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Dutch museums protest COVID-19 lockdown

Visitors get fitness class at the Cobra Museum as museums and concert halls protest against Covid restrictions / Reuters

Several museums in the Netherlands temporarily turned themselves over to other roles in order to stay open despite public health rules. A number of museums in the country – as well as some theatres – decided that the rules the Dutch government introduced in the face of the omicron wave of the Covid-19 virus were unfair on the cultural sector. They pointed out that places like hair salons and gyms were allowed to stay open while galleries and live performance venues were forced to close. To protest against what they claimed were inconsistent coronavirus measures, they took the decision to alter their usual activities either allowing people in to have their hair cut or to work out.

The protest took place not following the introduction of new anti-coronavirus measures but as they relaxed. On 19th January, the government allowed some businesses, like hairdressers and fitness centres, to allow people back in. However, museums and theatres were told to remain shut. As a result, theatre managers, concert halls owners and museum directors got together and decided a symbolic reopening would make for a good demonstration that highlighted the issue. By altering its status, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, for example, opened its doors to people seeking a haircut. Meanwhile, the Frans Hals Museum, which is situated in Haarlem, ran a series of fitness classes.

A visitor gets his hair done at the Van Gogh Museum / Reuters

Lockdown Easements

Defending its decision, the Dutch government said that its plans to ease the country’s strict lockdown rules were taking place in a limited way despite infections reaching record-high levels. The reason given for the move was a drop in Covid-related deaths and admissions to intensive-care facilities. However, the government did not spell out why certain establishments could reopen while those in the cultural sector were left with no date as to when restrictions might be lifted.

In all, approximately 70 museums and concert halls across the Netherlands took part in the protest. Although many opened as temporary hair salons and gyms, some were converted into makeshift massage studious and beauty salons, too. A number of municipal mayors in the country said that they do not back the protest and refused to give permission for the rules to be bent, stating that they would enforce the measures despite their inconsistent application. For example, the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, warned any cultural institutions in the Dutch capital thinking of taking part that they could expect the authorities to take action if they opened their doors even under the guise of offering a different sort of service. Nijmegen’s mayor, Hubert Bruls, who is also the chair of the country’s Security Council, issued a similar statement as did elected officials in Utrecht, Eindhoven and the Hague, among others.

Van Gogh Museum became a nail bar / Reuters

Varied Services

Such statements did not stop many in the sector from registering their protest, however. Alongside the world-famous Van Gogh Museum, the Groninger Museum, which is usually an art museum, decided to open its doors as a gymnasium of the mind. It organised a graffiti workshop for people to attend in what could be seen as stretching the idea of a gym to its maximum extent. There again, the management team at the country’s Fries Museum in Leeuwarden decided they would reinvent themselves as a yoga studio. Indeed, yoga sessions were also on offer at Amsterdam’s funeral museum, known locally as Tot Zover. In Venlo, the Limburgs Museum also offered yoga classes as well as Zumba.

According to the Dutch press, the Netherlands’ Museum Association was the organisation that lay behind the cultural sector’s mass protests. It went on the record to say that it thought it made no sense for museums and other cultural institutions to remain closed when other business models were allowed to receive visits from paying customers again. The association issued a statement to say that, in terms of human movements, shops were much more significant for public health than museums. “The 450 museums [in the Netherlands]… bear no relation to the movements within physical stores,” it read. The group pointed out that there were around 85,000 shops and similar enterprises throughout the country, dwarfing the museum sector.

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