Lex van Lieshout

Prime Minister Mark Rutte during a press conference after the weekly Council of Ministers. © ANP / Lex van Lieshout

This debate Dutch Golden Age versus the Seventeenth Century has been an ongoing development since the 1950s. The 1950s is also the period we stopped at Part 1. In The Netherlands, the debate took front stage in September 2019.  Amsterdam Museum announced they were renouncing the term Dutch Golden Age in their museum use. The Rijksmuseummany media outlets and the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, responded. Rutte said he liked the term and was proud of it. How could he as the figurehead of the state postulate anything else? The Rijksmuseum does not want to get rid of the term because they do not want to whitewash history. That is a reflexive approach for museums to include the history of the use and terminology associated with their collections. On the Rijksmuseum website, the collection is called the Seventeenth Century Collection. The Amsterdam Museum wants to eliminate the term within their institute, to represent their research frameworks better.

Museums a safe space

Tascha Sciarone during Dutch Golden Age Lecture in an exhibition room "Dorp in Oorlog" a 75 year commemorative exhibition about Voorschoten during the WWII

Tascha Sciarone during Dutch Golden Age Lecture on 13 February 2020 in an exhibition room "Dorp in Oorlog" a 75 year commemorative exhibition about Voorschoten during the WWII, serves as the lecture hall. Photograph by Emiel Legger

We see that the debate around the Dutch Golden Age/Seventeenth Century attracted various opinions and statements from a wide variety of society. This debate is played out in museums and exhibitions. A discussion that has been in play far longer ago than September 2019. Museums have become safe places for difficult social issues on identity can be renegotiated concluded Rosmarie Beier-de Haan in "Restaging Histories and Identities". Beier-de Haan is head of collection management and curator at the Berlin Historical Museum and emirate professor of Modern History at the Institute of History and Art History at the Technical University in Berlin. She is on the board of ICOM, ICOM Germany, and the Network of European Museums. Her expertise is in the history of culture and mentality. Beier-de Haan makes it clear that how we represent history reflects as much of the now as it is of the past (Beier-de Haan, 2006). How we exhibit cultural objects from the Dutch Golden Age and how we frame exhibitions tells us about our current society as it exhibits objects from the past.

Through Beier-de Haan we get a better picture that museums focus on micro-histories in exhibitions and not just the broad socio, the economic, and political context of the time (Beier-de Haan, 2006). Crystal clear definition about class, gender and social history has been imperfect since the last century's seventies. More attention is paid to the individual, a side effect of seventeenth-century Enlightenment thinkers. It has only taken nearly three centuries for this to trickle down to the general population.

 

Future of Museums at Play

Why are museums spaces where complex debates around nationhood, identity, class, gender and race are discussed? That has to do with the extreme critique museum faced during the second half of the twentieth century. Museums had to position themselves as serving the greater good, after a long period of "museum bashing"—a period where museums were critiqued of being colonial, racist, sexist, and evil institutions. Museum had to prove that they did not continue with the trajectory they started in the early nineteenth century. The twenty-first century brings new challenges alongside ongoing challenges. It is up to museums, academics and other professionals to deal with their management objects in an ethical, social and responsible manner.

Visitors

One way to find a solution is to ask: who are the visitors? This lecture is also prepared based on who will come, and that is based on the demographics of Voorschoten and active Museum Voorschoten visitors. I will not discuss the importance of representation and diversity in this lecture, but what this debate means to you and how it best serves this type of visitor. This means that I do not address other people again, choosing to exclude a different audience in my thesis framework. Here are some excellent articles on diversity and historicity. Objectivity is found in choosing an audience and addressing their profile for educational purposes or feeding into their expectations. When thinking of your visitors, you will always embrace one type and exclude another, and it is about finding balance. Museums continuously have to make this choice. Indeed, people with economic and social power can often exercise the most influence on what objects are seen and what exhibitions are made.

This balancing of power is an ethical problem that Museums must continuously deal with. Now we will unpack why history and identity should always be repackaged. Then the ethical dilemmas museums always deal with when it comes to choosing a "visitor" type. Rosemarie Beier-de Haan will help us look at the context and pitfalls of the audience. And then Eilean Hooper-Greenhill will show us the pitfalls of persistently sticking to existing formulas that attract large groups and interest. Coupled with the positive effects both have in looking at art and identity.

Museums put a lot of thought into their visitor's profile. Beier-de Haan argues that since 1980 exhibition culture has changed that exhibitions cannot be a scientific presentation of an objective world view (Beier-de Haan, 2006). Visitors or individuals have a self-styled and distinctive perception of history and themselves in the world. As a result, museum professionals need to make critical considerations. Beier- de Haan lists these questions "Who owns the past? What gives me the authority to speak for others? Who do I include and who do I exclude? Whose memories are privileged, whose fall by the wayside? How can I generalize without ignoring? How can I mediate between personal memories and the general interpretation of the past?". Asking these questions and making decisions leads to two types of exhibitions.

 

 The reflexive exhibition and the blockbuster.

 The reflexive exhibition and the blockbuster

Reflexive exhibitions

These are the question academics, and museum professionals must ask of themselves and the questions that museum visitors should consider when visiting an exhibition. We museum, then there is also an unspoken expectation that visitors will also see identity in relation to the objects. It is always assumed a subjective relationship to the items and exhibition.
Exhibitions are often seen a moment to enjoy, but also a moment to learn. There is a variety of narrative, and that takes a lot of contemplation. Museums expect their visitors to organize the objects concerning themselves and to internalize a message. For example, I visited a World Press Photo exhibition in Italy on holiday. I knew the institution behind the framework, but knew nothing of the exhibition theme or the submitted photos. I walked in with my partner. We strolled through beautiful, haunting and novel images in a run-down old cathedral. Three quarters through there was a series of pictures of a Romani family taken over the years. And as this photos series unfolds, I was confronted with my problematic view on Romanies or otherwise known as the nomad Indo-Aryan ethnic group. I didn't even know that I had very racist thoughts about Romanies until I was confronted with humanity in an exhibition. I have been consuming unflattering stereotypes in bits and pieces about them since childhood, through books, media and comments from people. As a result, my internal knowledge about Indo-Aryan ethnic group was never critically examined. I never came in contact with Romani, so I internalized negative stereotypes for more than twenty years. It was only at this exhibition that I started to confront my thoughts and update them to my moral ideals about people and groups. Not that my thoughts ever expressed themselves in deeds or words, but it did manifest in apathy. That is also dangerous, being utterly indifferent to a large group of people and the daily hardship they face, which is in large part due to the ongoing stereotypes we hold. Those unaddressed negative stereotypes rob people of their humanity.

This exhibition made me stop, critically evaluate my understanding of the world. Did anything outward change? No, but I critically reordered my thoughts and re-evaluated my stance. It was a moment of growth, that will better serve me to help others grow and release me of my apathy. Art and exhibitions have this power to present ways we can experience and engage in life long learning.

On the opposite side of in-depth exhibitions, you have The Blockbuster.

Blockbusters

Photo of the the front of an commercial attachment to national paper NRC by the marketing company NTBC Holland Marketing for the Dutch Tourism Board. Exhibitions centered around the Dutch Golden Age (theme) or Rembrandt (artist) is a form of Blockbuster exhibitions. This campaign is to drive tourism and the economy. 

Blockbusters are heavily marketed in the same way as a film or a large event. This exhibition can be seen everywhere in the newspaper and billboards. The exhibition that everyone gets what she wants, an uncomplicated yet spectacular neat presentation. Blockbusters are often created with older art. You attract large groups of people with well-known artists or themes. With this, you get everyone in the door. Museums attract a large audience, and people enjoy cultural heritage. It seems like a win-win situation. I say it sounds like the right way of democratising of a cultural object. Except it is part of the commercialisation of the art market. Furthermore, it packages cultural items in an uncomplicated sanitised version of history that continues a patriarchal and western view of the world. 

 

 

Blockbusters exhibitions, bring in large groups of people into the museum and therefore money, which would mean that Museums are less financially dependent and reach a broad audience. However, Eilean Cooper Greenhill, Professor Emeritus in Museum Studies, makes many counterpoints about the Blockbuster or exhibitions based on a large audience in her work, "Audiences: a Curatorial Dilemma" (Cooper Greenhill, 1994). Hooper-Greenhill has already written a lot about museums and visitors. She is also the driving force behind many books about museum studies. Hooper-Greenhill has been named one of the top ten leading people in museums in the United Kingdom, as chosen by her colleagues by The Independent (September 29, 2002: 7). She was the Research Center for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) founder from 1999 - 2006. RCMG was created to develop research into museums, education and learning.

 

Hooper-Greenhill describes blockbuster exhibitions as giving visitors exactly what they expect—like, for example, using the term Dutch Golden Age without questioning it, which results in the following three pitfalls.

  1. Dutch Museums are still old-fashioned nationalist propaganda machines that offer a mythical refined image of a heterogeneous Dutchman. We have seen that it is a century-old criticism and outdated vision of society is alienating.
  2. Ultimately, the visitor is reduced to a number and how much money can be milked from the visit. Experience and education are not paramount; these are side issues to earning (back) the exhibition and operational costs.
  3. And last but not least, the Dutchman is portrayed in an uncomplicated heterogeneous identity that looks more like a caricature. Giving the visitor exactly what they want, without questioning the framework, eventually destroys the very identity people wanted to protect. Dutch culture will ultimately be packaged for the tourist (with money) and no longer for the Dutch. An uncomplicated one-sided image.

These are three controversial statements. You don't always reach people with that. Their perspective has a different motivation (politics and power), but more often, it has to do with not being used to a different presentation style or framing. Readjusting and re-evaluating other narratives costs a lot of extra energy and research to process and enjoy. Or you may be confronted that you are not the intended audience. That may be temporary, or it might be a long term effect of continuous decisions that have set the foundations—ultimately alienating cultural objects from our current society.

 

Museums and academics often solve the pitfalls and positive points of the two types of exhibitions by organising a combination of exhibitions. A smaller reflexive exhibition next to a Blockbuster. Or reflexively language use or side project attached to the Blockbuster with the help of academics and/or artists. Or perhaps a critical exhibition at a different location at the same time as a controversial exhibition. They may be hosted by a gallery, another museum, or an artist initiative. This way, they offer something to everyone. That also ensures for returning visitors in the long run. Cultural objects can be continuously reframed into new contexts and understandings. It also provides that cultural objects do not become stagnant to the point of becoming an out of touch cultural object only marketed to non-Dutch. 

 

Marketing Dutch culture as a tourist attraction is exactly what happened in 2019 around the Rembrandt and Dutch Golden Age exhibitions. The visitor results in continuous interaction with different perspectives around cultural objects, which results in more enjoyment. The Dutch Golden Age/Seventeenth Century Debate allows for depth, nuance and new exhibitions on cultural heritage. This keeps cultural heritage relevant and promotes lifelong learning and, most importantly, from the cultural objects becoming static symbols forgotten by irrelevance. So that they do not need to be packaged for the tourist and their expectations, but continue to reflect Dutch identity and heritage as framed by the Dutch themselves. The Dutch in its multiplicity. Not a mythical Dutch caricature.

 

Thoughts to end by: A Conclusion

Does the Dutch Golden Age/Seventeenth Century debate demand that one or the other term disappear? No, the debate itself is an enrichment for our cultural heritage as well as for society. When art stops being relevant to our current society when we can no longer find new information or experiences in our interaction with an art object, that is the moment the art objects starts to fade from our collective conscious.

The Lecture

Its been almost a week after the lecture. I have cried a lot from all the solicited and unsolicited feedback. It's been exhausting, and I have had some museum input, my academic peers and friends.

 

A big part of the upheaval was expectations management. People did not expect such a dry academic context. They wanted to see the pictures; they wanted more pictures. They wanted the paintings explained, laid bare. They wanted a story. They wanted a blockbuster. People from the first post responded that the description of the lecture created this expectation. I gave my audience no paintings, very few pictures, and above that, I gave them an academic talk, they felt no connection with.

 

People also called the museum that I was incoherent and underprepared, and they could not follow what I was saying. Not understanding me might have as much to do with what I was saying, as to how much. My Afrikaans mother tongue's influence on my Dutch pronunciation often also takes a bit to get used to. But even before I gave this lecture, I was grappling with this problem; how do I extract myself from the depth of my knowledge and ideas of social justice to someone not at home in the material. How can I take them in this lecture of an hour on the same journey that has been brewing in my life over 15 years? My aunt Christel Sciarone, who used to teach math at the University of Johannesburg, gave me this advice:

 

When you have satisfied yourself in your research, cut it by half. It is way too much information for someone new to the material to handle.

 

Sadly, I did not use her advice and had a four-act lecture. When two was the maximum, I should have offered. I have taken out the third and fourth act of the lecture in this post. In the speech, I continued with questions of ethics, money, power. I was confronting them with a list of eleven exhibitions centred around the Dutch Golden Age in 2020, throughout The Netherlands. Asking them to analyse these exhibitions with the information they got from me the last hour and then forging ahead with a list of recommendations to enjoy museums' cultural objects, regardless of exhibition framing. Instead, I should have spent more time explaining what I meant with power and how power manifests socially, economically, historically, politically, military. And how power and privilege relate to the specific lives of my audience. I used Elisabeth de Biévre in the first part about enjoyment, and she also spent a large chunk of her writing on her reader understanding power. These extrapolations would have been a better addition. Instead, I left them lost with terms they did not fully understand and took offence to. It was too much. My museum peers had no trouble keeping up with these terms, but I had failed the core demographic. I was leaving them lost and confused and angry.

 

I wanted to give them context, benefits analysis, ethics, and tools to approach the Golden Age/Seventeenth Century debate. To provide them with insight into a more extensive academic debate spanning over centuries that influence the context of cultural objects in The Netherlands. To have people ask and answer questions they had not thought about before. They wanted paintings, and that is the beauty of this debate playing in museums. One painting can be ease people into this more extensive century-spanning debate. The audience wished to the Dutch Golden Age, and I gave them too much information that they did not want or knew what to do with it—also critiquing their knowledge and identity—eliciting a lot of strong emotions.

 

The museum said my lecture did not make the audience feel happy with their visit to the museum and that this what a threat to the integrity of the museum. When preparing this, I did not expect the emotional backlash during the lecture or the complaints and cried after the board member listed the museum's complaints. As some of it seems to be inherent in the subject matter that this debate evokes anger, which is often a secondary response to hurt. The repercussions are; the lecture series has been cut from six to three lectures. All lectures have to be presented to the board before being given. One of the ladies who would give a lecture pulled out, not because of me, but because of the audience. 

 

Half of these angry callers did say that they learned something and it got them thinking. And that was my main goal. It always had been. I have distanced myself from the academic writings about Africa and African museums. As a white academic, I have listened to my African peers. They want space to further their academic papers, legacies and their cultural institutions. They do not get space when white academic and writers postulate themselves as experts on Africa and African cultural heritage. So I write from my privilege and enter white spaces to talk about race, gender, class and privilege. And when given the chance of having difficult conversations through this lecture. The audience did not sign up for this emotionally taxing lecture. I did. 

 

I am not yet good at empathising with a Dutch audience and still have to learn how to give lectures better.

 

Love, 

Tascha

A novice at connecting with an audience.

Used to a solitary academic tower

and safe spaces talking to individuals 

about  difficult issues 

Grainy Black and White Zoom in of Art Historian Tascha Sciarone during a lecture.

UPDATED: 7 July 2020. Used the racial slur for Indo-Aryan ethnic group multiple times in my text, without thought. Was confronted with my own ignorance in a TikTok video two weeks ago. A cosplayer came on my For You page and had a seven second video educating other cosplayers on dressing as Esmerelda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

As well as some spelling mistakes.

UPDATED: 26 December 2020. Grammar. Spelling. Clarity.


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