What’s in a name

A blogpost from September 12, 2010 ·


One of my favourite weekly publications is a Dutch magazine called De Groene Amsterdammer. It is the oldest opinionated publication in the Netherlands, suffering of mismanagement and a reduction of readers over the past decades. However, it has a solid share of readers, which hopefully make it overcome these times of crisis. Even more pleased I was to see that the issue of early September themed “Culture, A Toy of the Elite?” featured an article on one of my favourite museums, the Amsterdam Historical Museum (AHM). This museum offers insights in the rise and shine of the city of Amsterdam, by means of a chronological tour, with the optional shortcuts. The visitor is provided with ancient foundations to the building of the Town Hall (currently Royal Palace) on the Dam Square; from the fortune gathered in the Golden Age to the city’s history of occupation in World War II; from the Provo’s in the sixties to the hardcore fans of football club Ajax. It is the typical museum in which the visitor wanders around and really feels to be moving through time. Art works and historical objects are well balanced in the displays, representing the richness of Amsterdam’s cultural diversity throughout the centuries. There are many histories in one; political, cultural, social, and local histories are captured and combined in the museum displays.

The article was an interview with the museum’s sympathetic director Paul Spies. Many years he worked as adviser in his own cultural advising agency. In 2009 he  made the decision to no longer stand on the side line but actually be involved in one of the country’s best known history museums. Despite its relatively hidden location, the museum is a true gem in the city’s cultural offer. Over the past ten years it has switched its focus from solely telling historical stories to an additional focus on present-day developments in Amsterdam. This so-called “contemporary collecting” has become an interesting spear point of as well this museum as the subsidizing funds and governmental bodies. Cultural institutions are increasingly expected to match the contemporary citizen’s mind, by means of their exhibitions and activities. The AHM received name and fame with their project “East” in 2004, targeting migrant histories from citizens living in the east part of the city, who have mainly roots in the eastern part of the world. To literally reach out to this part of the city and combine personal histories with the main exhibition in the museum, this project is seen as a standard example in targeting minority audience groups and encouraging frequent museum visits within groups who rarely attend museums. In addition this project is an example of the museum’s increasingly contemporary focus. Where the museum excels in telling the history of the Dutch capital, it now has taken up the duty of promoting contemporary developments and values taking place in the Amsterdam society. As this is regarded as highly important by Dutch subsidizing institutions, like the government and the major cultural support funds, the AHM seems take this new duty very seriously. Maybe a little bit too much.

In the interview Paul Spies reveals the future plans of the museum. He emphasizes the pivotal role the museum can have in contemporary Amsterdam, and how in its current situation, the museum is missing this opportunity. Therefore, the institution wants to work towards a more social, in addition to its cultural, function. In order to achieve this goal, Spies argues, the museum needs a new focus. If it wants to reach out to all of Amsterdam, it is in need of more branches, next to its current location in the heart of the city. These branches then will tell the historic and contemporary stories of the neighbourhoods where they are located. To embody this new focus another drastic measure is necessary, a name change. As the museum will not only explore histories anymore, it is time to get rid of the “history” in the museum’s name. Therefore, in the nearby future the museum will change its name into “Amsterdam Museum”.

Come again? Yes, the name that is associated with one of the best history museums on the continent, which offers you an always-inspiring travel through time, with its long record of original and highly qualitative projects, is going extinct. Reading the rest of the interview, in which Spies explained the reasoning behind this decision-making process, I grew to be amazed. And not in a good way. The change of this name is exemplary for the changing cultural sector.

The institutions’ mission statements remain the same, however the way in which they want to execute these missions radically differ from ten years ago. In their activities a sense of history is suppressed by a sense of contemporaneity. With this name change the museum mainly wants to establish a better and more effective positioning within the Amsterdam cultural sector. It wants to not only be defined by its activities in the field of history but also by its activities with a more contemporary character. This is an interesting move away from the history craze, which has been taking place since the beginning of the twenty-first century. When social and cultural insecurity rise, history is seen as an instrument of cure. In the public debate, history is increasingly regarded as an instrument in tackling social insecurity and heightening cultural cohesion in the multicultural society, which the Netherlands has become over the second half of the previous century. The above-mentioned project East is an example of how the cultural sector is looking for possible responses to these social developments, but is now with its name change taking a step away from its historical activities. I can imagine that Spies does not want to see its museum associated with the, sometimes horrible, activities which result from the history craze. However, the history-part is what makes the museum so distinct and amazing.

Spies rationalizes the name change by wanting to increase the visibility and therefore have a more effective positioning in the cultural field. I feel this is a shame. It seems that a marketing strategy is applied to a wonderful museum, with a quirky character, which in turn makes it so attractive and effective for its visitors. I am truly sad to already know that future generations will not grow up with the “Amsterdams Historisch” in their vocabulary. The Amsterdam Museum sounds like a tourist attraction of the Amsterdam Dungeons kind. Let’s trust Spies with the duty to avoid the AM to become like that. For now.

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