Laurie Cosmo: ‘Dutch museums are very innovative’

The plan was to research the years surrounding the creation of the signature H.P. Berlage building of the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, but due to the lockdown, University Lecturer Laurie Kalb Cosmo has hardly been able to visit museums. Yet she succeeds in continuing her research for the Museums, Collections and Society programme. ‘Wonderful things happen in Dutch museums.’

Laurie Cosmo

Cosmo previously worked as a curator in the United States and taught art history at Temple University in Rome. She came to know the Netherlands because of her son. ‘He studied at Leiden University College in The Hague. When I visited him, I was intrigued by the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. In Rome, I had researched the architecture, decoration and collections of museums established in the 1930s under Fascism. The Kunstmuseum opened at the same time in the Netherlands, with a similar unified approach to building, decor, furnishings and collections, but had a socialist ideology. I thought it would be fascinating to research the early years of that museum.’

Not everyone understood this ambition. ‘The first time we met, former Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker asked me why I, an art historian, would prefer the Netherlands over Rome. I answered, but I study museums, and very interesting things happen in Dutch museums. They are really innovative. I would like for that conversation to appear in the article. Is that possible?’ she asks. ‘Take, for example, the upcoming exhibition at the Amsterdam Museum about the Dutch Golden Coach and its controversial panel depicting colonial attitudes. When it is possible, a mobile museum will travel through the country asking people what should happen to the coach. This way, the public will have a say in how this vehicle should be used.’

Taking the Museum to the University

Cosmo still hasn’t gotten to experience much of the innovative approach of Dutch museums herself: shortly after she arrived in the Netherlands, the country went into lockdown. However, she found ways to compensate. She began her Kunstmuseum project by conducting online and library research and in her teaching created an online lecture series called ‘Topical Issues in Museums.’ ‘Because everything is closed, I took the museums to the university, together with my colleagues from the Museums, Collections and Society Research Group. We gave lectures ourselves, and also invited specialists from the museum profession to talk about their current work.’

Nationalism versus Globalism

Teaching classes about national identity formation, memory and museums has also informed Cosmo’s research. ‘In part because of these experiences, I have discovered connections that still need to be made. Why is it, for example, that so much more research has been done about museums from the nineteenth century, whose goal was to build national identities, rather than on museums from the twentieth-century, with more of a focus on globalisation? Why did Kunstmuseum Den Haag, the Kroller Muller Museum and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam emerge in the 1930s? What connections existed between these museums? And how did they negotiate the rise of Nazi Socialism?

The interdisciplinary team of researchers in Museums, Collections and Society encourages and supports these kinds of questions. We are a group that includes an anthropologist, archaeologist, art historian, historian and attorney specialising in art law. With many approaches, our research takes deeper and wider turns. This is why I am especially happy that we will continue next year. Maybe I will even get to visit a museum!’

Leiden and the Hague are home to many museums and Leiden University also houses large numbers of artefacts and archives. The Museums, Collections and Society research programme is led by the Leiden University Faculties off Humanities and Archaeology and aims to promote research on these collections, stimulate Leiden education in this field and raise ethical questions regarding the collections’ origin.

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