Once Upon a Time: Archives Tales at the Van Abbemuseum

One of the many Contexts vitrines in Once Upon a Time…the Collection Now at the Van Abbemuseum

What kind of stories do a museum’s archives tell when read in tandem with masterpieces in their permanent collections? After allowing me to explore innovative exhibition strategies for archival material last summer, this year, MoMA’s intern travel grant gave me the opportunity to visit a Dutch museum that is contending with that exact question.

Detail of a Contexts vitrine in Once Upon a Time…The Collection Now

Located a short train ride outside Amsterdam, the Van Abbemuseum has long had a reputation for discovering artists and pushing boundaries. The museum’s re-installation of their permanent collection, Er was eens…De collectie nu (Once Upon a Time…The Collection Now) opened in February 2013. As part of the exhibition, curators Christiane Berndes, Charles Esche, and Diana Franssen included vitrines chock full of archival material in almost every gallery. This series, entitled  Contexten (“contexts”), enriched my understanding of the themes presented by the artwork in each gallery far beyond the traditional explanatory wall texts.

At the museum, I was thrilled to chat with Franssen, Curator and Head of Research; and Willem Smit, Senior Librarian and Archivist. Together, they organized the Contexts vitrines by digging through the museum’s extremely rich archives. Franssen emphasized the vitrines’ thematic construction: rather than acting simply as contextual supplements to the exhibition, each grouping of archival items presents a story that knits together all of the works in the gallery, grounding them in history while demonstrating their relevance in contemporary society. As Franssen pointed out, this often involved pairing items that might not otherwise cross paths. The vitrines contain records from a variety of sources and time periods that, when read together, create fresh histories.

Visitors searching for material in the DIY Archive. Courtesy Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. Photo: Peter Cox

A visitor-curated presentation of objects culled together in the DIY Archive

As a further riff on this idea of re-imagining one’s archives, Once Upon a Time also boasts a space dubbed the DIY Archive, where the visiting public can try their hand at curating their own “contexts” with the Van Abbemuseum’s library, archives, prints, and drawings collections. Located adjacent to the more contemporary galleries in Once Upon a Time, the objects (dating from 1965 to 1985) notably hail from a period when boundaries between artworks,  ephemera, and audiovisual material started to blur. The wall text explains that “this is a renewing combination of a depot, a library, a workshop, and an exhibition hall.” Visitors search for items related to an artist or a theme via a database, then proceed to hunt down the material in this archive themselves, just as Franssen and Smit do behind the scenes. One wall of the space displays visitor-curated groups of objects on a rotating basis, thus briefly preserving the public’s interaction with the archives and the collection.

Visitors examine material in the DIY Archive. Courtesy Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. Photo: Peter Cox

Unsure of where to begin my own project, I examined the mini-exhibitions on display and searched a few artist names in the database. I leafed through photographs (taking care to use the white gloves provided) and watched a few video clips of performance art from the 1970s. While I ultimately did not collect a set of items to add to the DIY Archive’s displays, I left content that I had followed the space’s final, and arguably most important, set of instructions: “Have fun.”


I’ve never seen anything like this before. The visitors actually create the exhibit? Interesting idea!

Archives that are not hidden away – fantastic! Should be the goal for all museums.

The visitors create small exhibitions on the wooden panels. They motivate their choise and come up with concepts. The DIY archive is like a working laboratory for the public. They use the real artworks, ephemera and artists books that surround them. Get to know what it means to treat an artwork during handling, how to use an artist book with gloves and how they are kept in the museums depot, etc. On the other hand they get to know what it means to construct a concept and realise it with real museum materials

To give you some background for this DIY archive. Some time ago we started to look at the collection of the museum as a whole. Not to make this distinction between the artworks – the material, paintings, sculpture, installation, whatever- and the paperwork around that artwork. So once you’ve started to combine all of that as a single entity, initially the combination was quite conceptual and gradually it became real, you have a wealth of material in what used to be called separately, the archive, which you can also start showing to the public and can also start telling stories with. That was a real liberation of the archive because now the archives could become the subject of exhibitions, the subject of investigation, not only for art historians and people interested in the history of the museum, but for the general public as well. And for the Van Abbemuseum, to devise reasons to put works together to make exhibitions, to think about how the story of our museum is told in public. I think that was really liberating, and I think we’re still working on how to fully understand and integrate that idea – that it is one big collection in which the art objects, the things that artists have signed is only a small part.

Inviting the public to share in the archivist’s creative fun is an exciting idea! Expensive to undertake, I am sure, but in the end would seem to promise to draw a larger public into a more intimate relationship with the museum.

I think its really incredible that the public gets to be involved in this process. I have noticed alot of changes in attempts to encourage more interaction between visitors of the museum and the exhibits themselves; making the whole experience more accessible. Well done, and great article.

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