Finally, the Amsterdam Museum is opening their exhibition of the Golden Coach belonging to the Dutch Royal family. The exhibition is the culmination of a long restoration process, which has seen the coach taken out of use since 2016. The coach, decorated with imagery depicting Dutch colonial subjects in a position of reverent submission, has been the focus of much criticism as a representation of a painful colonial history. And, for that reason, the museum had planned what should have been an extensive programme of public engagement. This was to begin in the months leading up to the installation of the exhibition. The plan was to invite interested groups and museum visitors to share their thoughts and opinions on the object and its potential future, so that these thoughts could then inform the broader narrative of the exhibition, and potentially influence the curation process – all amid rumours that the King is considering whether to permanently consign the coach to a museum setting.
Due to the lockdown, the museum has not been able to achieve the full width of its plan of prior public engagement, but has had to begin installation while considering how to best carry out their plans under the current measures. Rather than lament the situation, I want to consider this case as an opportunity to think about the way the pandemic has challenged the museum’s idea of public engagement.
The process of decolonisation that the Amsterdam Museum is engaged in — like its decision to refrain from using the term “Golden Age” to refer to the 17th century — is one that considers the public through a lens of representation and education. But during lockdown, the term “public” has rather come to describe all those who are literally absent. This poses a challenge to anyone wishing to understand or engage with a public.
Part of the plan, had been to allow museum visitors to come in direct contact with a member of the research team, which the museum’s press release described as “composed of specialists that represent a diversity of backgrounds and areas of expertise.” Like all other “institutions,” the Amsterdam Museum is in danger of being viewed not as an organisation of people, but an amorphous mass of cultural capital. Except for chance appearances in public talks — such as the online AM LIVE broadcast that the Amsterdam museum has facilitated during the lockdown — the work of the curator or researcher is often perceived as something like that of a stage hand: presenting an illusion of a coherent world that the audience can enter without knowing how it came to be. And in the case of disagreement — such as what is anticipated to arise from displaying the Golden Coach — the question becomes where to direct that disagreement. To that end, the physical presence of the research team seemed a natural if demanding solution: doing away with the ideal of self-effacement that is the usual mark of professionalism in favour of highlighting the personal involvement of each researcher. The question would then be what level of responsibility each of them should have been expected to shoulder in relation to the institution as a whole?
And the question of responsibility cannot simply be a “whodunnit” search for someone to blame. This seems clear from the extension of the museum public both temporally and physically — with a mobile installation, which is planned to travel the length and breadth of the country, in search of that “other” public opinion of those unable (or unwilling) to attend the exhibition. There is more than just fastidiousness to the Amsterdam Museum’s concern: who exactly should make up the ideal museum public?
Although it might appear theoretically interesting to engage people for whom seeing the coach is a painful reminder of the continuing racist foundations of modern Europe, does such engagement really benefit them? And if the answer is no, then whom or what does it serve?
Here it might be useful to consider the specific forms of knowledge produced in a museum setting. Regardless of how many different voices are engaged in debate, not everyone’s articulations will be included in the “diversity of storylines” that the museum promises. And naturally so: there is a limit to the number of voices who can participate in a conversation before it becomes cacophony. Part of the role of the museum is to establish procedures and criteria to ensure that not only the loudest voices are heard. Different versions of these criteria have faced much rightful criticism (from scholars of institutional critique and in debates on decolonisation) over at least the last half a century: and the response of the Amsterdam Museum, in an attempt to democratise the process, seems at first glance to be to replace deceptively “objective” — but implicitly colonial — criteria with a range of human perspectives. However, we still need to ask to what end these perspectives are mobilised?
The concept of a prior programme of public engagement seems to suggest that the museum curators expected to be able to relieve themselves of some of the responsibility of taking an “objective” stand by turning the coach into an object of discussion with individuals and public debate. But the absence of the “public” from that debate, caused by the lockdown, makes it clear that one cannot assume a public naturally to form around every contested cultural object: antagonism as a strategy for democratic engagement only works when every party feel they have something to gain. And I can only speculate that changing the medium of engagement from a physical to an online space would have made it still more likely that those not wanting to see the coach on display would evade the museum’s attempt at engagement.
Perhaps, rather than asking how to engage different publics, the museum should consider what is can offer those people for whom the display of the Golden Coach is only a painful reiteration of colonialist discourse — other than a space to put that pain on display. Could the curatorial strategy reveal to us what the exhibition might look like to someone making a conscious and justified decision to look away? I, for one, am excited to see the answer this summer.
The exhibition 'The Golden Coach' is on view at the Amsterdam Museum until February 27, 2022. See https://www.amsterdammuseum.nl/tentoonstellingen/de-gouden-koets
This text has been written and edited as part of het AICA-mentorschap
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