Reconnecting Then and Now – an Interview With Geheugen Van Nederland

Picture of By Justin Yeung

By Justin Yeung

Cultural heritage is an important shaping force in every society’s culture, as well as in its values and identities, as Geheugen van Nederland accurately captures. It is our pleasure to have Tal Groenman, the campaign manager from Geheugen van Nederland, to share some interesting viewpoints on their visions, Dutch visual culture and many more.

Organization – Vision and Mission 

Geheugen van Nederland (English: Memories of the Netherlands) is a collaborative campaign launched in July 2020 by a wide variety of art and cultural institutions, ranging from the globally known Tropenmuseum to local hidden gems like the Zuiderzeemuseum. Aiming to bring digital cultural heritage to the public, Geheugen van Nederland never stops inspiring the Dutch to explore the histories of their own through presenting intriguing narratives and audio-visual collections on social media.  

Internationally acknowledged institutions provide much of the content for the campaign. Nederlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid (English: Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision), for instance, has provided the footage of The Beatles’ first time in Amsterdam.  

“We want to incorporate more perspectives in this campaign”, said Tal. Through cooperation with larger- and smaller-scale institutions, Geuheugen van Nederland not only explores enthralling stories, but also offers a platform for smaller institutions to gain exposure. Atria and Indisch Herinneringscentrum Den Haag (English: Indian Remembrance Centre) are perfect cases in point.  

Exploring the Stories – Perspectives and Histories  

Geheugen van Nederland has currently 7 major themes on their website, to which new topics have been and will continue to be added every 2 to 3 months. “These themes have a lot to tell!”, Tal told us when asked about why they chose these in particular. Themes like Leven met Water (Living with water) and Dekolonisatie (Decolonization) are without doubts the important parts of the Dutch history.   

“Everyone will be swimming if there is no dyke in the Netherlands”, said Tal from Geheugen van Nederland. Living with water is, especially for the Dutch, a vital aspect of civilization, which is why Geheugen van Nederland devised the theme “Leven met Water” for the campaign. “It is very crucial to realize that we are part of that history (fighting against water). Water management and infrastructures are our proudest economic knowledge throughout the development of the Netherlands. We need to take our society along to this part of history.”  

The campaign zooms in the people’s lives, taking points of view of the individuals from the previously colonized regions rather than the Dutch society as whole.

Decolonization, a sensitive yet inevitable part of the history of the Netherlands, is another theme of Geheugen van Nederland. Tal emphasized that the Dutch can no longer escape from (de)colonization, that we need to face the issue eventually, instead of avoiding it. Quite interestingly, Geheugen van Nederland is walking on a different path than other historical institutions. The campaign zooms in the people’s lives, taking points of view of the individuals from the previously colonized regions rather than the Dutch society as whole. “We are trying to show multiple perspectives regarding colonization,” Tal explained the approach, “People (from different socio-political and cultural strata) have completely distinctive feelings towards colonization. Geheugen van Nederland wants to represent the diversity of people and engage with our audience in that way.” 

By no means is the goal of Geheugen van Nederland to decide the righteousness of the history of colonization. It is a job for the public to judge and form their opinions when they reckon (de)colonization in fact happened in the past and realize that varying sentiments exist in the society. “Our team consists of very knowledgeable advisors and editors. They do want to demonstrate the history without imposing anything on our audience.” 

Although Geheugen van Nederland did not deny that art may appear to be a high-culture and the public understanding of the Dutch cultural heritage may be superficial, they do not think that the Dutch are limited to the stereotypes of their cultural representatives. “The average Dutch person does not necessarily identify with only Rembrandt, van Gogh and the like. It’s more how foreign countries see us. It may look like that this visual culture is linked to our Dutch culture, but it might be more tourism driven. Like the Liga story we try to make them recognizable for our audience. Stories of our day-to-day life, and we want to stimulate the audience to research in their own ‘environment’. The audience is able to tell their story in the comment sections of each story.” 

A Map of History – Linked Open Data and Digitalization  

Digitizing archives has become a crucial pillar in the future of cultural heritage protection. Various art and archival institutions have embraced the digitized world of collections documentation, recovering and storage. Geheugen van Nederland does also play a part in the incessant transformation of cultural heritage archives. Van Gogh Worldwide is an archetype of Linked Open Data, in which 1000 art pieces of Van Gogh’s are able to be gathered together from 14 distinct collections even though they are spread across the world. 

The campaign gives the audience a preview of this new technological approach by curating themes with content from all kinds of collections.”

“Content is going to be digitized and linked to each other; this is what the sector is working on.” But how exactly is Geheugen van Nederland contributing to such development? “The campaign gives the audience a preview of this new technological approach by curating themes with content from all kinds of collections.” Tal elaborated, “Say, music can be linked to decolonization, or the history of Amsterdam can also be linked to the content of Maastricht. The collections from organizations, thus, can be treated as an integrated complex instead of unconnected fragments of art pieces.”

With the aid of digital archives, exposing visual culture has been made handy. Tal cannot stress enough the advantage of technological advancement in the past years. He assured that if institutions do the promotion in the right way, the public will certainly engage with the content they are exhibiting online. In this way, people are more likely to be persuaded to visit museums because they are interested in a specific topic they have engaged in online before.  

Embedding the Art in the Social Media World   

We want something more than a following. We are searching for interactions like commenting and sharing personal stories along with information.” 

Geheugen van Nederland has, at this moment of time, over 4,000 followers on Instagram and over 20,000 followers on Facebook. Nevertheless, these numbers are not the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). “We want something more than a following. We are searching for interactions like commenting and sharing personal stories along with information.”  

The possibility of co-creating stories and active engagement with the content on social media underlines the benefit of a digital transformation (DX) in the cultural industry. Though Tal agreed that the virtual world is completely different one from reality, physical collections still matter in the future, “Without the stories and collections from these museums, there will be no Geheugen van Nederland. However, we do imagine a hybrid form of on- and offline exhibitions. Our campaign wants to lead by example and show museums different ways of displaying cultural heritage.” 

As a significant ingredient of successful storytelling, the audience is incorporated in the campaign’s process of content creation. With a trilateral campaign, involved with the public, institutions and the campaign itself, Geheugen van Nederland has set a long-term goal of attracting individuals to tell their own stories and thus generate more interaction. The campaign is at the same time looking for new partnerships and offering digital archives toolkits to existing institutions.   

“As always, we would like to create stories that are relevant for the moment and more connected to some current events. Dutch holidays and the Olympics are some examples. Certainly, a pandemic would be relevant, but this is yet to be on our agenda.” 

Interested? Tal recommended some captivating stories for you: 

  1. The Long-distance Skating Tour Elfstedentocht (English: Eleven cities tour)
  2. Lenie van Wensveen and the Dutch female football team


Cover: Geheugen van Nederland 

Edited by: Sophie Kulla

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