Museum Perron Oost in the East of Amsterdam claims to be the world’s smallest museum. The museum’s ambition and impact, however, are all but small. Last week during one of Amsterdam’s regular meetings of neighbourhood museums, in five minutes the museum’s director Anet Wilgenhof shared countless examples of their social and participatory, often community-driven work. The one (of many) that stood out for me involved dogs, their owners, and shows how simple it can be for a museum to connect with strangers.
Buoyant barking, in Dutch ‘opgewekt blaffen’, is a photography and storytelling project by De Verhalenwinkel, in and around Museum Perron Oost. Its ambition was to show the neighbourhood of the museum through the eyes and ears of some of its keenest observers: dogs that are walked in the area.
To understand the origins of the project, you have to understand Museum Perron Oost. The museum is based in a the format cottage of the overseer on a now disused train platform in the eastern docklands of Amsterdam. Decades ago, it was saved from destruction by an artist, who transformed it into a stately walkway. It is a beautiful site, and the museum tries to use it to stimulate connections and relations in the neighbourhood. With only six square meters of gallery space, to do so Anet and her team have to look beyond the walls of the building.
Museum Perron Oost. (Photo by Carien van Leeuwen)
Anne van Delft and Peet van Duijnhoven of De Verhalenwinkel discovered that the platform was part of the route of many people walking their dogs. This observation provided them with the target audience for the exhibition. They chatted with the passersby about the neighbourhood and their dogs. The stories about the dogs were better, and became the basis of the project.
Owners were invited to take a picture of their four-legged furry friends, and share the story of the neighbourhood to their eyes. These stories and pictures became part of a growing exhibition: new stories would be presented all the time. This encouraged dog walkers to come to the museum repeatedly, to see the new stories. Some owners returned over five times, sometimes with their families. The museum was open to dogs as well. According to Anet they enjoyed the exhibition as much as their owners, especially when they recognised a friend in one of the pictures.
The project collected 24 stories in total. Each of these stories is part of a larger narrative. Consider for instance the story of the dog Whisky. His owner was so proud that Whisky was part of the exhibition, and touched by the story, that she became emotional upon seeing the exhibition. Unfortunately, but beautifully, she and Whisky didn’t attend the opening, as the dog had died of old age and the owner was too heart-broken to attend.
Whisky. (Photo by owner.)
Other dog owners had never before visited a museum, as they felt these places weren’t for them (a story that echoes the comments of the participants in The City as a Muse in Rotterdam).
It are these stories why I like Buoyant barking so much. Using pets in a way similar to how internet memes do, the project is easy to like, but its charm goes beyond pictures of cute dogs. Every day, hundreds of millions of people with wonderful stories walk by cultural sites all over the world. Few of them ever enter, and fewer still have an emotional experience when they do. The moment a museum dares to look outside and engage the passers-by in a conversation about something they care about, as Museum Perron Oost (and Museum Rotterdam, and so many others) has done with Buoyant barking, the relationships that develop are priceless.
Even the world’s smallest museum can have a tremendous impact, if it works with its communities.
Quinn. (Photo by owner.)
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