The Stedelijk Museum Schiedam is located in Schiedam, the Netherlands. Literally side by side with Rotterdam, the largest port of Europa. It boasts a small, beautiful historic centre and large new-construction quarters round it. It has always been a working class town from way back, known for its shipyards and – still – its gin industry. It is home to 80,000 people. Of the residents under 50, the majority have a migration background. There is a relatively high percentage of unemployment and crime. It is a town that reflects the complexity of the world on a daily basis. At the same time, it is also a town that is not yet finished and encourages the pioneering spirit. Already Schiedam is sometimes called the Brooklyn of Rotterdam. But that is still a long way off.
The Museum is located in the centre of Schiedam, in an 18th-century guesthouse-cum-almshouse-cum-hospital. Our collection encompasses modern and contemporary art as well as town history. By Dutch standards it is a medium-sized museum: we employ 20 permanent staff and dozens of project staff, museum teachers and volunteers.
After a financial and existential crisis four years ago, it was instructed to try and attract more visitors and to create a new image as a community organization. To achieve this, the Museum had to reinvent itself. Interim position: the number of visitors has doubled, to over 70,000. But the main question is: what is the Museum’s relevance with respect to the town?
In this Museum we are doers rather than armchair thinkers. We do it ‘OF, BY FOR ALL’, Nina Simon’s way. We were the only museum on the European continent that was part of the first wave of this movement. Nina’s book, The Art of Relevance, has been a major source of inspiration in our search for a new direction.
There are three ways in which we try to be relevant to our community.
First of all, we seek to connect with our town by letting programmes be created BY residents themselves, or by doing it together. Some of many examples:
In close cooperation with 85 associations we made the exhibition Banners and Stories: we made banners on the sewing machine, had meals together and held a parade through the town. We still reap the fruits of that network. The Dahlia association, for example, still puts fresh flowers in our Museum cafe every year. Sometimes with a card: “These flowers are real”.
Isa and Lisa, two grammar school pupils, sent us an email: “Hi, can we make an exhibition?” Well, yes, absolutely. It was about the impact of social media on young people’s self-image. It opened on the very same day as our exhibition Rothko I, where you could admire one work by Rothko all alone (after handing in your mobile phone).
And Batya Brown organized her unforgettable belly painting festival in the Museum.
In conjunction with boxing school De Haan we organized a weekend round art and boxing. We installed a boxing ring in our entrance hall and invited twelve local amateurs to have boxing matches. Director Deirdre Carasso also went into the ring. She had challenged artist Anne Wenzel, whose work is in our collection. They both trained intensively for eight months. Anne, an exceedingly strong sculptor, won. The prize was an exhibition in our Museum. When we work together, we go all the way.
At Christmas the model railway association Schiespoor made a model railway winter landscape, together with artist Maarten Bel and local children.
Secondly, we no longer let our programme be guided just by what is going on in the art world, but make sure it is in line with what the community is interested in. We choose current themes and historical stories with a view to discussing them. In doing so, we stretch the concept of art. Being a museum with a social mission, we cannot possibly limit ourselves to the traditional frameworks of the art scene – frameworks that have developed historically, based on connoisseurship, competition and the modern concept of artistic autonomy.
But these values are shifting in contemporary society. It is time for museums to move with this development.
A recent example is our exhibition Modest Fashion. About covering, modest clothing, which also featured video clips and Instagram art.
And the third way to be OF our community: people usually visit a museum to learn something. But why not visit a museum out of a daily, practical need?
For example, last year you could have your hair cut by 18 local hairdressers in the exhibition Family – and have a conversation about it in the meantime.
In summer you can have your house plants taken care of by our hostesses: a plant holiday. This summer we had a plant with a very specific need: “Loves soul, please play Diana Ross twice a week”. We have a record player
In our Museum cafe we have a buffet with local products: you prepare your own rolls and sandwiches and pay what you think it’s worth. And no one takes advantage of it.
Or drop in when you feel like some chocolate… A local resident posted a complaint on Facebook about the stickers that Museum visitors receive as admission tickets. They are blown off, or are posted illegally all over the town. Children and adults can now collect stickers and when your card is full, you get a chocolate bar.
As a final example: this year we organized an Iftar, a fasting evening during Ramadan, together with a number of Schiedam organizations. A man came to us afterwards and said: “I prayed here tonight, this Museum is now my house.”
These are all ways to try and create a special and hospitable place FOR people to feel safe and at home – to be open, through art and stories, to what they do not yet know. It is our way to contribute to a resilient town.
In 2019, the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam was nominated by a professional jury for the BankGiro Lottery Museum Award, the most important public cultural prize in the Netherlands. To win, we had to canvass for votes by the public. We devised a campaign with ten billboards that explained what kind of museum we are. Lots of Schiedam residents had themselves portrayed with them and the campaign went viral. We won and became Museum of the year 2019.
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