How to celebrate a 125th birthday? A makeover and showing off your best assets perhaps? That is just what the ethnographic museum in Rotterdam did. The press release sums it up:
The Wereldmuseum is 125 years old. It has survived a wave of criticism, completed a total renovation in a single year, recovered its original grandeur, published eight catalogues within one year, mounted four major exhibitions, and cooperated in international projects with Venice, Beijing and Taipei. It also has one of the best restaurants in the Netherlands, has become a successful banquet caterer, and is well on its way to complete financial independence, already generating 40% of its own funding. In terms of business management, the Wereldmuseum is a pioneer in the museum world.
Not bad for 125, is it? I am not sure what wave of criticism they refer to, but if my impressions of Dutch peculiarities are anything to go by, I suppose they might mean that everyone and their uncle weighed in with opinions when plans for the refurbishment were announced. Very opinionated, the Dutch. Nonetheless, the museum marked the reopening in late 2009 with the exhibition Oceania, which I visited but, unfortunately, on a Sunday when the dedicated exhibition space was overcrowded and difficult to navigate. Oceania was followed by the Incas, which I visited by proxy, i.e., I perused the catalog while enjoying the excellent cappuccino and apple tart in the elegant museum café and fairly quickly decided that artifacts of child sacrifice were just not for me. The third exhibition (The Power of Silver) didn’t register on my radar at all, but the fourth one, 125 Masterpieces, has got my full attention. (Scroll down to the end of the exhibition webpage for an online gallery of 12 of the 125 pieces.)
The exhibition is breathtaking. The pieces are normally shown in context with other objects in the permanent collection, but by removing them from that context, the curators have highlighted their astonishing beauty. Here, we have a chance to appreciate them for the sake of the artistry and skills of the long dead and forgotten craftsmen who made them. Yes, they are mostly ritual or devotional objects and, of course, taking them out of context removes a layer of meaning, but the luxurious, hardback exhibition catalogue goes some way toward redressing the balance.
The Netherlands being a former colonial hot shot, it’s not surprising that there are several ethnographic museums here. There is the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, both of them hosting informative activities and eye-opening events in addition to the exhibitions. Yet, when I walk through the galleries, I sometimes feel uneasy at the acquisitions. These are objects that once held powerful meaning in their proper context, but what are they now, captured as they may be in glass cubes or displayed on bare walls in air-conditioned rooms. Perhaps they are ambassadors, sent abroad to inform and to provide a conduit back to the place where they came from. Or are they refugees, who would not exist at all anymore had they not been removed from their context and spirited away? I am not really sure.