exhibitions

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.

Art for Everyone? Not Without Explanatory Labels

I can’t stand art exhibitions that do not use explanatory wall labels.

There’s no point in mincing my words on this topic.  I spend most of my time these days at a history museum that does not have label texts because they have guided tours, but for the most part, there is little in the rooms of a historic house museum that would seem inscrutable to the average visitor.  The guide of that tour, then, embroiders stories over what the visitors see, adding color and making connections that can shape a museum experience into something memorable.  In this case, labels are not really necessary because the experience aims throughout to be immersive and participatory.

And yet, for all the talk in professional communities about museums needing to focus on providing participatory experiences, art museums still frequently put up exhibitions without label texts that include no more than the identifying information for the work. For contemporary art, where the works are often, officially, “Untitled,” this identifying information alone can be next to meaningless.  Without available programming that engages the themes of the exhibition, there is little to provide explanation of the messages of the works on display. When the works being exhibited draw on complex social histories, theories, and politics, which the viewer may or may not be familiar with prior to their visit, how can a person participate in the dialogues the works are meant to invoke? 

If there is no audio tour, handout, or extra program, an art exhibition without explanatory labels asks for viewers to be already “in the know” about the issues the works address, like walking through the door of an art museum certifies entry into a privileged community.  This is the very opposite of a participatory museum experience, and it undermines the role that art museums should play in our society.  This oversight is the kind of thing that enables the belief that Art History, as a discipline, is the province of the rich and entitled, a discipline superfluous to regular life. 

I have been guilty myself of thinking that providing further explanation of Art History and also specific artworks seemed like an unnecessary concession—that people should understand the necessity of studying Art History without me explaining to them why I believe in its importance.  I realize now that this reflexive reaction of mine functioned more like a defense mechanism against forcing myself to confront the question.  Why do I believe in the importance of studying Art History? 

Good artists do more than make pictures.  They take entire worldviews and funnel them into visual work that tells a story, makes a protest, experiments with media, or takes any one of many, many other actions.  Their work is often complicated, whether or not the assemblage of paint and materials in the museum seems complicated.  And sometimes, a viewer needs a few clues to guess what message the artist was trying to send.  When work concerns issues of race, class, or gender, a viewer may need much more than a few clues to avoid relying on stereotypes for understanding and growth.

I’m lucky to live somewhere where the art museum has immense community support and colossal amounts of funding to put behind its outreach programs.  Maybe my art museum can get away with not using explanatory labels in special exhibitions, but it still shouldn’t.  Getting people through the door can’t be enough when art museums and, yes, Art History are two of the greatest tools we have to convince people why they should trust in empathy, creativity, and education.