National Archives: The Memory Palace

Nancy Hovingh

Project Manager, Exhibitions

National Archives of The Netherlands

Nationaal Archief P.O. Box 90520 2509 LM The Hague The Netherlaands

The Hague, The Netherlands

Museums + Heritage Awards 2014 International Award

The Memory Palace, A Report On The Principles And The Choices

The National Archive forms the ‘national memory’ of the Netherlands through almost 125 kilometres of documents, over 300,000 maps and drawings and about 15 million photographs. Its mission is serving every person’s right to information and giving an insight into the past of the Netherlands.

22memo2xAfter a huge remodelling - with the goal to further the use of the collection - the new visitors’ centre of the National Archive opened in October 2013 with the inaugural exhibition ‘The Memory Palace – with your head in the archives’.

The brief for this inaugural exhibition was stated in four goals - this is how we have tried to achieve them:

1. To acquaint the public to the wealth and scope of the collection
The general principle for the exhibition was that we were not going make a treasure trove display, we wanted to tell stories. Stories that are hidden within the documents. Jointly, they should represent different periods from history and it should be possible to make a link between a personal story and a wider historical perspective. Also, the different types of archive should to be given a higher profile. And the stories must be relevant and preferably have an up to date aspect.

Finally 11 stories were selected:
- Navigating through the Middle Ages (1179-1598)
- War in the Peking Legation Quarter (1909-1919)
- Image-building in the Golden Age (1547-1619)
- Reluctant hero (1944-1946)
- ‘Once There Was a Clever Girl’ (1602-1799)
- Europapas (1948-1957)
- The Da Vinci of the North (1495-1562)
- 'Welcomed home with the smell of Brussels sprouts’ (1946-1970)
- Going to Berbice! (1792-1794)
- Divorce equals suffering (1965-1971)

2. To give a very wide public easy access to the collection
By exhibiting documents, you offer a different kind of acces to the collection. At first sight however, archival documents do not appear very attractive and easy to understand. Our challenge is to attract attention to them and make it possible to discover the stories hidden in them.
We decided only to present original documents, with a maximum of 15 documents per story. We have tried to seek variety with 3D objects on loan and moving images and sound. And we looked for a way to exhibit the documents in a surprising and new context and design to create an atmosphere that invites people to come and see.

Archival documents are often hard to read, so we decided that all original handwritten documents are to be made digitally legible with specially developed software.

We have tried as much as possible to make a connection with our own times and the subjects that have a meaning in modern society when we selected the stories. For each story we chose an artist who interprets the story and through its contemporary language brings it closer to today.
In the case of two stories we asked visitors to look back and participate by e-mailing us their stories or experiences.

22memo1x3. To inspire visitors to use the collection
By asking various artists from different disciplines to work with the stories, the exhibition offers the visitor a varied menu. In addition visitors can see what kind of expressions and products archival research can lead to.

Behind the idea of involving various artists, also lies the idea of the dissemination. For example, the performance theatre artist Jaime Ibanez has devised for the story ‘Going to Berbice!’ had its premiere at the Oerol Festival and has been shown in various festivals around the country in 2014. The modern version of the old folk song ‘Once there was a clever girl’ actor and singer Ricky Koole wrote for our tale about women in the Dutch East India Company, was included in her own musical show with which she is touring the Dutch theatres in 2014/15.

In the middle of the exhibition is a data visualization installation in which the collection of the National Archives is depicted as a map of the world (archival research as a journey of discovery). The image is based on the database that contains information about all the archives and their use.
The continents in the data visualization represent the five main elements of the collection.The countries in these continents are a further subdivision and the cities represent the archives. Visitors can touch the cities to see which archives are part of the collection.

The subjects shown at the edge of the screen are links to further information about the collection and how it is being used in our reading rooms.
At the foot of the screen you can select the stories from the exhibition and see the journeys we have made in making the exhibition.

4. To surprise visitors in more ways than one
The probably dusty and hermetic image of an archive which potential visitors harbour had to be demolished to start with and be replaced with an atmosphere which invited a mood of discovery and accommodated the abundance of documents without being overwhelming or being a killjoy. Moreover, information had to be offered in a contemporary way.

A partnership was desired with Jan Blokker, a renowned historian who is popular with the wider public. His assignment was to write an overarching story in which the importance of keeping archives would become obvious.
He turned it into a modern fairy-tale in which a wise king finds scraps of paper which are borne on the wind and he likes to know exactly where they came from and what they are. He selects eleven people to travel and investigate. After many years they return and as they each tell their tales and show their treasures, it seems as though they are holding something back. On the last day it is revealed: this far flung and strange country does not exist at all, the travellers went into the archives and there they explored the past. Finally, the king decided to open the cabinets to all his subjects and to give everybody the opportunity to acquaint themselves with that past.

This story formed the basis for the design by Todd van Hulzen in collaboration with Studio Louter. His set from archive boxes is an allusion to the collection and the stories hidden in them, now revealed to the public. It is also a pun on ‘reconstructing’ history with the help of archival documents as building blocks.

The Memory Palace has eleven cabinets where the stories are told. The central oval space of the castle features the archive collection itself, transposed into the data visualization. Coloured lights lend an ambience to the otherwise darkened palace.

The boxes give the visitor the impression that they are wandering around in the archives of the personages who are the centre of the stories.
Every space has been given its own ambience. And so the exhibition offers something for each visitor.

Have a look at the exhibition:


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