By Bram de Jong

It occurred to me when thinking of the Dutch Open Monuments Day (OMD) that it could serve as an interesting platform for a survey performed on the museum-going crowd.

It could be a nationwide museum laboratory to find out the motivation of a diverse group of museum visitors on a geographically balanced scale, and furthermore to find out what they ‘learn’ by going there.

On the 9th and 10th in the Netherlands a host of monuments in the Netherlands is open to the public. During this weekend more than 4000 buildings (or museums) will be open to the public. This annual event has a specific theme every other year where the open venues and activities correspond to. The OMD attracts about a million visitors nationwide (Dutch), a crowd that is interested in visiting the old and the dusty.  

Indeed I propose here that the OMD is a made bed, ready to be surveyed. During these two days the opportunity arises to arrange an unusual museumlab where researchers take advantage of the particular form of the OMD. This peculiarity not only comes from the many visitors, but also from the geographical spread throughout the country of the various OMD parts. Another unique feature is that the monuments are freely accessible for a short time only. The OMD has essential similarities to the museum field and is unique enough (being once a year, not counting the lesser visited ‘specials’) to be used as a laboratory. This lab is meant to give an indication for the whole field, rather than one museum at a time.  If this lab where to take place I would be curious about how to take advantage of this willingness of people to enter otherwise restricted monuments in order to find out ‘what are their expectations of entering a place deemed monumental and moreover do these places meet these expectations?’

The lab, the theory

A museum laboratory is a means to experiment with exhibitions and to figure out how and why people respond to certain ways of exhibiting. The specific Monuments Day museumlab that I’m proposing here can be used to analyse the monumental religion that moves people to these monuments. Instead of just opening the monuments I propose to use the monuments for analysis. Learning from Museums (2000) is in this respect an interesting book. It treats on how the process of expectation and learning develops for visitors of museums. An important notion to keep in mind here as well is that of ‘contact zone’: A museum can hold conflicting narratives, for example told by the curators of the exhibition or by the owners of the objects.  These narratives lead to various visitor motivations and expectations of the museums they go to. This notion was used on museums by James Clifford in 1997.

What I find attractive of the Learning from museums is that the authors use ‘museum’ in a similar fashion as I do here, namely as a collective term. An aquarium can be a museum as well and so it is used in its generic form. They focus on what the visitor learns from a museum, how meaning is made in the institute, and how these relate. They also warn us that learning is ‘situated’ within the physical context, it is bound to the environment we do it in. Something to be taken into account when proposing this laboratory: ‘Why is setting a reflection of the process of learning that takes place in the ‘regular field’? Notwithstanding this argument the OMD museumlab can be a thorough journey into the minds of the monument crowd especially due to the setting. Let’s explore this setting first.

The similarities I shortly touched upon with – let us call it the ‘regular’ – museum field and these ‘places of museality’ or ‘museal places’, are apparent. For example the geographical spread and visitor count can be related roughly. They should however be related more exactly in the future of course. Due to this relation the OMD can be seen as average of the museum field. So, whoever goes to museums will generally speaking be interested in this event as well.  In addition, museums in the Netherlands are spread out evenly like the open monuments, although the so called Randstad has an overflow of museums it seems – but, this metropole does also have a comparable amount of monuments that can be opened during the OMD. Another similarity with the working of museums is that the buildings are mostly meant for spectating. The visitor does not touch anything and looks at how these buildings are kept in their original state (as good and bad as it gets), or how they are used by the new owner and sometimes the visit is enriched by an (inter)activity.

Monumental religion

The workings of this lab can be compared to ‘the study of festivals compared to researching for example other CHR-facilities’ for example. There is no all-year-round festival, because it would be called a club-night. Still, a large portion of the clubbers will visit a festival. Likewise there’s no non-stop monuments day, because it would be called regular museum year. That is to say that an annual phenomenon where about 1/17 of the population visits momentary museums is a possibility to research the worth given to monumental architecture, landscape, and culture appreciation  in the Netherlands using the experiential data combined with the expectational input of the visitors in one efficient go.

Why, then, this particular day? Many monuments are open for the public all year round, such as every significant church in the Netherlands. In my experience an important reason to visit churches is to awe at the colossal bulwark of a religious achievement that is the stone church. Another is to visit a place to exercise your religion. The Open Monuments Day is part of  the religion of monuments that relates the visitors to an assorted supply of stone heaps. And it is only this religion that brings them to these buildings.

The religion of monuments has to do with more than just going to buildings that are deemed monuments. This group of monument-goers has a whole spectrum of believing. The OMD is just a monumental Hajj, similar to ending the Camino de Santiago (however long you decide to be on the road). Still in the end it is what the visitor wants to get out of the journey, what they want to learn. The result of this religion can be scrutinized all at once for a large public during the OMD, where million visits a diverse selection of valuable, fabricated architecture (see Fabricating Heritage from Lowenthal on this topic, 1998).    

It is the relation between the regular museum field and the OMD that makes the suggested museumlab so worthwhile. The concepts of visitor motivation and expectation can be served on a dish of contact zone and museal learning in order to figure out the bible of monumental religion. The regular field then serves as a place for theory making, meaning that the laboratory during the OMD is formulated during the regular museum-season.

Further reading

James Clifford, ‘Museums as Contact Zones’ (1997)

Falk and Dierking, Learning from Museums (2000)

David Lowenthal, ‘Fabricating Heritage’ (1997)