Humanity studies in History and Art need more student diversity

In the book Museums, Migration and Identity in Europe. Peoples, Places and Identities (edited by Christopher Whitehead et al., 2015) curator Annemarie de Wildt writes about multiculturalism and diversity issues in the Amsterdam Museum. She takes the reader through the history of the museum which has its roots in the twenties of the last century. Since the mid-eighties of the last century  the Amsterdam Museum has done quite a lot of exhibitions related to immigration. First they focussed on various ethnic groups of immigrants. Later they had more general themes as entry point.

The Amsterdam Museum has gradually become more inclusive. Immigrant groups are actively involved in creating exhibitions and attempts are made to get very diverse groups of immigrant people to visit the museum.  The museum has opened temporary locations at places in Amsterdam where many immigrants live. They have a special box at some festivals to interact with immigrants, for instance at the yearly Keti Koti (slavery freedom day) festival. The museum has changed from collecting only historic objects to collecting also objects from current daily live and audio/video material with stories from all different groups living in Amsterdam. The internet is both used to collect information and to ‘display’ the collection. More recently immigration has been made part of the core exhibition. The museum tries to play an active and provocative role for instance in the social debate on ‘Zwarte Piet’.

In short, this article summarizes the impressive recent performance of the Amsterdam Museum handling especially immigration issues. In my mind it would have been interesting for the readers of this book, mainly museum professionals, to learn more about the lessons learned for determining the future strategy of the museum.  An important issue touched upon for which no solution is given, is the diversity of the staff of the museum. It proves difficult to find staff with a non-white background. In my mind this will be the case for many years to come. At the University of Amsterdam for instance at the humanity programs like History and Art there are very few students with an immigrant background. Question is how to attract more of these students. The Amsterdam Museum or the museum world as a whole should cooperate with Dutch universities to promote liberal art studies within minority communities. In the US a similar issue has been identified and some progress is made: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/06/diversity-increases-community-college-humanities-students.

A need for a future strategy is in my mind apparent from recent developments in society with regard to immigration issues. The fear for the Muslim world is increasing with every new attack by ISIS. The Syrian crisis has faded a bit, but some African countries are in such disorder that increasing numbers of people are trying to migrate to Europe. Brexit is another recent development. Europe was integrating for decades and now seems on the way to disintegrate. The recent Catalonia events point in the same direction. The museum has to find answers as to how to handle these developments as they will directly impact a cosmopolitan city like Amsterdam.

From reading the article it remains also questionable how much impact all the efforts by The Amsterdam Museum have had. Hardly any data on the impact are in the article. The number of visitors of the museum from minority/immigrant groups for instance seem to remain low.  It seems to me that an alternative strategy might be to focus more on the core values which the American historian Shorto has attributed to Amsterdam: enterprise-drive, freedom of thought and creativity. As these principles are deeply rooted in Amsterdam, the city might well play a pivotal role as example in Europe and even in the world. The positive spirit unites people. People living in Amsterdam can be united in being proud of their city. They have recently shown such pride in the way they honoured mayor Eberhart van der Laan at the time of his passing. Pride and unity was also felt at the time Abdelhak Nouri, football player for Ajax Amsterdam, suddenly passed away. These ideas fit well into the DNA theme. But I would suggest more focus on the uniting core values and less on differences. A more diverse staff would be most helpful to achieve this. They might well have less guilt feelings and bring more pride. Universities have an important role in raising such future staff.

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