Rotterdam

Rotterdam Case Study: Unique, High-Tech Immersion at the Maritime Museum

Let’s go back to Rotterdam, shall we?  Previously this summer, I wrote about interpreting damaged churches in the city and the Erasmus Experience exhibit in the Rotterdam Public Library.  Now, I want to talk about the Maritime Museum of Rotterdam, a museum visit that I crammed into a late afternoon after returning from Kinderdijk. (There will be no post about Kinderdijk because it would just be pictures and fawning, but the further and further away I get from it, the more thoughts I have about how the site was interpreted.)  The Maritime Museum gets rave reviews on travel guides, which is why I chose it over the city museum or other historic sites.  I’d already taken a boat tour of the industrial harbor and ridden a water taxi to Kinderdijk, but I wanted to learn more about how the shipping industry had evolved from what I knew about the Dutch Golden Age into the massive industrial power that the Rotterdam port is today.

So I raced to the Maritime Museum, with only about two and a half hours to go through it.  I say only because I found, upon my arrival, that the museum had a little mini-harbor behind it, an outdoor museum of boats in the actual water, that closed earlier than the rest of the museum. Some of the small boats could be boarded, while some primarily demonstrated types of exteriors or the industrial machinery visible on them.  All around me, kids skipped on and off of boats, and the signage reminded me more of an American science museum than a history museum. When I went inside, that perception continued to grow—they had whole exhibits geared specifically toward children and families with hands-on activities that seemed state-of-the-art in their execution.

Exterior of the Maritime Museum with part of the mini-harbor of boats and cranes. (My photo, 2018)

Exterior of the Maritime Museum with part of the mini-harbor of boats and cranes. (My photo, 2018)

Once inside, I hurried past the rest of the children’s exhibits and upstairs to the main exhibit, having no idea what would come next and only knowing its name: the Offshore Experience.  When I reached the top of the entry ramp, the museum employees told me that I needed to hurry because the “training” had already started. They ushered me into another room, past countdown clocks and increasingly industrial-looking décor. In the next room, I found a video screen and seating that reminded me of the Star Wars ride at Disney World—the one where you watch a video and the seats shake and sound effects come from all sides, but you never actually leave that one room until you exit on the other side.  In this case, the video explained that we were all training for work in the offshore energy industry and that, while the work may be hard and dangerous, it’s an increasingly important part of the worldwide shipping industry.  After the video ended, we stepped into the next room, where we found hard hats and fluorescent vests that we should wear throughout the rest of the exhibit. It was truly wild - you can see some of that in the video below.

The hard hats and vests turned out to be far more than just costumes—the rest of the exhibit was HIGHLY interactive.  Visitors moved from station to station trying out video game-style and augmented reality tasks that gave explanations of actual jobs on offshore rigs and tested the ability of the “trainee” to complete them.  Signs and the initial training video told us that we would need to complete three of these tasks to successfully complete our training, so I tried a few.  And they. were. HARD.  I flat-out failed one that involved waving a large shipping container dangling from a crane into place on the dock.  (This will likely come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen me play Mario Kart.) 

When I finished with these interactive activities, I was directed to an elevator, which took me down to another floor. Training was over, but it was now time to learn a little more about the business side of offshore activities and renewable energy. They had video screens with real (real?) entrepreneurs and scientists who proposed plans for finding, developing, and using energy across the planet—each video was in its own little booth, which made it feel as if these experts were pitching to me directly.  Before heading out of the exhibit and back into the museum, they asked you to vote for the one that seemed best. The rest of the museum was split between kid-friendly, immersive experiences and more traditional museum displays of exceptionally beautiful and unique artifacts from the shipping industry.

I’ve been wracking my brain since I returned from my trip to think of any exhibition or other experience that mimicked the Offshore Experience in its total synthesis of experiential learning principles.  Still, there are few comparisons I’ve remembered. There’s the Titanic Exhibition that has been touring for years and years, where you receive a boarding pass upon entering, walk through meticulous recreations of the rooms on board to learn about the history of the voyage, and then check the lists at the end to see if “you,” the name on your boarding pass, numbered among the dead. It productively asked you to get inside the mind of someone on the Titanic, including that person’s particular gender, ethnicity, and social class. Besides that, however, I can think of little else. It’s a salient difference that the Titanic exhibit does most of their immersion without the aid of technology, but few historical events hold so much sway on the American imagination.

With the Maritime Museum, I continue to feel enthusiastic about the Dutch museum world and the lessons that their efforts to interpret their art and history can teach us. Choosing a topic like offshore energy development for a permanent exhibition speaks volumes about how they view the capacity of museums to affect earth’s future. Asking people to engage with contemporary debates at the end of the exhibition applies and tests the material that visitors have just learned, and I suspect that that increases the likelihood they might still be thinking about it weeks later. Much like the Erasmus Experience, which used its technology to thoroughly engage visitors rather than supplement a primary analog experience, the Offshore Experience provides a model for high-tech exhibitions that do not sacrifice content to draw and educate audiences.

Experiencing Erasmus at the Rotterdam Public Library

One of the most fascinating exhibitions I saw during my recent travels was also the cheapest—it was free!  In the Rotterdam Public Library, a building with yellow pipes down the side that make it look more like a factory, they have an exhibit called the Erasmus Experience, which focuses on the contributions of the humanist thinker Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), who originally came from Rotterdam.  It seemed like posters for the exhibit were placed throughout the city in places where interested people might be likely to find them—for me, it worked.

Exterior of the Rotterdam Public Library (my photo).

Exterior of the Rotterdam Public Library (my photo).

The exhibition focused on the philosophy of Erasmus and its resonance for the present-day, which is a lofty subject for an exhibit, especially in an age where people are resistant to reading large amounts of wall text. He wrote prolifically about the benefits of education and how, in the wake of the Reformation, every person could define their individual relationship with religion.  Appropriately, Erasmus loved words and language, and the Erasmus Experience effective spun words into memorable edutainment for the afternoon.

And so I walked into the Rotterdam Public Library, peering across the rotunda for barriers to entry or signs directing me to the exhibition.  I walked through a photography exhibit, through an area with a reference desk—a reminder that public libraries look much the same wherever you might be.  I saw a sign directing me up to the next floor, and so I hopped on the escalator. At the top of the escalator, I saw a kiosk display on Erasmus that used the graphics for the exhibition; inside a small niche in the display rested postcards with Erasmus quotes on them. I enthusiastically snagged one as a free souvenir and continued on my merry way around the floor to the next escalator.  Two more floors later, through the children’s section, and the romance section, I found myself staring at the alcove that held the Eramus Experience.

Screenshot of the  Erasmus Experience website .

Screenshot of the Erasmus Experience website.

I had expected the space to be small, as library exhibitions often are, but they used the space well.  Exhibition panels lined the wall of the alcove, with all the materials in Dutch and English, and a desk-style bank of flatscreen monitors filled the center of the room.  The instructions clearly indicated that visitors should start with the wall panels and would end with the computer interactives.  However, before entering, the instructions directed me to grab a little yellow bracelet—it looked almost like a FitBit or a large plastic kids’ watch—and stand on a mark to have my picture taken.  The quick video and the sign (pictured below) explained that it would be my task to use the yellow bracelet to interact with the exhibit and collect “diamonds” for answering questions related to the opinions expressed by Erasmus.  Gamification in museums—turning a learning task into a game with tasks and rewards—can be risky.

Sign at the beginning of the Erasmus Experience.

Sign at the beginning of the Erasmus Experience.

My instinct is always to be skeptical about exhibitions that require participation because they do not often manage to sustain that engagement all the way through the display.  They ask too much or too little to really work effectively.  In this case, however, I found myself reading the exhibition panels and swiping my little yellow bracelet to get those diamonds, almost without thinking about it and even though I had intended this exhibit to be a short stop in a jam-packed day of site-seeing.  For example, a panel might describe what Erasmus had said about language, its rules, and its potential for connection, and the question it poses might be: “Do you believe that everyone should speak the same language in order to promote connection?”  The answers might be something like “Yes, I do because how else can we understand each other?” and “No, I don’t because we should preserve the integrity of individual languages.”  Answering the questions required thought and asked you to really understand why Erasmus held such beliefs.  The exhibition also did an excellent job of placing Erasmus into a modern context—for example, because he lived in a time when most scholarship and religious activity occurred in Latin, he understood what it meant for a group of people, regardless of national boundaries, to all know one language.  He understood the cloistered, classist nature of that shared Latin knowledge, but he was also willing to pose the question of what it might look if such a practice spread to the rest of society.  I found the entire exhibit fascinating, and I wish I could share the whole thing with you here.

After making it through the all of the questions and collecting enough diamonds, you proceeded to the center of the room, where you could explore your answers further.  A stylishly animated little Erasmus, like the one in the pictures above, interrogated your opinions in the style of a text message screen, occasionally playing devil’s advocate and pushing you to be sure you understood the consequences of your answers.  You could do as much or as little of this interactive as you liked, and I found that it further deepened what I had already learned from the display.  I also noticed, at this point in the exhibition, that there were cases filled with books, in the more traditional manner of library exhibition.  But even though the Rotterdam Public Library claims one of the largest collections of Erasmus writings in the world, they did not rely on the objects themselves to engage visitors. Instead, they simply offered them as a bonus for those interested.

I left that day excited about Rotterdam's museums, and excited to learn more about Erasmus.  It’s a shame that other texts on the philosopher—who seems extraordinarily relevant to today—are not as accessible as the Erasmus Experience exhibition was.  In this case, “Experience” was not simply a flashy moniker to draw in numbers.  The exhibition engaged me in his philosophy, provided a model for using technology to amplify learning, and incorporated traditional methods of display to emphasize the strengths of its collections. I saw a number of other museums and special exhibitions on my trip that tried to achieve these goals, but this is one of few that I’m still thinking about.

Rotterdam Case Study - Interpreting Damaged Churches

Since I’ve worked in public history and education, I’ve spent more time analyzing how cultural sites present information to their visitors. I recently travelled to Belgium and the Netherlands, and their museums and historic sites offered numerous strategies and interpretive choices to consider. With so much history in Europe and so much deliberate attention paid to it, I was interested in how some of these museums and historic sites cope with complicated contingencies in choosing how to package and display the past.  In Rotterdam, a modern city in the southern part of the Netherlands, I saw compelling ways of merging past and present. 

Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk (Great, or St. Lawrence Church), Rotterdam.  (My photo)

Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk (Great, or St. Lawrence Church), Rotterdam.  (My photo)

A city that was devastated during World War II, Rotterdam is a unique instance of a European metropolis with no qualms about Modernist rebuilding, both architecturally and in terms of the city’s reputation. They had no choice. As a result, the city is full of buildings that are intriguing both inside and out, and public art appears at nearly every plaza or major intersection.  Unlike Le Havre, a French city that chose to rebuild their downtown as part of a uniform plan from one architect, Rotterdam embraced the potential diversity of 20th Century architectural styles, and it proves to be a visual feast.

However, while much of the city was rebuilt after World War II, some major structures, like the Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk (Great, or St. Lawrence Church) were heavily damaged, but worth saving. Indeed, the Sint-Laurenskerk is the only remaining part of the medieval city.  After it was so heavily damaged by bombing, a debate ensued about restoration versus replacement.  They viewed the symbolic value of the church as a reason to restore it—it could provide a reminder of how the Netherlands had survived the war.  Today, it is still very much a functioning church, open to visitors and tourists outside of religious events. In my experience, functioning churches are not often masters of interpretation. For a church like the Sint-Laurenskerk, how would it tell its history of restoration in addition to its history as a house of worship?

Like many historic sites in the Netherlands, Sint-Laurenskerk embraced technology in their interpretation.  They had a neat interactive computer that allowed visitors to explore images of the church over time.  How did the church look in situ from 1700 to 1800 to 1900?  How did the artists of the city choose to depict it?  Though a fairly simple concept, this interactive is successful.  I think tourists, especially those without a background in art and architectural history, often have trouble imagining how such extraordinary buildings could emerge and anchor a neighborhood over centuries. 

One chapel—my favorite part!—had fragments of architectural elements from the original church displayed in a large medal grid, allowing visitors to get up close to gargoyles and pieces of columns while also impressing upon visitors the extent of the church’s physical and spiritual damage. The scaffolding seemed to mimic the height of the gothic cathedral, suggesting the extraordinary circumstances that brought these pieces of sculpture closer to the ground. It was remarkable.

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Churches built in this cross plan tend to have small chapels lining the exterior walls that, at the time, were meant to honor specific saints or events or, more importantly, to engage donor support.  A rich community member might endow a private chapel and further support the church to show his or her religiosity.  Today, these niches are natural segments for exhibitions carried over multiple chapels or addressing a theme per niche.  And, more importantly, they capitalize on the original function of those spaces—private, individual contemplation—both to show visitors artifacts and to ask them to contemplate their significance as broken remnants of the structure that existed prior to World War II.  Beyond the exhibit of fragments, they had a “library” tribute to Desiderius Erasmus, a humanist thinker born in Rotterdam in 1466, and one chapel that used a comic book-style cartoon to tell the story of Antonius Hambroek, a missionary and Rotterdam native, who had been executed in Formosa in 1661. I think that the cartoon was meant to couch the story of Hambroek in the context of Dutch colonialism, rather than simply leaving the memorial below in place and uninterpreted.

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These interventions allow the church to function as both a historic site and an integral part of a living community.  They didn’t seem particularly expensive (indeed, the church charged a very modest 2 euro admission to tourists), but they created an outsized effect.  Churches do not have to be empty of interpretation, relying on the quality of the architecture and enclosed art to draw visitors.  They can embrace the community and the less straightforward parts of their history to present compelling and informative displays.