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.”