While climate scientists around the world are knocking on the doors of citizens, companies, media and politicians apparently in vain, Plaktivists of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil have succeeded in effectively hijacking the news. They have been around for days popular topic in talk shows, newspapers and social media, as a result of actions where they cling to everything, as well as famous paintings such as sunflowers by Van Gogh and the Girl with the pearl from Vermeer. And that is not allowed.
It is effective, because the symbolic value of art is simply very great. The wonderful Girl with the pearl is not only worth an awful lot of money, the painting also represents something universal: It is seen as the pinnacle of beauty. Over the centuries it has already acquired a mythical status among connoisseurs, but its role in our modern mass culture has catapulted it into a world-famous icon. At the same time, the painting as an original object remains as unmatched, vulnerable and irreplaceable as before. And they know that all too well in the Mauritshuis, where it has been exhibited since 1902.
Museums are tasked with preserving and researching, presenting and sharing art and cultural heritage. They are custodians of our collective, material memory. It really touches me that old things are preserved for so long because they are valued and worn by communities. The fact that so many of these objects have been housed in public, museum collections since the 19th century is a great asset and an expression of true civilization. The known Last judgment by Lucas van Leyden, for example, which has hung in the Museum De Lakenhal since 1874, turns five hundred in five years. All the while it was kept in Leiden and protected from religious strife, fires, wars, greedy art collectors and other kinds of disasters. It still is. And this also applies to Vermeer’s girl, who is now almost 357 years old. The painting represents an interest that cuts across centuries, borders and generations.
Do these paintings survive?
Still, in recent years the thought has crossed my mind regularly: Will all those beautiful works of art still be there? If the two paintings become that old again, what will our world look like? it hangs Girl van Vermeer for 357 years, then in the year 2379, still neatly on the walls of the Mauritshuis? Can Lucas van Leyden’s triptych still be seen in De Lakenhal in the year 2527? When you know the age of a painting, its lifespan suddenly becomes tangible and imaginable.
Paintings are like time machines. The triptych of Lucas van Leyden, for example, allows us to travel back in our minds to the years 1526-1527, to Leiden in the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in the northern Netherlands. It is a time journey that we can reconstruct based on facts, images and interpretations.
The journey to the future, the second journey through the five hundred years that still lies ahead, is still uncertain. There are no facts or pictures yet. I have an ominous premonition about it: that due to rising sea levels, migration flows, wars and other miserable consequences of climate change, a museum like De Lakenhal will no longer exist in 2527. That Leiden has long since drowned, disappeared under rising waters. Therefore, I can honestly sympathize with the actions of climate activists.
Also read this statement: Climate activists and their critics are in the same boat
Beautiful symbols in the house
As custodians of vulnerable heritage and as specialists in making connections between present, past and future, museums have wonderful tools, symbols and metaphors at their disposal to make the consequences of climate change insightful for a large and diverse audience. Yet they are reluctant to do so. Museums are masters of cultivating caution. They prefer to look back rather than forward, and the importance of achieving sufficient visitor numbers puts an effective brake on trying new paths.
A good example is Naturalis in Leiden. While as a scientific institute it deals with biodiversity on a daily basis, critical voices about its disappearance in the museum environment are suppressed. Nature is presented as a beautiful, wonderful world because it all has to remain fun.
Or take the Mauritshuis. Couldn’t it talk to representatives of Extinction Rebellion? Because, to paraphrase Greta Thunberg, we can sleepwalk into the future, but that doesn’t help us much either. We all have to deal with that system change, including museums. They can put the future on the agenda in nuanced, appealing ways and thus reach a large audience. Is it time for a healthy dose of museum activism?
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 3 November 2022