process, Steven Ten Thije

narrator Steven Ten Thije
term process
affiliated institution Van Abbemuseum

When taking into account earlier contributions to the Glossary Common Knowledge, the term for this entry could also have been “re-professionalisation”. I’m referring here especially to Meriç Öner’s term “de-professionalisation”[1], but also Khwezi Gule’s “bureaucratisation”[2]. In some sense this reflection on “process”, comes in response to insights effectively summarised in these earlier terms.


Meriç states:

Rules and regulations create homogenised processes. In order to allow for all potential transformative steps, institutions must set back professional drives and open themselves to unanticipated encounters and knowledge resources. A remapping is required, one that considers a more open playing field where anyone with specialised knowledge, rather than professional status can act as a conduit for imaging a different future.


Gule’s reflection on “‘bureaucratisation” adds to this the political logic behind the creation of these “homogenised processes”. Discussing post-apartheid South Africa, he reflects on the relations among “civil society”, “institutionalisation” and “violence”. Quoting Professor Mahmood Mamdani, he states that the formation of “civil society” relies on the “monopolisation of the means of violence by the state”. This is a well known fact, but Gule links this to institutionalisation, noting that institutionalisation by the state is then also protected by the state, in the end even by means of force. In this sense the institution can also become a form of coercion. He links this observation to the way in which institutions in South Africa have, through the logic of institutionalisation and homogenisation, enforced a certain narrative on post-Apartheid South Africa, that even if based on a moment of liberation, itself becomes coercive again. Whereby his interest in the end goes out to the “language of protest” that objects to this narrative, and attacks the institutionalised narrative, through the force of civil disobedience.


The question that these two earlier Glossary terms pose is to which degree the institution can escape its immanent connection to state violence. Whereby the “violence” which must be understood more broadly than physical violence, and be extended to include the exclusivity of expert culture and professionalisation.


What I wish to do with this term is to in some sense continue where these two earlier terms have brought us, and by reflecting on the situation here in the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and the Netherlands, to see what these observations do when connecting them to what we have done recently here. Especially the form of collaborative practice known as working with constituencies. To reflect on that work we need to take a small detour through the history of the institution and link it to the broader institutionalisation of art in the Netherlands.


The Van Abbemuseum is an institution of some age – over 85 years old – which opened its doors in 1936. It entered the state at an unfortunate time, right before World War Two, and was to live a somewhat crippled life until → after the war. The museum resulted from a donation of money from a rich industrial, Henri van Abbe, a cigar manufacturer, who also donated a series of paintings to the museum as its founding collection. The museum in this sense stands in a quite rich Dutch tradition, especially in the 19th century, when numerous institutions were founded by affluent individuals. This was not a mere coincidence, as in contrast to most neighbouring European states, which actively built national cultural institutions, the Dutch were reluctant to do so as result of their strict liberalism. Believing in laissez faire politics, Dutch politicians did not want interfere in any public → territory outside of strict matters of infrastructure and state security. To give a sense of this, the Dutch government in 1939 spent just 0.218% of GDP on culture.[3]


During the war the occupying German Nazi forces valued art very highly, and as a result the budget for art was tripled or even quadrupled, allowing for much for more substantial investments to be made. After the war, the newly formed Dutch government, in a perhaps rather surprising action, decided to keep the higher budget. This was partially inspired by the fact that the Cold War had quickly become a cultural war, and thus, as the first state secretary for culture state put it, the budget for art was another form of “defence budget”, but in this case the “moral defence against communism”.[4] However, it was also inspired by the Jewish social democrat Emanuel Boekman, who right before the war in 1939 had published Government and Art in the Netherlands.[5] He was a statistician who introduced a form of rationalism in the relation between the state and culture, whereby statistics, planning and the monitoring of results started to slowly become part of the cultural field in the Netherlands, which now also started to professionalise.


The Van Abbemuseum itself is a nice example of this shift. When it opened in 1936 the complete staff of the museum was a part-time director W.J.A. Visser, who was also the head of high school, and a janitor, who did “the rest”.[6] Now, 86 years later the museum has around 50 full time staff and a rich organogram that maps the delicate and precise interactions among many different experts in fields ranging from conservation and archiving to educating, mediating, communicating, fundraising, and curating. The museum, which has now the respectable age of a very senior citizen, has grown in its lifetime from and embryonic one and half person operation, into an impressive, bureaucratic institution. This is the textbook example of Meriç’s statement: “Rules and regulations create homogenised processes.”


What has fed this institutionalisation and bureaucratisation is primarily, as Gule mentioned, the growing awareness within state organisations of how to deploy cultural institutions like museums in an effective and sustainable manner for public, and government, ends. The key indicators were thus based on what Meriç and others in the Glossary term the “broadcasting” approach. The museum specialists decide what is important for the public to know and then use all their expertise to bring that information to the greatest possible public. While the other side of this professionalisation was a growing awareness that museum collections formed the backbone of the public narrative on Dutch society, and that therefore preserving them was important and required another form of professionalisation.


This all happened in a society which in general professionalised in all other sectors of the economy – in the media, politics, education, business, heath care, social work, transportation, and so on. This has produced a society that is very well organised and where many things are predictable, and where there is a lot of trust in government. Yet there is also a downside to this.


Aside from the efficiency of effective professionalisation, other aspects of this rationalisation and modernisation have not been investigated. Without making this claim in the philosophical depth that it would require, I propose that the form of professionalisation and bureaucratisation are also driven by a political vision, one that prefers standardisation over difference, and has a natural inclination towards homogenisation, whereby everything is organised through an ever more complex web of recognised and managed deviations from the “‘normal” core.


The problematic part of this inclination towards normalisation has recently been much debated in the museum field. Within the Van Abbemuseum this has happened within the framework of the Decolonial Summer → School, initiated by Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vázques. The focus on “normality” was here discussed within the framework “decoloniality”. In this context a link was made among the ideas of “norm”, “universality” and “modernity”. In this understanding modernity and coloniality are inseparable. The colonial/modern matrix describes a form of subjectivity that isolates the position of knowing from what is known. The subject who knows is placed as an expert outside of the field of what is known, and can obtain a position of oversight that allows for control and manipulation. Here the expert obtains a position of power that can easily turn toxic, as it introduces a strong hierarchical position between those who know and those who are known. Linked to institutionalisation it translates into a problematic divide between those who decide the purpose and goal of the institution and then design the “homogenised processes” that are necessary to obtain them. This then turns all the non-experts into mere tools to execute the process or the even the material of the process, as the latter can be things like artworks, but also people. They can become tokens of a certain category, which in the end links back to racial ideas of certain people being essentialised in certain qualities and characteristics.


The difficulty with this, and here we return to the beginning of this text and the notion that we need to “de-professionalise”, is that they way forward cannot be the same as the way back. What is difficult is that even when looking at a modern society like the Dutch one from a distance, one can see that there is an almost gravitational pull towards standardisation and normalisation, which is racist and exclusive in its logic. However, when zooming in on all these various professions they also appear to be very useful, and the “evil” that one can recognise from above is difficult to find.


Take marketing, for instance. One could argue that following the argument outlined above marketing is perhaps a profession whose purpose it is to break down complex arguments and repackage them into simple standardises units, to allow the largest possible group of people to be affected. In a museum context it identifies norms and seeks to deploy them through visitor surveys and other techniques. This is perhaps hopelessly modern. At the same time, when returning to the Meriç text on de-professionalisation, if we want to give voice to someone with specialised knowledge, it would be nice if that person were not just heard by the staff of the museum and their friends, but by a bigger public. Or, another example, if visitor surveys make clear that we are only reaching a very small segment of society, and so “the specialised knowledge” one wants to foreground would benefit from another being presented to public, then it does not do harm to talk with a skilled marketeer to think of ways in which these other communities can be reached.


The problem then is perhaps not just professionalisation in general, but more the purpose of it. How is professional practice organised? To put it in the words of the person in charge of marketing at this museum, Neeltje van Gool: “Marketing is a tool, it is up to the user to decide if it is used for good or evil.”


This, finally, brings me to working with → constituencies, and process. The Van Abbemuseum has now experiment for approximately five years with this method of working, whereby in the first period “de-professionalisation” was the leading principle. In a project called Werksalon we collaborated with various groups of people, who, in line with Meriç’s observation, at certain points overcame their problematic tokenism and became individuals with specialised knowledge, who we collaborated with and realised activities together.[7] These activities were fun, inspiring and sometimes moving, and some even attracted bigger audiences, but within the bigger context of the museum the impact of this programme was marginal. It was, in true sense of the term, side programming.


Perhaps in some contexts this would not be problematic, but from the perspective of Gule’s reflection on bureaucratisation it means that it loses political force. If the museum splits its activities into constituent programmes for small publics and then still operates in the traditional manner in its main programme, then this does little with regard to changing its role in how it enforces the violence of institutionalising.


The question then became the following: What if the challenge is not so much de-professionalisation, but instead re-professionalisation using the institutional machinery in a different manner? The ambition we formulated is that we wanted to see if it would be possible to deploy the professional skill-set the museum has access to in its diverse staff in a different manner to bring this “specialised knowledge” of those normally excluded, as referred to by Meriç, up onto the main stage?


This was the objective of the new collection display, Delinking and Relinking. What we tried to do with this was to create an exhibition experience that uses the various expertise at the museum to create an attractive experience, that at the same time includes content which draws from people often unheard in the museum. What we did was try to add voices and multisensory experiences that relate to other bodies and other biographies than those that are normally foregrounded in the museum.


Our main challenge in this was, and here the term returns, process. What we needed to do was to see how the professional skill-set of the museum staff could turn into a tool-set for these new people who would not normally have this kind of platform. Yet at the same time it was not an open invitation to just “do as you please”, as we wanted to guide these new partners, these → constituencies, to produce something that would not only present their points, but would do so in a manner that would be effective within the context of a modern art museum.


The central point of transformation, as we experienced it, is that you need to be attentive to the fact that many homogenised and standardised processes in museum practice are the way they are because they have been designed to reach a certain goal, and that goal is often the reinforcement of the status quo. The challenge is if you can still keep part of the effectiveness of such processes but re-purpose them (to use a term of Stephen Wright)[8] into doing something else. The main switch you thus have to turn is to introduce people into these processes at a different moment. When brought in early enough, and with a clear (or as clear as possible) description of the role division between the museum professional and the new constituent partner, then you can form a partnership that produces something that not only allows the constituent partner to express themselves, but also to be heard.


I believe it is possible to restructure and “re-professionalise” the museum in this direction. Yet what remains unclear is how “civil society” protected by “force” responds to this, and it if will incorporate this social energy into its system as a healing mechanism that allows it to transform with non-violent means, or if it will resist and crack down on this transformative energy. In the end, I believe this is a test for the democratic culture of a society beyond the basic ritual of voting and the resulting government being representative. It is in this way an attempt to allow people to perform their role as constituents in allowing them to be listened to.

[1] Glossary of Common Knowledge (2018), 185–6.

[2] Glossary of Common Knowledge (2018), 167–71.

[3] For a general history of cultural politics in the Netherlands, see: Roel Pots, Cultuur, koningen en democraten, Overheid & cutluur in Nederland (Nijmegen: SUN, 2002), the referred to statistic comes from a dissertation by Emanuel Boekman, Overheid en kunst in Nederland, 1939 (republished in Amsterdam: Boekmanstichting / Van Gennep, 1989), 167.

[4] In a debate in parliament the State Secretary for Culture Mr. Jozef Maria Laurens Theo “Jo” Cals described the culture budget as serving for the “morele bewapening van de natie tegen the communisme” (the moral armament of the nation against communism). Nancy L. Rosenblum and Robert C. Post, Civil Society and Government (Princeton: Princeton University press, 2002), 257.

[5] Boekman 1939 (1989).

[6] The history of the museum, focusing on the acquisition process is published in: René Pingen, Dat museum is een mijnheer (Amsterdam: Artimo, 2005).

[7] For a longer description of the work in the Werksalon see: Cleo Thomas and Hilde van der Heide eds., De Stad in het museum, terugblik op twee jaar werksalon (Eindhoven, Van Abbemuseum, 2020). For a focused discussion of working with constituencies, see: The Constituent Museum: Constellations of knowledge, politics and mediation: A generator of social change, eds. John Byrne, Elinor Morgan, November Paynter, Aida Sánchez de Serdio Martín and Adela Železnik (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018).

[8] Stephen Wright, Towards a Lexicon of Usership (Eindhoven, Van Abbemuseum, 2013), 56.