#23 The double issue
When I taught English in Spain to Madrileños with international aspirations, every week I’d buy a Time or Newsweek as a frame for that week’s classes. For C2, we’d analyze an op-ed; for A1, we’d try to describe a photo. Every so many weeks, however, I left the quiosco empty-handed. Last week’s magazine had been a double issue. It meant I would spend my week discussing football, the topic of choice of my students.
Last week I left you with football after the double issue about unheard stories. I write these newsletters in the weekend and the weekend was full of writing as it was. We celebrated Sinterklaas (the Dutch Santa Claus), which meant poems for the kids. We’re working on a script for a science-art-social impact project. And then there are countless proposal and applications, of course. Apologies.
The story of Kapla is quite inspirational. Early on in life, its inventor Tom van der Bruggen learned about the Muiden Circle, a group of artists and scientists meeting in the Muiderslot, a castle near Amsterdam. Among the participants in the circle were some of the Netherlands’ best-known names from the 17th Century: Vondel, Huygens, Bredero. Van der Bruggen wanted a castle as well, to be able to invite scientists and artists.
Of course, all of us want a castle and for social events, but unlike most of us, at 25, Van der Bruggen sold his shop in Leiden and bought a rundown chateau in Aveyron, France. For years, he and his wife lived off the land in poverty and little by little built their own castle.
To design the castle, Van der Bruggen used wooden toy bricks. Quickly, he discovered that these don’t work to build a real building. Instead of bricks, you need planks. In fact, you only need one plank, one with the dimensions 15:3:1.
Struggling to make ends meet and complete his castle, Van der Bruggen worked on other houses. And when the housing market collapsed in the 70s, he went on to restore pianos. But, people typically need only one piano, so that business didn’t take flight either. Then he realized that the planks he designed for his own use could become a product. In his piano workshop, he crafted 400 boxes of perfectly shaped planks, named them Kapla (short for ‘kabouter plankjes’ or ‘gnome planks’) and tried to sell them.
Toy stores didn’t buy the (rather expensive) planks, but when Van der Bruggen started showing them and schools, kids were enthusiastic. In an interview, he mentions that he would go to the mall to show kids the possibilities of his planks, as opposed to the more common bricks. He continued to sell Kapla in his own way, even selling the castle he had now finished by hand to bring the product to market.
Now, Kapla is a multi-million Euro business that sells only one thing: planks with a 15:3:1 dimension. And the beauty of it is, it works. The pine tree planks are strong and sturdy and sized perfectly. Within minutes R and I were building taller and more complex structures that I’ve ever made, even with Legos (not featured in this email 😉).
The science-art-social impact project is of a completely different nature. Inspired by ideas such as the Powers of Ten and the Deep Time Walk, we (the Turn Club and Stichting 2030) are creating an audio journey from the Big Bang to the near future. The experience makes people feel part of the most enormous narrative possible while engaging them in a conversation about their role and agency in this narrative. Apart from the audio experience, the project facilitates discussions in groups and between individuals and encourages them to commit to sustainable actions.
The script-writing is a careful balancing act. While much of the universe’s history — as far as it is known — is based on facts, we all know that even in the act of presenting facts, there can be considerable biases.
After some paper prototypes, we’re currently developing the first proper version for a series of tests at the beginning of the year. If you’re interested in removing biases from the storyline or doing the experience with your team (currently, either physically or online in the Netherlands only), do let me know.
Last weekend I also had to wrap up an article for a German publication about the future of museums. I relish these opportunities, as I’ve also been asked to write a book about the topic. I know some of my readers have written thoughtful and provocative books in just a few weeks. It is taking me considerably more effort.
I think part of the reason is that I’ve largely transitioned into the world of SDGs and community activism. The work I still do with cultural organizations is almost exclusively with those that have also embraced sustainable development and improving communities and societies. Looking from the outside in, I see the hope and trust others place in museums when they think about them, but also that most people hardly ever think about them at all. I wrote this,
Every museum collection is a collection of stories. These stories tell us something about who we are, what we consider important and valuable, what we thought, think and imagine. What gives us joy, and what gives us sorrow. Museums tell these stories through objects (material heritage) and intangible and living heritage, such as experiences, events, and emotions. Many museums pride themselves in being great storytellers.
The most remarkable stories of our time, however, aren’t told in buildings through objects. They are not told by experts that act at an arms-length from society. Whether it is Covid-19 or climate change, BLM or biodiversity, the greatest stories of our time are told in public spaces (including digital spaces), and they are told by activists, entrepreneurs, and everyday citizens. These stories are part of a living culture that found many ways to express itself while museums were closed.
2020 has seen these public and shared stories confront the classical museum stories. One case in point is when the Black Lives Matter protests marched on the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The protesters demanded that the museum takes on a different role concerning its past. Already committed to changing its narrative and its relationship to its colonial history, the museum used the lockdown to make significant changes to the display of some contentious objects. While this shows goes intentions, it is a long way before the story that was being told in front of the museum will find its way into the galleries. As director Laura Van Broekhoven mentioned in an interview on the Returning Heritage website, the reimagining of the museum is “part of a long-term programme of curatorial work that will engage many stakeholders and stretch out over the years, probably decades to come.”
Notably, the Pitt Rivers Museum had already committed to change before change showed up on their doorsteps. Although Covid-19 and its consequences came as a surprise to almost everyone, the demands it placed on museums have been long in the making. This demand is for new stories, stories that are more participatory, more inclusive, and more reflective of the societies that museums serve and the challenges they face.
This week, we hosted an SDG Café about how to make human rights a central component in the recovery from Covid. The largest employers’ federation in the Netherlands, as well as our local chapter of Global Compact, enthusiastically embraced their responsibility for human right, increased equality and other SDGs. The Dutch youth representative to the UN presented a roadmap to tap into the energy and enthusiasm of youngsters to address climate change. A university professor of law, Maartje van der Woude, showed how she will collaborate with artists to engage everyday citizens in challenging debates about migration. And because I speak and work with many of these people more often, I know these aren’t just nice words. There is a real commitment from many sides for a better recovery after Covid.
I don’t remember who suggested Everything must change! but thank you: It makes me angry and uncomfortable and sometimes nod in agreement, especially what I’m looking for in a book. I’m reading it in parallel with Master of the Senate, which is taking me forever and also makes me want to punch somebody at times (specifically, LBJ). Also, thanks to the few people who actually noticed I didn’t send an email last week and who sent their own in exchange: this is much appreciated!
I think the coming 2-3 weeks will be mostly focused on looking back on 2020. If there are any specific things you’d like me to focus on, let me know. Otherwise, expect more about LBJ, chatting with strangers, business for good, being joyful in a pandemic (or not) and a range of other topics. Until then, take care!