In the Netherlands, 400 museums showcased their collections during the country’s annual Museum Week. This year, the event – which was staged from April 19th to April 25th – was held online as a result of the pandemic. However, it was still able to promote Dutch museums of all sizes and to draw attention to some of the country’s more unusual museum pieces in what it referred to as its star objects. The 2021 iteration of the Netherlands’ Museum Week asked each institution that took part to highlight one particular artefact, hence the 400 star objects that constituted part of the online curation of the event.
This year’s overall theme was that of the concept of freedom, something that the Dutch Museum Week has championed in the past. Partly, the concept was supposed to reflect the lack of freedom of movement museum-goers currently enjoy while social distancing measures are in place. That said, the wide-ranging topic was interpreted in many different ways by the various institutions that took part. Some saw it as an opportunity to secure public access, albeit online, to what they regarded as the ‘true gold’ hidden within their collections. Others used the chance of the event to showcase paintings and other artworks which dealt with the idea of freedom more figuratively.
Chris Janssen, a spokesman for the Dutch museum association, said that the choice of freedom as a theme struck a chord with the public, especially in the Netherlands. “There are not that many countries which have the right to free cultural expression enshrined within their political constitution,” he said. “However, the Netherlands [is such a case]… and that is very special,” he added. Janssen went on to say that there is currently a lot of talk of bars and restaurants reopening in the press and among the public at large. “Nevertheless, people are pining for theatre, music and art, as well,” he said. According to Janssen, the chance to see 400 historic star objects drawn from museums across the country was a meaningful way for the public to realise how badly they miss exposure to such culture and the freedom to enjoy it.
Although the week-long online event undoubtedly presented Dutch people with an opportunity to enjoy their country’s rich culture online, it was not always as free as some had hoped it would be. Even before the pandemic struck, more and more museums and galleries in the Netherlands have been switching their business models to offer more online content. Much of this content is designed to be of a premium nature or to have been specially curated. Consequently, much of it needs to be paid for to access it.
The Mauritshuis, a government-run gallery in The Hague, had developed its Second Canvas app for people to be able to enjoy a high-definition gigapixel gallery a few years ago. The gallery – which houses many great masters, including Rembrandt and Vermeer, to name but two – decided to make its app freely available during the pandemic but it is still planning to make new content available on a subscription-only basis. How this will work is yet to be established but the 400 star object event gave the gallery the chance to sample public reaction to its offering both at home and abroad. According to a Mauritshuis spokesman, Boris de Munnick, their Second Canvas app has received 43,000 downloads domestically. However, its English language version was downloaded 31,000 times, suggesting there is also a significant international audience that is keen to sample what it has to offer.
Other Dutch museums are also planning more paid content on their websites and through apps. Some of the smaller ones were given the chance to try out how this might work during Museum Week. As Janssen explained, the online event included, “a pilot whereby museums and galleries can use our platform to offer premium content [that will be paid for].” According to the association’s spokesman, premium content must constitute something that is extraordinary and that would not be available to visitors without a fee. Janssen suggested that things like behind the scenes tours, guided gallery tours, lectures, or informal discussions with curators were the sorts of elements that would be appropriate for the pilot.
An example of the sort of institution that took up this opportunity was the Philips Museum. Through the Museum Week event, it piloted its offering of a live guided tour. This took in many of the highlights on offer in the museum which is devoted to the history of one of the most famous companies in the Netherlands. What made the tour out of the ordinary, however, was that it included an interactive element for people to pose questions and make comments. “The asking price [for this tour]… is modest,” Janssen claimed. Priced at just €5, few would disagree but some suggest that this could be the thin end of the wedge and some museums will inevitably end up pricing some potential digital visitors out.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.