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Creating an Online Community

30 mei 2022
Door: errol boon

Interview with Annemarie de Wildt and Errol Boon

Published on Technology and Culture

 

We asked Amsterdam Museum curators Annemarie de Wildt and Errol Boon to reflect on the making of the virtual crowd-curated Corona in the City exhibition. The exhibit invited the public to participate in the live documentation of everyday life during the pandemic. To allow documentation of current events, curatorial authority was shared with the public. Although they see advantages in the new forms and modes of communication that the museum discovered and experimented with during the crisis, they both look forward to working with people physically in the future. They argue that while the new museum has been perhaps more responsive, the digital needs to be paired with a physical space where people meet. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. —

Please tell us briefly about your background.

Annemarie de Wildt (AdW): I trained as a historian. I have been a curator at Amsterdam Museum since 1995 and involved in the many changes at the museum, including technology: switching from analog to digital to achieve the museum’s first online presence, then website stories. Amsterdam Museum was the first Dutch museum to produce a storytelling platform in 2003. That leading platform on one of the city’s neighborhoods still exists—The Memory of East [Amsterdam] (Het Geheugen van Oost)—and now forms part of The Memory of Amsterdam (Het Geheugen van Amsterdam), an online platform.1
Errol Boon (EB): I studied philosophy and am now a lecturer, editor, and researcher, focusing on cultural internationalization and the artist’s changing position in a globalized world. I lecture and conduct research on art and its cognitive value at the University of Arts in Utrecht. As part of my collaboration with Amsterdam Museum, I have been an editorin digital curatorial practices for the Corona in the City project and the Refresh Amsterdam biennial exhibition.

As a city museum, how are your themes linked to the history of technology?

AdW: One of my favorite podcasts is 99 Percent Invisible.2 It discusses how design influences everything we do. While technology doesn’t often feature as an exhibition topic at Amsterdam Museum, it is very much part of the city’s infrastructure: the waterways, the transport—and rings through everything without being the focus. Years ago (in 2004), when SHOT had its annual conference in Amsterdam, Ruth Oldenziel asked if I could lecture or guide a city tour about technology, based on the prostitution exhibit I had curated. I replied that it is one of the least technological professions you can imagine, but she just said, “Well, think about it.” It prompted me to reflect on the technologies involved, from the design of the rooms, the use of fluorescent and red lights, to contraceptives and alarm systems. I came to realize that technology may not be the focus of our museum, yet it is always there.

In March 2020, the Dutch government, like many others, announced that museums would go into a first lockdown. What were you working on at the time, and how did this affect your plans?

AdW: I was lucky. During the lockdown, I was working on a large exhibit about the Golden Coach, the House of Orange’s iconic and controversial royal carriage.3 Fortunately, I could continue through Zoom meetings and online collections. And thankfully, the horses at the Royal Stables—included in the topic—were not in lockdown! We were lucky again that the opening was scheduled for June 2021, two weeks after the spring lockdown. For Amsterdam Museum, the questions a year earlier in March 2020 had been not only how long the pandemic would last, but also what it meant for Amsterdammers, and what we could do while the museum was closed. The online exhibit Corona in the City helped us get out of this sense of insecurity into a more productive mode: keeping busy and documenting what was going on in the city.4

How did your colleagues and audiences respond? Or let me be provocative: Does anyone miss historical education during a pandemic, or is it only curators who consider culture essential when things are falling apart?

AdW: National and local governments reacted differently. When the country started to open up again, cultural institutions were greatly disappointedby how our national government was treating the arts as something nonessential—while theme parks could stay open, museums couldn’t, and the minister of health said, “Of course we don’t like it that we cannot go to the theatre, but you can still put on a DVD.” Well, it’s not very technologically savvy to talk about DVDs when everyone is watching Netflix! The remark was quite insensitive to the cultural sector at large. Locally, we got generous financial support from the city government; all kinds of arts programs sprang up. Remarkably, the cultural sector suddenly started to think about ways of doing something digital, staging performances in empty theaters, musicians performing on the streets—all committed to survive the lockdown. We also got emails from people around us saying, “It’s terrible, we miss you.”
EB: To answer the provocative part: that’s a profound but also an almost unanswerable question. The Corona in the City online exhibit, however, showed that not only curators consider culture essential. The most important lesson I learned from the project is: people have an intrinsic need for cultural expression and artistic contemplation. I have seen over three thousand items from people sending in their most peculiar, most idiosyncratic outpourings. What you learn is that—especially in these trying times of the pandemic, when everything is uncertain—people have an irresistible desire to express themselves, to give voice to their unsettling experiences. You could say Corona in the City shows that human beings cannot merely go through the motions of life, but have to explain what they are actually experiencing. The explosion of all these outpourings and expressions resulted in Corona in the City. It proves that culture and cultural expression serve not only curators’ interests.
AdW: The Amsterdam Museum is not an art museum, but is about the city’s life—past and present. “Collecting the City” includes both “highbrow” and popular culture. The Corona in the City project is a good example of how that can be done in a “non-curatorial way”: everyone can send in content without us saying, “We accept this, but we don’t accept that.” We experimented with the online format: the collection of over three thousand uncurated stories, photos, videos, and artworks, and sixty rooms created by the museum’s curators as well as stakeholders (e.g., educators, medical professionals, artists, queers, and undocumented Amsterdammers). From the large archive of submitted experiences, they selected items to make new combinations around various themes like health care, sounds, keeping distance, online education, and loneliness.

Can you briefly outline the project and how it started?

AdW: Amid an insecure situation, we quickly decided in April/May 2020, “Let’s do something and start collecting these experiences digitally.” This approach transcended the disciplines: everyone from the communications: I was lucky. During the lockdown, I was working on a large exhibit about the Golden Coach, the House of Orange’s iconic and controversial royal carriage.3 Fortunately, I could continue through Zoom meetings and online collections. And thankfully, the horses at the Royal Stables—included in the topic—were not in lockdown! We were lucky again that the opening was scheduled for June 2021, two weeks after the spring lockdown. For Amsterdam Museum, the questions a year earlier in March 2020 had been not only how long the pandemic would last, but also what it meant for Amsterdammers, and what we could do while the museum was closed. The online exhibit Corona in the City helped us get out of this sense of insecurity into a more productive mode: keeping busy and documenting what was going on in the city.4

How did your colleagues and audiences respond? Or let me be provocative: Does anyone miss historical education during a pandemic, or is it only curators who consider culture essential when things are falling apart?

AdW: National and local governments reacted differently. When the country started to open up again, cultural institutions were greatly disappointedby how our national government was treating the arts as something nonessential—while theme parks could stay open, museums couldn’t, and the minister of health said, “Of course we don’t like it that we cannot go to the theatre, but you can still put on a DVD.” Well, it’s not very technologically savvy to talk about DVDs when everyone is watching Netflix! The remark was quite insensitive to the cultural sector at large. Locally, we got generous financial support from the city government; all kinds of arts programs sprang up. Remarkably, the cultural sector suddenly started to think about ways of doing something digital, staging performances in empty theaters, musicians performing on the streets—all committed to survive the lockdown. We also got emails from people around us saying, “It’s terrible, we miss you.”
EB: To answer the provocative part: that’s a profound but also an almost unanswerable question. The Corona in the City online exhibit, however, showed that not only curators consider culture essential. The most important lesson I learned from the project is: people have an intrinsic need for cultural expression and artistic contemplation. I have seen over three thousand items from people sending in their most peculiar, most idiosyncratic outpourings. What you learn is that—especially in these trying times of the pandemic, when everything is uncertain—people have an irresistible desire to express themselves, to give voice to their unsettling experiences. You could say Corona in the City shows that human beings cannot merely go through the motions of life, but have to explain what they are actually experiencing. The explosion of all these outpourings and expressions resulted in Corona in the City. It proves that culture and cultural expression serve not only curators’ interests.
AdW: The Amsterdam Museum is not an art museum, but is about the city’s life—past and present. “Collecting the City” includes both “highbrow” and popular culture. The Corona in the City project is a good example of how that can be done in a “non-curatorial way”: everyone can send in content without us saying, “We accept this, but we don’t accept that.” We experimented with the online format: the collection of over three thousand uncurated stories, photos, videos, and artworks, and sixty rooms created by the museum’s curators as well as stakeholders (e.g., educators, medical professionals, artists, queers, and undocumented Amsterdammers). From the large archive of submitted experiences, they selected items to make new combinations around various themes like health care, sounds, keeping distance, online education, and loneliness.

Can you briefly outline the project and how it started?

AdW: Amid an insecure situation, we quickly decided in April/May 2020, “Let’s do something and start collecting these experiences digitally.” This approach transcended the disciplines: everyone from the communications department to the curators and artistic director was involved in launching the project.
Fig 1. A nurse in an Amsterdam hospital (OLVG) represents an important part of the city's response to COVID. A large part of daily care is monitoring and controlling the physical functions of patients. (Source: Kim Marquardt, "Kijken, luisteren, voelen," https://www.coronaindestad.nl/icu-olvg-5/?h=.)

Was this reflection and mission finding a bottom-up process?

AdW: Yes, and the reflection started museum wide: what do we do now, if people cannot come to us? We must reach out to them. At the same time, for a city museum, observing how events affect city life comes with the job: how can we document this historical moment? We had applied a “contemporary” or “first-response collecting” method before, but never on such a large scale. At the time, we were setting up a new program, “Collecting the City,” for the museum’s upcoming renovation. In other words, the reflections on the pandemic, combined with the ongoing initiatives, helped us to decide on how to run the first experiment and shaped how the online exhibit turned out.
EB: What’s more, Corona in the City allows people to connect with others in isolation by giving them a space to share their experiences. You collect these stories to capture the Zeitgeist or experiences at the time. All these previously unknown feelings about quarantine—the desire that comes with loneliness, the creativity that arises from boredom, listlessness as a result of fear—are now integral to the records of our urban experience, and the museum has captured them for future generations. The format of the collection and the curated rooms is actually modeled after a physical museum space. In the collection, you have all the works that have been sent in by the people of Amsterdam, artists, cultural institutions, and the like. Then, we asked over fifty partners and dozens of artists to curate the rooms, either with their own work or with what they found in the collection. We devised various themes: we have rooms about the curfew, about solidarity, and many others you can find on the website.
Fig 2. Homeless Quarantine is a series of graphics created in collaboration with refugees in limbo Mohammed Tom, Elhadi, Sami, Suleiman, Araby, and Mahmood. This is one of the graphics. It shows how these refugees who are homeless experience the corona crisis. The graphics provide insight into how the men fill in the days, how they spend their nights in the night shelter, how they deal with fear of the virus, how they experience having no home, how they relate to the care they receive, how they deal with the lack of future prospects, and how contact with the family in the home country continues. These intimate, personal visual stories provide insight into a world that usually remains hidden. (Source: "We Sell Reality: The Homeless Quarantine," 2020, coronaindestad.nl.)

Can you give an example of one object that was sent in and its story?

EB: There are now 3,117 objects, lots of photographs of the empty city, that’s what many people sent, but also poems, written stories, videos, podcasts—all the different media.
AdW: And artworks, for example, by undocumented or homeless people, who reflected on what staying at home means if you don’t have a home. Together with an artist, they created beautiful work documenting that experience. On Facebook, I discovered a poet who started drawing to document her corona chronicles, and this inspired her sister. Now the sisters have an ongoing series of drawings documenting the city. During the lockdown, some artists made artworks in public spaces. The artist Dadara, for instance, set up a table in the square at the Rijksmuseum where passersby could sit and chat.5 And sound, did we mention sound? There is a remarkable amount of sound in the collection. 
EB: The room collecting sound from the lockdowns, “Soundtrack City,” includes recordings of the silence during curfew, when you hardly hear a sound in the city center.6 Another, “Ode to the Sound of Lockdown,” includes the sound of breaking up the pieces of a puzzle, a game of solitaire on an iPad, a bored child typing on their cell phone, online classes, tapping a keyboard, a mixer grinding; all those typically domestic sounds that normally weren’t salient, but which were recorded and now catch our attention.7 This room highlights trivial sounds because people found them so significant during lockdown.

That sounds like a fascinating experiment, an exhibition with several thousand curators.

EB: Yes, and there was also an intriguing room called “The Empty Blue Pepper Grinder.”8 In Amsterdam, cultural institutions use these bulky advertising columns, called “pepper grinders,” as billboards to advertise their upcoming events. The columns now stood idle during lockdown. They were papered blue. A designer mailed that she wanted to collect what she called the “blue pepper grinders” as visual symbol of the cultural sector being closed down. With her Facebook friends, she took pictures of blue pepper grinders all over the city, resulting in this fascinating “blue pepper grinder room.”

You describe what people sent in. You probably had to make choices, for example, about controversial things like the climate of violence and hate we live in. Does this perspective feature in your collections?

AdW: Anti-vaxxers and protesters were not very eager to send in their films for our online exhibition. That is why one of our curators, Tom van der Molen, went out to gather material to curate a room on social unrest. I interviewed a woman with anti-vax views. Errol, do you know how many anti-vax viewpoints were submitted?
EB: Not so many. In principle, we put everything on the website, but there were very few submissions on that perspective.
AdW: It would have been very interesting to see what happened if a room of anti-vaxxers hacked the exhibition to voice their opinions.
EB: If an anti-vaxxer sent in the full story of their conspiracy theory, we would probably post it. And we featured the city’s local television reports on the unrest and protests.
The familiar Amsterdam street presence: the pepper grinder. Used to publicize upcoming public events, they became silent reminders during the beginning of the pandemic. (Source: Susan Koenen, "Wibautstraat (East)," coronaindestad.nl.)
AdW: To give a complete picture, the exhibit should include this viewpoint. We did have a physical anti-vax object for the collection: the yellow umbrellas that people take to anti-vax “freedom demonstration” marches. Maybe this is something we should discuss: is it a good idea to collect conspiracy theories because they are all out there?
EB: The protest room reflects our approach: we don’t judge, but observe what is happening. While curator Tom van der Molen comments about the danger of polarization, the exhibition is not judgmental about the various voices in the debate regarding measures. Everything is welcome in this collection as long as it fits in with the theme.

We have spoken about the ways you are using this “time-capsule” collection right now. How do you think future historians will use this material in a few decades?

AdW: It depends on the questions people will be interested in. There are many different perspectives, opinions expressed, including a room on Black Lives Matter. We have collected a wealth of diverse material. As a historian, however, I am concerned for how we document the material. Do we know enough about the people who sent in the information and why? Fully documenting the items you collect in order to get the complete picture is of course routine curatorial practice.
EB: I was also thinking of another online exhibition we developed in the past year, Refresh Amsterdam.9 Both the advantage and disadvantage of digital space is that it is boundless; you can do as many things as you like. Actually, it is not a “space,” since the essential feature of space is its limitation. At the same time, this limitlessness is also a risk: boundaries and limitations make us creative and encourage selection. Boundaries stimulate genuine curatorial practices. You could say that these digital spaces are not for curating in the traditional sense, but can add something interesting to physical curatorial practices.
AdW: Collecting and presenting digitally builds on a long-standing practice: blogging about topics during an ongoing exhibition or creating accompanying websites to preserve things for after an exhibition ends. After our first experiments with online storytelling in 2003, we continued with a website dedicated to a 2006 exhibition, before launching a truly interactive website in 2010 called “Heart Amsterdam,” separate from the corporate website. Like most museums, we have experimented with our online presence and practice over a decade or so.

 

Unlike the usual curatorial practice that involves filtering, you describe the digital practice as a mirror of the current situation.

EB: Maybe you could say that everything becomes more visible during these extraordinary times. Behind a normal exhibition are a large collection and depot of objects that did not make it into the exhibition. The online Corona in the City exhibit shows all the works that have not (yet) been selected for an exhibition room. It makes that part of normal curatorial practice visible.
AdW: In some sense, this is true for the museum today: we now have our entire collection online.10 That’s visible, even though it might not look as sexy as the Corona in the City website. Still, the museum’s “uncurated” objects are there for the public to see.

How has the pandemic affected the public’s perspective of the museum as a place to connect with contemporary history? Has the museum’s image changed?

AdW: The pandemic has definitely helped. One important aspect of our work is making sure we show that history is now and relevant: the idea of giving people a voice in what is important to them and helping museums understand what should be collected, involving various communities in curating exhibitions. During the pandemic, this was more direct. We used to reach out to Amsterdammers to collect their objects and stories. Now, they sent in their photos and uploaded them for the exhibition. We also went out to find stakeholders like the LTBGQ community, Black activists, neighborhood organizers, or Soundtrack City partners and asked them: Do you want to join in, do you want to curate a room? We handed over the key, to quote a famous phrase by American museologist Nina Simon.11 Handing over the key for the Corona exhibition was easier. Moving physical objects is obviously more costly and more complicated.
EB: There are two answers to this question. First, by offering Amsterdammers room for expression, a place where they can unconditionally voice their confusing experience, the Amsterdam Museum met people’s urgent need for expression and connection. By doing that, we also reached new audiences. The second answer is that working with this format enabled us to add aspects that helped reach new audiences. We found new partners and collaborators. From items submitted to Corona in the City, we created exhibitions in Amsterdam’s public spaces, such as in squares around various parts of the city. Next, we published a magazine asking writers and poets to reflect on the collection. Lastly, we broad-casted a public program lasting six hours. In short, we created many new practices to support the digital project that attracted new audiences.

How has the pandemic impacted your academic work and the collaboration with external scholars and research institutions?

AdW: A good example is the Golden Coach exhibition. We created a fortnightly Amsterdam Museum talk show to replace the academic debates on exhibitions that we would otherwise have on-site. Because we were dealing with such a controversial object, we wanted our advisory board to include not only representatives from various academic disciplines—professors in history, anthropology, and literature—but also Orange associations, anti-monarchists, Black activists, and others. We had to meet via Zoom with twenty-two people who did not know each other. We thought meeting online would not work, but then we decided that meeting once a month would allow more interest groups to join who could otherwise not travel to the museum. Meeting online helped reinforce our existing museum practice of trying to balance and involve interest groups in the way we collect, curate, and create our exhibits.

The final question is perhaps rhetorical: If you could, would you like to go back to museum business as usual before 2020?

AdW: Museum-as-usual does not really exist. Technological changes have always affected our museum practices, forcing us to respond in kind. The pandemic has helped us to move faster in communicating on various platforms more effectively. There is nothing that I miss, except having more people around me most of the time—that would be great!
EB: I agree. I would like to return to more person-to-person contact. Digital forms always complement something that is happening physically. The unlimited digital space is only valuable if it is combined with a bounded place, where you curate, and where you meet each other. It is nice that we discovered new digital forms, but these cannot exist without their physical mirror.
Footnotes
1. The Memory of East [Amsterdam], accessed February 1, 2022, http://geheugenvanoost.amsterdam; The Memory of Amsterdam, accessed February 1, 2022, https://geheugenvan.amsterdam.
2. 99% Invisiblehttps://99percentinvisible.org/.
3. “The Golden Coach: About the Exhibit,” Amsterdam Museum, accessed February 1, 2022, https://www.goudenkoets.nl/en/about-the-exhibition.
4. Corona in the Cityhttps://www.coronaindestad.nl/en/.
5. “The Artist Is Present,” Corona in the City, accessed February 1, 2002, https://www.coronaindestad.nl/en/the-artist-is-present-2/.
6. “How Does the City Sound under Lockdown,” Corona in the City, accessed February 1, 2002, https://www.coronaindestad.nl/en/zaal/expositions/soundtrackcity-exhibition/.
7. “Ode to the Sound of Lockdown,” Corona in the City, accessed February 1, 2002, https://www.coronaindestad.nl/en/zaal/expositions/odelockdownsound/.
8. “The Empty Blue Pepper Grinder,” Corona in the City, accessed February 1, 2002, https://www.coronaindestad.nl/en/zaal/expositions/pepper-grinder/.
9. Refresh Amsterdamhttps://refresh.amsterdam/.
10. “Collection,” Amsterdam Museum, accessed February 1, 2022, https://www.am sterdammuseum.nl/en/collection.
11. Nina Simon is author of The Participatory Museum (Museum 2.0, 2010).

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