I’ve just returned from a week-long study trip to the Netherlands, a whirlwind visit that included nearly two dozen museums and historic sites, thanks to the MuseumKaart. This card provides free (and sometimes discounted) admission at most museums in the Netherlands for a year. It can be purchased at any participating museum for €55 and although it was a lot of money to pass over on my first day, I received it back quickly because admission fees range from €5 (Edam Museum) to €17.50 (Rijksmuseum). As a museum geek, they definitely lost money with me. Even better, it’s good for a year, unlike the 1-3 day “I am Amsterdam” card, so there’s no rush. The card not only saved me money, but encouraged me to see places I wouldn’t ordinarily visit, such as the Museum of Bags and Purses or the Willet-Holthuysen Museum.
My week in the Netherlands was provocative and I’ll be sharing some of the best and most interesting experiences in the coming weeks. In general, museums and historic sites in the Netherlands seem to:
1. provide interpretive materials, including site brochures and exhibit labels, in at least two languages—Dutch and English—and English can be the primary language for banners and posters. The Netherlands is a crossroads for people from all over the world and it was fascinating to see that the English language formed the common bond. At the admission desk at the Teylers Museum, the Dutch admission staff and the French visitors spoke to each other in English—no one used their native language. English seemed to be limited to directions and logistics, however, and the interpretation was frequently provided in several languages. The Vermeer Center, for example, provided audiotours in seven languages although five is more typical. I appreciated having materials in my native language to better enjoy the museum, even if it was in broken English at times (I could still figure it out and it was better than nothing—and sometimes amusing). Let’s consider the same courtesy to our visitors from other countries, even if it’s just a one-page explanation of the site’s history or map produced in-house using Google Translate.
2. the largest museums use digital technologies extensively, but just as in the US, visitors engage with them only briefly, if at all. The only exception were the Podcatcher audio handsets, a handheld device about the size and weight of a pack of cigarettes, which visitors continually used. It’s triggered when held close to a small id tag on a wall or near an object (RFID?) and then placed to your ear to hear the interpretation. Three buttons pause or play the audio and control the volume, and can double-up to provide deeper information (e.g., “press A to learn more about the artist”). It’s simple and light, easy to clean, and allows visitors to choose what they want to do. The Podcatcher is created by Guide ID and seems to be available only in the Netherlands, Belgium, and UK, but I can see them being very popular in the US. If you’re thinking of audiotours, you’ll want to check them out.
3. rarely use stanchions. You do find objects placed behind glass, a rope across a chair, or a line on the floor in front of a painting, but it’s not common. It’s great to be able to wander more fully in a room to look at the objects, but I’ll admit, a part of me was also cringing because of the risk. I’m not sure if my concerns were entirely valid. Perhaps the furnishings were reproduction, they had other means to prevent theft (such as security guards), or they believed the improved visitor experience is worth the risk. It did make me re-evaluate the omnipresent velvet rope in the US and I’ll be looking more closely at where it’s needed or not.
4. actively link past and present. Exhibits and events routinely make connections between past and present to provoke discussion, provide comparisons, generate interest, or engage audiences. The Frans Hals Museum juxtaposed 17th century paintings with modern flower arrangements. The Rembrandt House held a symposium about the relationship between artists and students today. The Open Air Museum in Arnhem shows a 17th century farmhouse as it was last used as a residence in 2002. These are approaches that are just beginning to be explored in the US so if this is something that interests you, you might want to visit the Netherlands.