Last week I was invited by Museum Rotterdam to the festive launch of a magazine that concludes the first phase of the amazing outreach and participatory project the city as a muse. The event – in a circus tent in a rundown part of town – was in many ways un-museum-like and (therefore?) I enjoyed it a lot.
After a recent shift in direction, which included removing “Historical” from its name, Museum Rotterdam tries to be a museum for all people in the city. The city as a muse is a project that searches for inspirational developments and initiatives among the people of Rotterdam and tries to connect this with the museum. The first phase of the project aimed at a group of women (‘De Vrouwen van de Velden’) who’ve organised themselves to jointly cope with the drastic changes in their neighbourhood.
The women are mothers, of varied cultural backgrounds, poor and extremely creative. Once a week they have breakfast together to discuss and organize. The urban curator of Museum Rotterdam joined them for a couple of months and conducted interviews, photo sessions and other activities to discover as much as possible about the lives of the women. The final product of this intensive cooperation is not an exposition, but a magazine like the modern glossies.
The women in the magazine represent themselves, but also a growing group of people in Rotterdam (and cities all over the world). It’s a compelling story of Rotterdam AD 2011.
I’ve been following this project for a while and I think it’s exemplary and inspirational in a couple of ways:
- The project truly connected with a community. Unlike most projects that try to build new communities, Museum Rotterdam spent considerable time and effort in finding an established community with a strong structure, key players and an obvious mission. They then spent considerable time and effort yet again to get involved in this community. The museum almost sort of joined the community and then earned their respect and only then asked for something in return. Their reward: Hundreds of people who would never even have thought about visiting their building now have fond memories of the museum and its activities.
- The project really left the walls of the museum. The great advantage when you leave your institution should be that you reach a different audience. Otherwise you just as well could have stayed indoors. Museum Rotterdam managed to get as far out of their comfortable building as possible, without making it an anthropologic escapade. Obviously the location they picked for their launch (in the neighbourhood, in a tent) suited the project.
- The project works cross-sectoral. Although the official relation between the museum and the women ended in the circus tent, the project did not. Continuing to build upon the stories and strength of the women a community theatre performance is in the making. This way the project has continuity across the cultural sector and different types of institutions benefit from each other’s efforts.
- The museum looked beyond traditional museum means to deliver the message. Most museum projects result in an exposition, catalogue or presentation. Museum Rotterdam looked beyond this rather traditional array of options and used a glossy, theater and a circus tent as means of delivering the message. The media-rich world we live in offers us so much more options to do our work and it’s good museums start discovering this.
- The project used no new media. Museum Rotterdam isn’t in at tech forefront (I believe they’re not even on Twitter, can you imagine?). Yet with this project they managed to get invited to the 2.0-arena of crowdsourcing debates, etc. To me this proves a great project can still be a great project without a social media campaign attached to it. It all about picking the right tools to do the job at hand. A magazine and a circus tent might be just as well suited to reach people as Facebook and Foursquare.
The coming years Museum Rotterdam will continue with the project the city as a muse, looking for more special places in the city. I’m looking forward to their next years and the way in which they’ll inspire me.
I imagine there’s a museum near you doing some great outreach work as well, similar to Museum Rotterdam. I’d love to learn more about similar projects. Please tip them in the comments. Thanks!
Photography by Museum Rotterdam/Laurens Brongers