…above all, doubt is an understanding of views that are not yours and of the sincere concerns of others…
Farewell column presented at the members’ day of the Association of Science Centers (VSC) on November 21, 2021, on account of my departure as the director of De Museumfabriek in Enschede.
Elon Musk does not want Twitter to become an echo chamber of one’s own right and that is why he wants all opinions to be heard on Twitter. Musk says he sees Twitter as a town square where opposing views meet. But does that work?
Two weeks ago I read a column by Foor Rusman in one of our national newspapers (NRC) in which she wrote that Twitter does not contribute to healthy debate, but that people are increasingly retreating into the trenches of their own right. Twitter has become, above all, a place of confrontation, of struggle. And where there is a battle, there is no time to delve into the other person’s opinion. It must be fought.
In battle, there is no place for doubt.
Reading that made me think back to a project I started twenty years ago, in 2002, together with Tiziana Nespoli, Natasja Wehman and Joost Willink. A guerrilla project in the Amsterdam Zoo, Artis. Joost Willink had heard that the then management was considering demolishing the mid 19th Century interior of the Groote Museum on the Plantage Middenlaan for offices or possibly a multimedia presentation. Because it was one of the most important museum interiors in the Netherlands, we started developing plans to house another museum in it.
It would lead too far today to talk about how that project progressed, but the fact is that when the new director Haig Balian took office at the beginning of 2004, it initially seemed that our plans quickly disappeared from the table. To not let our ideas get completely lost, Tiziana Nespoli and I wrote a flaming book entitled Het Gedroomde Museum (The Dreamed Museum). It was a pamphlet against what we called the alleged certainties proclaimed in art museums as well as science museums. We propagated the method of doubt.
In the end, everything turned out differently when Haig Balian asked me to become the Project Manager of the new transformation plans to be developed for Artis. Haig was also the one who received the first copy of our book at the end of 2004.
Fast forward to 2022: the last project of the transformation plan that Haig Balian completed last spring was Het Groote Museum.
My work at Artis was already over in 2006 and from that moment on I started doing other things. Lastly, in 2011 I became director of Rijksmuseum Twenthe (a national art museum) and in 2016 also of De Museumfabriek (a museum about nature, technology, history and science). That was the opportunity to put our dreamed museum into practice. I wanted to present all these disciplines in their mutual dependance. We called it the coherence of things. Further, we wanted to show that our world is ultimately ambivalent, and that art and science stand for neither good nor bad.
For instance, atomic fission itself is right nor wrong, it’s all about the practices and the moral choices we make with our knowledge. Most museums continue to proclaim mostly the blessings of science, but again, knowledge itself is neither good nor bad, what matters is what we do with our knowledge. Right and wrong is in the intentions, how we use the fruits of our imagination. Because the world is full of dilemmas. The question is how we deal with those dilemmas.
The last few months I increasingly read that museums should become more activist. That sounds noble, but activism leaves no space for doubt. And that’s why I am quite skeptical about activist museums.
Back to Floor Rusman’s column. Twitter, she wrote, does not lead to healthy debate because Twitter is a place where people oppose each other. It leads to battle. People retreat into the trenches of their own right. Since Twitter has become a place of struggle and fighting, there is no room for doubt. And the same goes for museums. When museums become places of activism, we assume we’re making the right choices, but it puts an end to doubt. Activist museums become a new front in the culture war that increasingly grips our world.
The mission of museums is to shed light on doubt. As an individual, as a person you can (or maybe you should) have your strong opinions, but the question is whether you can force those personal views on your institute and thus on your audience. Because with that you become that old-fashioned pedagogue that we all didn’t want to be. Above all, doubt is an understanding of views that are not yours and of the sincere concerns of others. That does not mean that you have to go along with fake news or conspiracy theories, but that you keep an eye out for other views. Doubt is one of the hardest things to keep afloat in times of confrontation and crisis.
Finally, many people have asked me what I’m going to do now that I’m leaving the museums in Enschede. I intend to focus on doubt. And I also wish you plenty of doubt. Thank you and see you around!
Arnoud Odding, November 21, 2022