In general cultural heritage has a good reputation. It is mostly seen as something valuable, to be proud of and worthwhile preserving. But sometimes heritage becomes dissonant. If so, it is often the case with statues of historical figures. These statues were raised in a specific period and for specific reasons. They send a message; ‘this person sets an example, is someone worthwhile remembering’. Sometimes with a change in historical context, perception and appreciation statues suddenly become a symbol of the contrary; ‘this person represents everything we reject’. How to react when such a situation emerges?
In 2014 the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, the Netherlands, was granted the Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Award for the museums response to a public debate concerning the statue of Jan Pietersz Coen (1587-1629), Governor General of the Dutch United East India Company. The statue, a national monument, stands right in front of the museum on the town’s main square.
In 2011 a group of citizens from Hoorn asked the City Council to remove the statue. In their opinion Coen was a mass murderer, who used violence as a means to establish a VOC monopoly in the spice trade in the East Indies.
Their petition for the removal of the statue led to a nation-wide debate. Not only about the monument itself but also about bigger issues ; how to deal with the Dutch Colonial Past? What to do with statues that were raised in the nationalistic spirit of the late 19th century? How to judge the acts of figures like Coen, what set of moral standards may or can be used.
The public debate on the street, in the newspapers, on national television and social media was fierce and emotional and very rather black-and-white. Coen was either a villain or a hero. There was no room for nuance and there was also a great lack of historical knowledge in the debate.
To the Westfries Museum, a municipal museum that profiles itself as a Museum of the Dutch Golden Age, the Coen statue-debate came like ‘a gift from heaven’. Suddenly the Golden Age was trending topic and on everybody’s lips.
The museum responded swift with a multimedia project; The Coen Case. A striking example of what a participative museum should be; open to the needs of the local community, involving and creative in the way it raises cultural heritage awareness.
The starting point was the need of many people to take a side in the debate about the statue, to come up with an opinion about the former Governor General. To respond to that need the museum took the role of motivator and facilitator, without judging itself. It presented historical facts and different opinions on JP Coen in an appealing way, explaining how and why the image of JP Coen had changed over the years. With this information people could make their own mind.
A second aim was to create a permanent information platform concerning JP Coen, that can be used in future debates, by tourists wondering who’s statue they are looking at and in general by everybody who wants to know more about this interesting historical figure.
The Coen Case was a multimedia project. The heart of the project was an exhibitionin the form of a trial. An ideal format to present different opinions and to motivate people to get notice of opposite opinions. Like in a trial the museum visitor was confronted with lots of evidence (objects), witnesses of the defence and the prosecution (historians and journalists with different opinions).The ‘trial’ was led by ‘judge’ Maarten van Rossem, a famous Dutch historian and television personality. The museum visitor got the role of member of the jury and was asked to come up with a motivated verdict on the charge ; ‘Jan PieterszCoen does not deserve a statue’.
This format proofed to be a great success. The museum visitor felt invited to participate and to come up with an opinion. Never was their so much discussion in the museum’s exhibition hall.
In the end an exhibition is temporary. To present all the research in a more permanent but still attractive and appealing way, the exhibition was accompanied by a full colour, 100 page glossy, Coen!. A reference to the many popular personal magazines in the Netherlands. Made in cooperation with a local publisher.
The museum also took the initiative for a website dedicated to Coen. To involve as many people as possible and to keep up the publicity the museum organised several activities, ranging from side exhibitions, to concerts, lectures and a story-telling project.
The public response to The Coen Case was very good. Over 9.650 visitors participated in the exhibition, of which 3.119 schoolchildren. 1.142 Coen! magazines were sold. But the most rewarding result; 3.012 motivated votes of visitors as members of the exhibition jury whether the statue should be removed or not. The verdict ; 67% of the visitors judged that the statue did not have to be removed for different reasons. They argued that one had to judge historical figures by the moral standards of their time, or saw it as a monument of the nationalistic sentiment at the end of the 19th century, or concluded that the removal of the statue would cover up the black pages of history.
The statue of Governor General Jan PieterszCoen still overlooks the main square of Hoorn. In the end the city council decided that they did not want to remove it. But the text of the information panel on the statue was changed. The Westfries Museum wrote a new more balanced text in which different views on the Governor General are mentioned. The new information panel on the base of the statue has a QR code that gives access to the Coen website and a telephone number. If people call the number they reach Coen’s voicemail asking them to leave him a message.
The jury of the Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Award appreciated the Westfries Museum approach. They were struck by the wider European significance of the project and called The Coen Case ; “a well-executed, multi-layered and creative project, which serves as an excellent model for discussing Europe’s complex and sometimes painful history and heritage in an open and frank debate, without oversimplifying and without taking sides.”
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