A new National History Museum

The State Secretary informed the House of Representatives about the progress for a National History Museum in summer 2023 (21 June). Museum Director Bert Mennings urges the House not to spend another year exploring, thinking and debating, because time is running out. Create an online museum in the short term to which every Dutch person can contribute their beautiful or thought-provoking stories.

A new National History Museum for the 21st century should be an online museum – sustainable, inclusive and accessible to all. And therefore relevant.

A National History Museum has been talked about for almost two decades. ‘Exploratory’, roundtable and progress discussions have been held since 2005 and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Culture and Science is pushing for concrete steps.

The idea behind a National History Museum is that greater historical awareness leads to greater insight and understanding about what binds Dutch people together and how we are different. I believe in that idea. I just wonder whether we’re on the right track, if we’re getting bogged down yet again in discussions about the location and fussing over the order in which our history should be presented. I’d like to make the case for an online National History Museum that could see the light of day very soon, in collaboration with young people and anyone else who wants to contribute.

The Story of the Netherlands is already very well told in the Canon of Dutch History exhibition at the Open Air Museum in Arnhem. Why build yet another physical museum without a collection? Indeed, in addition to the Canon of Dutch History, we have the Rijksmuseum, we have new museums with a narrow focus like the slavery and holocaust museums, and we have the Zeeuws, Fries and Limburgs museums. Together, all of these museums tell Dutch history from a variety of perspectives. In a sense, a physical National History Museum actually already exists.

In conversations I have with people both young and old, I always hear the same thing: a museum should be close by, preferably within easy reach, and people want to be able to ‘participate’ in it – in other words, actively contribute. This is important: young people like to be online, and that’s how they want to be involved. An online museum would also have a more sustainable footprint.

In my opinion, a physical, congealed presentation in a ‘central location’ would also be a poor fit for historiography that is constantly evolving. In recent years in particular, this field has been hugely dynamic. With an online museum, you could add new resources and insights in an instant. This would give visitors a wide range of perspectives to which individuals and communities could contribute, giving rise to a multi-voiced historiography.

The form in which stories are presented also takes on a new dimension online. There are very interesting crossovers between different art forms that come into their own in the digital sphere. Multidisciplinary content that appeals to a new and younger audience. So what are we waiting for?

An online museum is always accessible and literally close by. This would remove a major barrier for visitors who are physically unable to visit a museum, who do not have enough money to visit or who did not grow up with a tradition of visiting museums. Online, you can build a museum that encourages interaction, depth and delight for everyone. You want to make visible and tangible the fact that the Story of the Netherlands is still being written every day; that today’s culture is tomorrow’s heritage. Online, you can challenge and inspire people to make their voices heard. In this way, we can give visitors the opportunity to make their own connections and their own contribution. Because as far as I am concerned, the days when only historians get to decide what is important, and the days when the government gets to decide where a museum building stands, are far behind us.

In Limburg, we have already started. In March 2023, we launched a pilot for an interactive multimedia online museum ons.limburgsmuseum.nl. With Ons Limburgs Museum (‘Our Limburg Museum’), we are pioneers in the Netherlands. Together with sixty Limburg partners, we are building a collective memory for the province. Online, we are collecting, connecting, enriching and sharing the stories of Limburg in a sustainable way, for and with a different, larger and younger audience.

We’re happy to share the knowledge and experience we are gaining for the development of an Online National History Museum. In fact, Ons Limburgs Museum is available as a pilot at ons.nederlandsmuseum.nl. The Netherlands needs an online museum that takes the heat out of the debate on Dutch identity. Let’s build it together. Starting now.

Bert Mennings

Director of the Limburgs Museum