The Van Abbemuseum was intended from its beginnings to be part of the living community of Eindhoven and surroundings. The museum performs the role of an engine for social change in a global context. In its collections, exhibitions and programmes the art museum as an institution is being challenged.
Opened in 1936, designed by architect A.J. Kropholler, the Van Abbemuseum is one of the first public museums for contemporary art in Europe. In 2003, architect Abel Cahen renovated the interior and integrated it with the new building. H+N+S landscape architects widened the adjacent river and formed an ‘inner lake’ embracing the new building.
Principal access interventions :
- “De-modernising” the collection
- Welcoming audiences onsite and offsite
The physical accessibility to the Museum did not pose a challenge. It is ensured by a sloping path on the edge of the garden and a ramp. Vertical circulation is ensured by a lift which connects the old and the new building.
- Eindhoven, The Netherlands
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Written by Marcus Weisen.
Heritage significance and attractiveness
- The museum receives 110 000 visitors per year (2019).
- The old building is a listed heritage building in a predominantly modern city which grew around the Philips factories.
- The museum has one of the largest El Lissitski collections.
- Through its collections, acquisition policies, exhibitions, events and programs, the museum seeks to overcome Western-Centric museology and generate new forms of curating cultural heritage.
- The museum faces the universal challenge of being relevant to communities locally in a global world. It pursues an egalitarian agenda and aims to use the power of the art as an agent for social change.To do this, it raises societal and political questions of equality, diversity, representation and power.
- Many audiences are underrepresented in museums.
The Van Abbemuseum embraces a set of progressive values which it thrives to implement.
The museum considers the role of the public as a responsible constituency of active users and co-authors. It considers the modern art museum as epitomised in the White Cube as an expression of society in the colonial age. It works to dismantle this legacy and make it fit for a post-colonial age through re-display, re-contextualisation and acquisition policies.
The museum is a member of “L’Internationale”, a confederation of nine modern and contemporary art institutions, which calls for an equitable and democratic society. These museums share the view, that art and its institutions have the power to question and challenge their own specific systems, as well as the formal structures of institutions in general, and be an appropriate platform for the discussion of a renewed social contract.
A major strategy applied is working to de-modernise the museum, rearrange its permanent collections and alter the course of the museological canon, presenting a plurality of art histories. As a result, the exhibition design also changes.
The meeting space Museum as Parliament is an amphitheatre-like forum for civic engagement in which questions of social justice in a global world are raised.
Welcoming audiences onsite and offsite
The focus of the work is on reaching out to under-represented audiences and community groups has been on programmes.
Taking a further step, the museum involves under-represented audiences in the process of re-interpreting existing collections, exhibition development and spatial design.
De-modernising the museum
The current exhibitions The Way Beyond Art (2017-20) and The Making of Modern Art” (2017-20) build the new narrative of “de-modernising” the museum. Werksalon (2017-20) is an informal workshop and space, as well as a series of participatory projects in which participants create new perspectives on collections and exhibitions, which are then displayed in The Way Beyond Art.
The White Cube concept for the modern art gallery, in which the art work is taken as autonomous and separate from society is being interrogated and dismantled. Van Abbemuseum and the exhibition designers Future Anecdotes Istanbul adopted the idea of “atmosphere rooms” from art historian and museum director Alexander Dörner (1893-1957). The Way Beyond Art and The Making of Modern Art are organised as a succession of spaces or a maze, each with a distinct spatial atmospheric identity.
In The Way Beyond Art, a wide array of forms of display are used, some prompting bodily engagement. The Way Beyond Art and The Making of Modern Art weave missing diversity into representation – e.g. black people, women and homosexuals into the texture of the multi-media exhibits on show. Societal and political questions are being raised frontally in The Way Beyond Art. These are some of the many ways in which Dörner’s view of museums as engines of social change are being experimented with.
The Making of Modern Art shows the white Cube to be a product of its times and deliberately denies the collection’s works of modern art the accustomed space of optimal aesthetic presence, surrounding them by historical newspaper extracts, postes, pamphlets and copies.
There are 15 displays with tactile representations of art work in The Making of Modern Art. They start a longer term project towards the multi-sensory museum, which can be woven into a dialogue with the notion of atmosphere rooms.
Please note: the black and white skin colours on the tactiles are visible only to the eye. In thermoform tactile drawings, the raised parts of the drawing appear as black. As it is a convention to represent the outline of a volume as a tactile line which is black and the inside as white or dotted, the use of two ways of representing the human face – as a shallow and as a raised surface – is in fact confusing to the sense of touch. The two tactiles shown here, however, illustrate the resolve of museum to communicate questions of representation in collections to visually impaired audiences.
The entry space to The Making of Modern Art is carpeted like a saloon and de-stabilises visitor expectations. It conveys an oriental feel and an air of intime intimate sociality not to be found in museums designed for modern art. The Western aura of the White Cube is being re-framed.
The Museum as Parliament is forum for civic engagement in the museum. It is a reconstruction of the People’s Parliament of Rojava developed by Studio Jonas Staal in collaboration with the Democratic Federation of North-Syria and the Kurdish Cultural Foundation Eindhoven. Its circular shape embodies the ideal of collective, decentralized democratic representation and values of stateless democracy, such as gender equality and social ecology. It brings to mind the amphitheatre forum for reflective civic engagement in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (2001), yet places into a globalised contemporary context.
- client: Van Abbemuseum
- contractor: e.g. exhibition designers Future Anecdotes Istanbul, for recent exhibitions
- advisers: e.g. Dream Team, a group of 8 advisers reflecting facets of society’s diversity
- partners: e.g. Amalia Childrens Hospital, the Dutch Sign Centre, IHLIA LGBT heritage
- supporter and sponsor: Philips, for the mobile Robot fitted with a camera, with can be remotely controlled for a virtual museum visit
De-modernising the museum
To de-modernise, diversify and globalise the museum and reflective of the diversity of society, emphasis is given to projects and exhibitions with artists from outside Europe. Collections policies are being up-dated, as exemplified in the project Queering the Collection.
Welcoming audiences onsite and offsite
Like many museums today, Van Abbemuseum provides events to several audiences with a disability. Together with the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, it launched the Unforgettable project for people with Alzheimer in 2013 and produced resources for Dutch museums. It is one of the few museums to provide events for people with aphasia.
The Special Guest app, in which children age 7-15 from the Amalia Children’s Hospital and schools in Eindhoven age 7-15 create versions of familiar stories which draw on the collections of the museum. Designed as project for patients waiting in hospitals, the app has a much wider appeal.
Working with Van Abbemuseum, Philips created a mobile museum Robot which can be remotely controlled, designed for reaching out to people in care homes. It is fitted with two cameras and is used to provide museum tours for people offsite.
Dream Team is a new consultative group of eight people which held its first meeting in June 2020. Dream Team develops a diversity perspective. It takes on an advisory role in the presentation of collections and the development of small projects on the way to the multi-sensory museum.
Van Abbemuseum is one of the socially most radical art museums in Europe. It develops ubiquitous programmes with and for audiences which situate it in the flux of societal life, in a way few art museums do.
The museum’s approach is complex and audacious, seeking evolving transformative change which balances the existing collection.
The de-constructive displays, arts works and social messages are at times deliberately blunt.
The author confesses to an occasional sense of confusion and disorientation in the atmosphere rooms and to regretting that the approach to display did not allow many of the modern art works to develop their full sensory presence.
The social commitment of the museum has undeniably resulted in innovation and pioneering work, such as Unforgettable, Special Guests and Robot. With Museum as Parliament, the museum affirms its role as a civic forum for encounter and for raising uncomfortable questions all too often drowned out in the noise of politics.
As an institutional space, the museum values experimentation. An air of freedom and courage pervades it, which is becoming rarer in the ever more branded world of culture. Van Abbemuseum provokes discussion. It acts as an inspiration for social engagement even for museums which take a more classical approach to the aesthetics of display.