Artis and Het Groote Museum
It was in July 2003. In the car, I received a phone call from the brand-new director of Amsterdam Zoo Artis, Haig Balian. Haig was angry, very angry. How I had gotten it into my mind to invite the fire brigade to inspect ‘his’ Party Centre on Plantage Middenlaan for escape routes and other practical matters. No matter how I tried my best to explain to him that everything had been neatly agreed with his predecessor, he kept growling. Together with Tiziana Nespoli, Joost Willink and Natasja Wehman, I had been working for over a year on new plans for the redevelopment of the Groote Museum on the first floor above the party centre.
After Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Groote Museum is the oldest almost completely preserved museum interior in the Netherlands. A magnificent monument from the mid-19th century, the time when Artis was really the enlightenment society Natura Artis Magistra. Joost Willink had ‘discovered’ the interior and drummed up a few people to start making plans for the restoration and redesign of the Groote Museum. He was alarmed by unfinished ideas to convert the interior for offices for staff or possibly even demolish it entirely for a multimedia experience. The four of us set to work in the summer of 2002 to devise plans that would preserve the historic building. With some external funding and a solid steering committee alongside us, we felt like a guerrilla group tasked with coming up with a brilliant new museum. The then Artis management tolerated us. That changed with the arrival of new director Haig Balian.
A few weeks after that angry phone call, we sat at the table with Balian. As project leader, I mostly had to do the talking and defend ourselves against the new director’s accusations. A conversation for which an hour was planned ended up turning into a verbal skirmish of almost four hours. When we left, he said “I’m glad I don’t have to argue with you every day”. To which I asked if I could take that as a compliment. It was allowed. We had defended our plan with all our might but it seemed like the curtain had come down on our Groote Museum. Tantalised, Tiziana Nespoli and I decided to flesh out our ideas about museums and about art and science, which we had so much honed over the past few months. This eventually led to our book The Dreamed Museum [Dutch].
Two months later in October 2003, Balian called again. Whether I wanted to become project manager at Artis to supervise and coordinate the overall development of the transformation plans for Artis in terms of content and operations. I asked him if the plans for our Groote Museum would be given a fair chance. He did not have to promise me that they would be realised but I wanted the plans to be given a fair chance. Balian had no problem with that and then an extremely intensive two-and-a-half-year period began in which we talked to architects, landscape architects, historians, animal caretakers, educators, scientists, elephant specialists, visitors, local residents, marketers and lots of other people. All with the aim of shaping a new future for the zoo. A future in which there would be room for animals, for people, for plants, for culture, for science and for heritage. Under Haig Balian’s leadership, Artis went through a 180-degree turn in terms of content and practice. From a zoo that had lost a bit of itself in its nearly 170 years of existence to a proud city zoo where the ‘cohesion of the things’ was central.
During 2006, the plans had developed [Dutch] to the point where I was faced with the question of whether to stay on to help realise the plans or hand over the baton of chief content officer. I chose the latter knowing that my role was complete. In the years since, Haig Balian has worked with great tenacity to realise plans in which I recognise a lot of what we once conceived together. And even when Haig had stepped down as director, he continued to work on projects dear to my heart. In 2022, the time had finally come: the Groote Museum was restored to its former glory and once again it was a real museum. Entirely in the original spirit of the Royal Society Natura Artis Magistra.