Interview with Laura van Hasselt about Amsterdam DNA exhibition

Monday, December 22, 2014

Laura van Hasselt, curator at Amsterdam museum, has talked about the process of creation of Amstedam DNA exhibition, about the essence of it and shared her opinion about why such projects are important for museums.

Laura van Hasselt, curator at Amsterdam museum, has talked about the process of creation of Amsterdam DNA exhibition, about the essence of it and shared her opinion about why such projects are important for museums. 

Daria Kravchuk: How did the museum came to the idea of making this exhibition and which kind of research was made beforehand?

Laura van Hasselt: The initial idea came from Paul Spies, our director, who became a director 5 years ago. He wanted to offer something for tourists, who didn’t have a lot of time, who were interested but were here only for short time. So that means that offering people something that is short in size, but meaningful. That’s how we decided to split up the permanent exposition into one short tour and a part for a more in depth visit, which will be renewed in years to come. Amsterdam DNA was mainly made for international tourists, who in a very short time want to know about the history of the city, character of the city. Immediately technic came in, because if the main target group is international, that means different languages. We’re always doing everything in 2 languages, Dutch and English. But in this case we wanted more, we wanted to be welcoming to people from everywhere. The most important factual information about the history of Amsterdam was transformed into several very short films. And voiceovers in 10 different languages were made. It has a big advantage of not putting 10 texts on the wall. Image and sound always add so much to words. But how do you put 10 voiceovers to one film? We needed some technique with which everyone could easily find their own language. That’s how we start the exhibition - with a leaflet in which you can find the basic very short information on the exhibition, but there is also a QR code on the front. We made it in 10 languages: Dutch, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Italian. And with this QR code you can scan your leaflet, the film will start in your language. This is the technique we’re using to reach international audience, which we so far find very successful. It’s more welcoming and you make it easier for people to look. That’s what you really want people to do in the museum – to look. But also to understand, what you’re looking at. These films help to place all the objects in the context. Some of the objects are very important art historical works, but some are just history, like an old shoe. We always try to find balance between history and art, like I think in most city museums.

© Richard de Bruijn, courtesy Amsterdam Museum

DK: How long did it take to make the whole research for the exhibition?

LvH: I think all in all about 2 years.

DK: Who were the participants of the research: mainly the team of the Amsterdam museum, or there were some other specialists?

LvH: For the content it was mainly the team of the Amsterdam museum. My colleague Norbert Middelkoop is an art historian. He and I, together with the director, were responsible for the content. But we have an honorary curator, Piet de Rooij, who used to be professor at University of Amsterdam. He advised us. And practically we did all these films for instance with an external company, who specializes in animation. Also there was an education specialist. She really helped. Sometimes someone has to say stop, to say that it goes too much into detail. In this case it was extremely important, because we have set ourselves the limit – 1000 years of history in 45 minutes. How do you do this? But constantly limiting yourself, by making really difficult choices, what to show and what not to show, because we have a big collection of 90 000 objects. And we knew that we could only place a fraction.

© Richard de Bruijn, courtesy Amsterdam Museum

We wanted to tell a big story in a short time for people, who don’t know a lot yet. You can’t expect the first time visitors to know about our religious revolutions or some specific names. So we really had to go to the core, to choose what is necessary. For example, the Second World war. Some museums in Holland are just about the war. In this exhibition we have about 16 sq meters devoted to it. So we thought that if we have to choose one thing which people should know about the Second World war in Amsterdam, is that 3 quarters of Jewish population was taken away and murdered. This doesn’t mean that there were not other million stories to tell about this period. But we tried to focus on the major ones and to show very few but very meaningful objects.

We thought it’s a way of making people think. It’s not the answer, but what we said was when we were looking at history of this thousand years, things were going really well for Amsterdam at some points. When the four characteristics, civic virtue, freedom of thought, creativity, spirit of enterprise, are evidently there, things go well for Amsterdam. They might be are our ideal DNA. In the exhibition you can find little reminders about DNA. Objects from the collection are part of short films. Films make the objects more meaningful. We start every film with an object, which is placed nearby.

Also in the exhibition we have a timeline, which also refers to other places in the world. We really focus a lot on Amsterdam, but we didn’t want people to forget that we’re part of the bigger world.

© Richard de Bruijn, courtesy Amsterdam Museum

There’s another part of the multimedia, it can be scanned as well. We’re working on a new system, which will be more precise, than scanning QR code. In every room you can choose a picture from 4 images, the one that irrationally appeals to you. We have attached one of these 4 DNA characteristics to each 4 of the clique moments. So that at the end of the exhibition you will get the result, connected with either of the characteristic. And we will recommend you to take a city walk on this theme. We have made 4 city walks, which will bring you to the places, which in some way will have something to do with creativity, or freedom of thought, etc. But the difficulty of this program is that it needs explanation to some people. This is a bit more complex.

Sometimes old-fashioned ways of interacting are as good as new technologies. For example, in DNA exhibition there is a part where you can recognize different smells. It’s nothing digital. It’s about our East-India company, about how in 17th century all these exotic products were transported in Netherlands.

There is an installation made with very old technique called “Pepper’s ghost”. It’s a very old technique used by the first illusionists. It’s a projection through the glass. Because of the glass, there is a reflection. It’s like if you see these people who were filmed, walking on a real landscape. And this we did on the Amsterdam slave plantations in Surinam. It’s a very important subject. Amsterdamers were big slave traders, which is not very convenient topic to talk about, because we prefer to talk about our Golden Age. So we thought it’s very important to include these theme. But we didn’t have very important objects, which could have helped to tell the story. In case like that it can be really useful to use a technique, which draws people to it. We notice, that there’re always people watching it.

© Richard de Bruijn, courtesy Amsterdam Museum

In the next part of the exhibition we wanted to talk about the French occupation of Amsterdam from 1795. And it’s mixed message, because French have brought us ideas on equality and for instance our first constitution. But also they were occupiers. They completely emptied the treasury. And after the French left, Amsterdam was very poor. So it’s a mixed message too. But to go back to the first thing, they also introduced standard measures all over Europe. In the DNA exhibition you can try to guess if you know how long the meter is. You have to place your hand where you think it’s the mark of the meter. It’s another technique we use in order to involve people in the museum activities.

Nearly everything you see in the DNA exhibition is from the collection of Amsterdam museum. We got few long-term loans.

We are using the painting of the building site from 19 hundred for the film about how the city was growing. It’s a very good work of art by one of our most important painters. Sometimes art historians think that it’s not respectful to use a painting like this to tell the historical story.

In the exposition we have a bicycle. When you start to pedal, you can see the film about Amsterdam, like you’re biking through the city in the modern times. But when you click the bell, you go back to 1920s.

In the last room of Amsterdam DNA we tried to do the impossible – to describe the whole period from 1945 till now. There are several small screens with the films on major happenings. And there is the information about drugs. We needed to include it, because people sometimes come up with strange ideas about drugs in Amsterdam, so we needed to explain people more about the drug policy. 

400 films of one minute: A peek behind the facade of Amsterdam's canal houses - watch here.

More information about the Amsterdam DNA exhibition is here.

The interview was first featured in the Russian magazine Mart

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Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

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