How do you get people to go to a museum when they are not particularly interested in doing so? Museums are always looking for new ways to attract a wider audience. From marketing campaigns to social media strategies, there are many different approaches. One museum has come up with an innovative idea to connect with more people. Frank Cornelissen is Deputy Director and Head of Commercial Activities at the Amsterdam Museum. At the MuseumNext Marketing Summit in February 2019, he explained their strategy.
The Amsterdam Museum
The Amsterdam Museum holds a collection that tells the story of Amsterdam’s history and culture. The city has a rich history as a prosperous trading post. Because of this, it was home to many artists and other important cultural figures. The city now holds a large collection of valuable works of art, consisting of around 80,000 objects. The Amsterdam museum has been managing this collection since 1925.
The museum owns several different buildings around the city. These hold various exhibitions and permanent displays. In 1975, the museum acquired the old city orphanage. This city centre building has been in use since the Middle Ages.
The Amsterdam Museum also runs the Willet-Holthuysen Museum. This building is on one of the most important canals in the city. The previous owners left the house and its collection to the city in 1895. Visitors can view the extensive collection inside the original period property. The museum runs a second canal house too, the Cromhout House. In addition to this, the Amsterdam Museum manages the Our Lord in the Attic Church. This is a hidden church in the centre of the red -light district, dating from 1663. Finally, they also run the Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age. Here visitors can see thirty enormous 17th century group portraits by Dutch masters.
What challenges does the museum face in reaching audiences?
The city of Amsterdam funds the museum. This means that it has a responsibility to reach and engage with as many locals as possible. This audience is very multicultural. There are around 182 different nationalities living in the city. For many of these people, visiting a museum is not something they would usually do.
One of the key challenges that the museum faces is geographical. The historic city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site. Building in the area is very restricted. The population of Amsterdam is rising, and more residential properties are being built. However, most of this development is happening outside of the city centre. For the museum, this means that a large proportion of their audience lives far away. Cornelissen also points out that the city centre is often very busy with tourists. Some locals prefer to avoid it altogether.
A new approach
The Amsterdam Museum realised that it needed to be where the people are. One of the goals of the museum was to connect with different neighbourhoods. It wanted to work on connecting with people outside of the main museum buildings. Cultural organisations are often keen to collaborate, to share and grow together. The museum used this to its advantage. Its strategy is to collaborate with local groups and institutions all over the city. Cornelissen explains that for this to be effective, the partnerships need to be flexible. They need to fit the neighbourhoods and work for them rather than being prescriptive.
One example is the museum’s collaboration with Modemuze, the platform for fashion and costume heritage. Along with several other museums, it worked to help Modemuze digitise its collection. It also wanted to find a physical site to display the collection. For this partnership, the group worked with the Amsterdam central public library. Items from the collection were combined with custom-made pieces created by students. These were put on display in a new exhibition in the middle of the library. Over 10,000 people a year use the central library, so this pop-up reached many visitors. This is an audience who like to engage with culture but who might not necessarily visit a museum.
Amsterdam South East is a vibrant area of the city, which draws a comparison with New York’s Brooklyn. It is colourful and eclectic. Here, the Amsterdam Museum partnered with the Open Spaces Contemporary Art Museum. This organisation works in quite a non-traditional way for a museum. This partnership encompasses many aspects, including education, fundraising and marketing. Their projects have included multicultural perspectives from local artists. They have also trained young people with intellectual disabilities to be tour guides. This collaboration allows the museum to have a presence in a neighbourhood where they don’t have a physical building. It also gives them a chance to give back to that community.
Collections for the people
Another part of the city where the museum is working to reach people is Amsterdam North. The storage centre holding much of the city’s collection is already located here. It was not originally designed to be a public building. The area, on the former port of Amsterdam, was quite empty when the building was first created. In recent years, more and more residential buildings have moved into the area. The museum is now working with local organisations to open the building up for local people. It is inviting them in for tours and presentations. It also invites collectors in to come and speak. The space now hosts around 150 groups a year, and the museum intends to grow this programme further. The message is that the city owns the collection, and therefore it belongs to the people. An interactive piece spells out the word “Van Ons”, meaning “Ours”. Every visitor gets to take one of the small yellow rings that form this piece home with them.
Highlighting people’s voices
Amsterdam New West is a part of the city that is growing fast. Cornelissen explains that this area has a low rate of cultural participation. In this example, the museum collaborated with over a dozen local partners. These organisations all wanted to reach out to this section of the population. They developed a project called The Women of Nieuw-West. It documented the stories of the women living in the neighbourhood. The exhibition was displayed in public libraries and community centres throughout the neighbourhood. During the project, the museum spoke to local people and found that they were reluctant to visit a traditional museum. Instead, the work was displayed in places they would feel more comfortable visiting.
Cornelissen points out that true collaboration is a two-way street. The museum was keen to take something back from the neighbourhoods they had worked with into the central museums. It wanted to show people that their voices have a place in these cultural institutions.
The Amsterdam museum has hosted several collaborative events in its central building. For example, it runs a project every year with an organisation that works with aspiring young creatives. The project gives two artists an opportunity to show their work in the museum. The artists plan their own opening, making the event reflect their own voice. The museum has gone on to buy many of these pieces.
The museum also collaborates with the LGBTQ+ community. It ran an exhibition called Transmission, giving the trans community a mainstream platform. It also runs a week-long event each year called the Shakespeare Club. This is a series of lectures, tours and activities coinciding with Pride Amsterdam.
Other projects include Voices of Tolerance. This is an educational programme run with local high school students. It investigates the concept of tolerance. The museum also runs a project called New Narratives. Cornelissen says that “there are many more perspectives than there are museum curators.” Amsterdam Museum tackles this by working with volunteer guides from different parts of the community. These guides are able to look at the collection from new perspectives. It opens up different narratives and helps to make people feel that they are a part of the city’s story.
An increase in visitors
The Amsterdam Museum started this strategy of collaboration in 2016. Cornelissen is positive about the impact it has had so far. The museum is aiming to work on more partnerships in the future. In 2015, 13% of the museum’s visitors were residents of Amsterdam. This rose to 15% in 2016 and 17% in 2017. These figures show a steady increase in local residents visiting the museum. For a museum that is funded by the city, this connection with the residents is vital.
About the author – Charlotte Coates
Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.