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.


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.


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.

Traveling: Jewels of Marseille

I mentioned in the previous post that I had entered a travel writing competition about a month ago.  Part of the application asked for a short piece that highlighted a "travel discovery," a unique site or experience that to recommend to other travelers with enthusiasm.  What's copied below is my entry, which was not selected to move on in the competition.  I don't know if my attempts to emulate the tone they sought were any good, but the sentiments are sincere.  The photograph at the bottom is the specific moment I was thinking about when I wrote it.


I wasn’t sure I was going to Marseille until I walked into the train station and bought a ticket in my halting French.

Even my most ardently Francophilic friends had advised against going there—its gritty urban modernity seemed antithetical to all the storied charms of French life. I didn’t want to believe them, but I wasn't sure if I could prove them wrong.

The train took me to the center of town, where I descended the steep, dirty steps of the train station into the pockets of cramped neighborhoods that lay wrapped together between the sea and the surrounding mountains. As I followed the wide central boulevards that led to the harbor, the people around me chattered vibrantly, moving between markets and cafes, settling into their morning routines as I began to smell the sweetly fishy greeting of the Mediterranean waters.

I trembled as I stepped onto the ferry that would take me to the Château d’If, a legendary prison fortress on an island just offshore, and tried to conquer my nervous fear of boats by securing my hat and sunglasses. I closed my eyes as the boat moved into open waters, delivering us to the island with a welcome briskness that sent a salty breeze rifling through my hair.

It only struck me as I stepped off the ferry how strange it was that the woman in the tourism office had viewed a visit to an isolated prison as representative of the city. I moved quickly and uncomfortably through the Château d’If’s interior thinking how confinement in one of its abyss-like stone cells would affect a person’s mind and body. Hurrying toward the exit, I became eager to see the sun even if it meant the ferry ride had been a waste.

I stepped outside and stopped short, breathless.

From my viewpoint outside the fortress walls, I saw the bustling lows of the harbors swoop up toward the tips of the city’s mountains, where churches rest to maintain watch over the comings and goings of valuable cargo ships and beloved sailors. Even this expanse seemed minute as I noticed the additional shadowy mountains that peeped up beyond the urban panorama, foggy masses framing the city in blue and grey.

Eager to see more, I stepped closer to the island’s edge, where water playfully sloshed against the rocky shores. And then I knew my friends had been mistaken—myriad teals, turquoises, and blues stretched out before me into the expanse between the island and the city. The luminescent clarity of these jewel-toned waters proved that Marseille does, indeed, guard treasures.

Traveling: The Eiffel Tower

During this time of year, school ends, and those who benefit from long summer breaks flee to all corners of the world for research, leisure travel, and other edifying experiences.  For each of the past four summers, I numbered among these travelers, and now as I sit at home contemplating the future, I see my friends leaving for their new experiences, instagramming the oddities of living abroad, expressing their excitement at seeing a new painting or trying a new food.  It’s not precisely that I am jealous, though I would certainly love to know that I could jet off to somewhere intriguing.  Last week, I entered a travel writing competition because it seemed like all the travel memories I hold in my brain could be mobilized for something more fulfilling.

The first time I went to France, I was seventeen and had just graduated from high school.  As an inexperienced traveler on a ten-day educational trip, it served primarily as an introduction to life abroad and to big name, legendary sites that had seemed like fantasies before I saw them with my own eyes.  When I first went to France to start dissertation research in 2011, I knew the experience had to be something different and more productive—that I had to dig more deeply and broadly to understand the culture I meant to study.  That said, my favorite place in the city turned out to be a place that had been a central feature of that first trip: the Trocadéro and the Eiffel Tower. 

The Eiffel Tower has such a terrible reputation among many people I know who travel regularly.  In some ways, it’s a clear demonstration of everything that’s wrong with tourism as an industry.  During portions of the year, people swarm to the tower in droves, looking up instead of being aware of their surroundings, snapping picture after picture before paying an exorbitant fee to wait in line to take more pictures of the view.  No wonder, then, that pickpockets threaten these distracted tourists, and people who prize authenticity in their travel experiences disdain going anywhere near the Eiffel Tower with a disproportionately ferocious “been there, done that” attitude.

I understand the negative views of the area surrounding the Eiffel Tower and also that they can’t solely be combatted by the fact that, if you stand in just the right place, the view looks exactly like the above—like Paris in all its genius planning, activity, and glory.  It has always seemed to me that the Tower itself represents a useful historical intersection of the strife-filled years of the nineteenth-century that preceded its construction in 1889 and the coming uninhibited technological modernity whose beginnings remain apparent in its lacy ironwork and, for Paris, its exceptional stature.  To object to the tourist fashioning of its superficial symbolism is one complaint, but it’s worth considering how Paris itself has used this structure to characterize the city in popular media.  Any quick survey of Eiffel Tower history will tell you about its origins in the Exposition Universelle (the same one that inspired Gauguin to head to the South Pacific), its continued prominence in the advent of film and avant-garde theater in the early twentieth century, and then describe how it still serves as central to aspects of French cultural life—including the Bastille Day fireworks that crown the Tower in fire and colored lights every July 14th.

From that history, I believe it is possible to find peace in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.  The lawn at the Trocadéro is one of the few non-museum places in Paris that I have returned to again and again, bringing a book to read for awhile and absorb the bustling city.  I like watching the Tower change, knowing that the hours are passing when the cannons at the Trocadéro majestically fire and splash water all over the lawn or the Tower sparkles and everyone “oohs” and “ahhs” together.  Even as I dodge the men selling tacky metal keychains and grasp harder at my purse, the Eiffel Tower grounds my professional expertise in the fascination I feel for France and its art and culture.