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.

Summer of Proust and Public Humanities

Marcel Proust's reconstructed bedroom in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (My photo, ca. 2011.)

Marcel Proust's reconstructed bedroom in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (My photo, ca. 2011.)

Earlier this summer, I saw a writer on Twitter suggesting that she would hold a “Summer of Proust” – an organized effort to read (at least) the first 200 pages of Swann’s Way. Published in 1913, it's the first of seven books in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time saga. I jumped in, volunteering to organize a chapter for my city, twisting the arm of my best friend until she joined up and tried to recruit people as well. When we had a small but mighty cohort of people, we began to read and scheduled our first meeting.  Ok, great.

Choosing Proust is not exactly like choosing a friendly, mainstream book club book—witness the book choices of any public library system that tries to do a “one community, one read” program. They usually choose books that are more straightforward in structure and plot, whereas Proust is a dense pile of run-on sentences and ethereal prose that's hard to pin down, an exercise in extreme aestheticism bordering on phenomenological theory.  It's hard to follow even if you're invested in it. Reading it as a collective exercise intrigued me because I, a person with an actual French degree and an established specialization in French art history, managed to never read any of it prior to this summer.

At some point during this process, during a summer replete with my own occupational soul-searching, it occurred to me that exercises like Summer of Proust are, however, the very point of the public humanities—finding ways to bring people to great literature, or art, or music, or philosophy, so that they can experience it on their own terms.  Terms that, because they’re set by the participants with minimal guidance from the organizer, are even more valuable than whatever the supposed gospel truth of the cultural import of the text might be.

Related: I’ve been struggling for weeks to write a blog post about Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette comedy special on Netflix and how it uses art history.  Her jokes are deeply well-informed and glorious in their confrontation of dangerous suppositions about canonical artists. She clearly knows much factual information about art history, and will hopefully inspire more people to seek out clarifications and truths about their artistic idols. However, another piece of historical commentary struck me to my core.  With the frame narrative of this special being her threats to give up comedy, she asks what she’ll do if she does.  She says, even with an art history degree, she can’t get a job in a gallery or a museum because they’re “too high class,” and “look at me!"

When people think anything in related to art, art history, or the humanities is “too high class” for them, we’re all doing our jobs wrong. Full stop. The staffs of institutions that deal in presenting arts and humanities content to the public should mirror the public they want to serve, which should certainly apply to museums, if not commercial galleries. Any person should be able to pick up Proust if they want. Maybe, because of what I know of late nineteenth-century French culture, I might laugh a little harder than another person at the scene where the narrator, as a child, meets a Nana-style courtesan for the first time (see, I read Zola instead...) and has to process that through his little brain. But that doesn’t mean that the other person enjoys the text any less.

We should be vigilant of the fact that the humanities, when public-facing and democratic, can offer strength and solace and grounding.  Where people disagree on politics or religion, or whatever else, they may find useful discussion in a humanistic text. There’s a reason that thousands upon thousands of people who’ve never read Swann’s Way know that madeleines are synonymous with nostalgia and memories—everyone has had the experience of being triggered to remember something of their past by a smell, taste, sight, or sound. Since we started our Summer of Proust group, we've found one Proust reference in an article on condiment mascots used by the Cleveland Indians and another in a podcast hosted by MSNBC host Chris Hayes.

Much like Proust spun an entire world from the taste of a madeleine, we must put ourselves in the way of experiences that expand our world views.  We must resist gate-keeping of difficult and supposedly "elite" humanities content and offer it to all who would be interested.  And so, in our little Midwestern city, my friends and I meet in coffee shops and apartments to discuss the words of a long-dead French author and his conceptions of social class that are as deeply puzzling as our own society’s frequently are. 

Writing Fiction Instead Hughes Hughes

I haven’t written a blog post in the past couple of weeks, breaking my summer promise to myself to blog every week. There have absolutely been holidays that reordered my work week and project phone calls to plan and distractions entailing crossed fingers (whether the World Cup or otherwise).  But also, I spent some of that time, previously devoted to blogging, trying to write fiction instead.

Nothing big, or complicated, or even really good, probably.  But I had an idea that I thought would be great for a short story, and so I sat down to try to write it.  I wrote as hard as a could on real paper and in pen for the 30 minutes or so that I had at my disposal.  A few days later, I felt like typing, so I opened a new Word document, typed the sentence I had left off with, and continued on writing that way instead.  The story isn’t fully drafted yet, and I’m not sure where to go with it, but it matters to me that I had the idea.  A few days later, I had another idea for a story.  I haven’t started it yet, but the idea has stayed with me.

For me, losing the ability to have those ideas had become the most frustrating part of post-graduate school life. When I finished my dissertation, I felt empty of ideas.  No matter how much I read or what workshops I went to, I couldn’t find an idea I felt like I could pursue further. Any idea I did have disappeared from my memory quickly, which became especially frustrating because I had always been the person other people counted on to remember facts and scholars’ names and details of arguments.

I’m sure some people would argue that my idea loss has been symptomatic of something more serious than just blahs – whether that’s grief, a post-academic symptom that Lisa Munro has explained so clearly, or something else.  Maybe it was, but it also kept me from starting anything even as pieces of those workshops or readings made sense to me.  As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Big Magic:

“ideas spend eternity swirling around us… Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re so consumed by your own dramas, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration… The idea will try to wave you down… but when it finally realizes that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else” (35-36). 

I think of that passage often. When I first read it, a few years ago, it gave me comfort because I knew exactly what she meant.

But now, this one idea that I made contact with has persisted to the tune of over 1000 words and counting. I have dipped in and out of this idea, writing more, or doing the labor of typing up the handwritten words and editing as I go. The period I’m in now feels like the familiar point of academic writing that came after I had read articles and books and pieced together what other people felt about a painting or a theory and everything has been poured into my brain to mingle and interact and finally (finally!) produce an argument of my own.

So when I have time, I write. I have much more to write for this space about my trip earlier this summer., but I also have a couple more ideas for fiction writing that seem like they might push through to the page. I’m not sure how my story will end, but it feels like such a monumental leap forward to have these ideas stick around and to work with them as I am able.

Before and After: Francophone World Cup

I write this as I watch a World Cup match between Poland vs. Senegal.  I’m rooting for Senegal, a Francophone African country whose literature and art I have been fortunate to study. When I majored in French in college, it seemed like a logical continuation of the French classes I took in high school, and I believed, perhaps, that it would be all Paris all the time. Luckily, I had a number of French professors, even ones who taught the “all Paris all the time” classes, who actively refuted that idea.

At my undergraduate university, most of the French professors regularly taught and even published on literature from French-speaking countries far beyond France.  In one class alone, I remember reading novels published by authors from France, Canada, Senegal, Egypt, and Guadaloupe.  In another class, focused on “women in developing countries,” we more broadly explored Francophone and non-Francophone parts of Africa and the Middle East through literature and nonfiction writing.  For these professors, it was never a matter of France or the French language being sacred for its Frenchness; they understood how the language connected all of these countries and their disparate cultures together.  They taught us that it was worth examining the consequences of French colonialism and how French influence fused with local practices, for better or worse.

When I went to graduate school, I took a course in West African Art. We were assigned a research project, and it was an easy choice for me to look deeper into Senegal for a topic. I quickly found a book about art that depicts Ahmadu Bamba (1853-1927), a mystic and prophet who founded a particular Senegalese sect of Sufi Islam. I looked further and found a painter named Alpha Wallid Diallo (1927-2000) who had trained in the École des Arts in Dakar but chose history painting over the popular modernism of the day. I became fascinated by a series of paintings he did to depict Bamba’s life—they seemed to use the idiom of history painting, which was so familiar to me from studying Jacques-Louis David and other French painters of a century and a half earlier, to craft a meaningful political statement for Senegalese Islam. Senegalese culture in the 1970s and 1980s proved to be a mesmerizing cocktail of post-colonialism, nationalism, and an emphasis on the arts as a means of expression.

I don’t follow soccer regularly, but there’s something about the World Cup that makes me love it even more and differently than an international competition like the Olympics. Dropping in to watch matches incessantly for a month every four years means that I don’t have the context for this sport the way I would for baseball or football in the United States. I don’t always know who led the league in scoring or recently signed a huge contract—except for a few superstar cases, I barely know which league many of these athletes play in during their regular club seasons. The leveling effect of everyone playing for their national team helps me to enjoy the sport.  Certainly, there are countries that field national teams full of stars in other leagues, but there are also teams, like Senegal and Egypt, where the stars, who play internationally, return home to do their part in attempting to lift their home country with a World Cup victory and maybe more.

I finish up this post long after Senegal’s win over Poland, writing as Egypt concludes their loss to Russia and almost certain elimination from the tournament. The grief of the Egyptian fans is remarkable, as strong and fierce as the unmitigated joy that Mexican fans felt after their team improbably defeated Germany a few days ago. I first became fascinated by the World Cup when I spent the summer of 2014 in France; I vividly remember being on a tram in Montpellier that passed a bar where people of Algerian descent were watching the Algerian team win and advance out of the group stage. That summer, I was also staying with a Chilean woman who was deeply, deeply engaged by how well the Chilean team was playing.  I began watching matches on my own, trying to understand the rules and dynamics of the sport, as well as the different styles and characters of each national team. 

What I learned in those Francophone literature classes about cultures very different from my own expanded, at the time, how I thought about cultural identity and the relationship between culture and daily life. As I have traveled more and studied more, my enjoyment of the World Cup has become an almost anthropological act—I find joy in these soccer matches where the fans arrive in their jerseys, carrying national symbols, and singing their particular songs. I love watching the fans as much as the matches, and I especially enjoy when they cut to a watch party in the biggest square or park in the capital city of the home country, where everyone loudly cheers as if they're in the stadium themselves. Americans have very little stake in this tournament, even when we qualify and probably even when we co-host in 2026, so the World Cup is a chance to pick a team that plays enthusiastically for a country whose population hangs their hopes on that team’s success.  I’ll be watching, keeping my fingers crossed for Senegal.

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.