That’s important, that visitors feel that the museum is also about them. That it’s not just a museum about crazy people, but about all people.
~ Floris Mulder
Opened by Queen Máxima of the Netherlands at the height of the 2020 pandemic, the re-visioned permanent exhibit at the Museum of the Mind is a theatre of colours, artefacts, and multi-media visitor experiences. Unexpected art awaits the visitor around every corner. A pink neon sign by artist Tracey Emin proclaims that it is indeed, “Fantastic to feel beautiful again.” An exquisite set of paper cut-outs feature reflections on the human mind by Bengali composer Rabindranath Tagore, French sociologist Émile Durkheim, and American writer Ursula Le Guin. Then – on video against the backdrop of a night sky in the former Dutch colony of Suriname – a woman speaks of her family history, her periods of intense destructive psychoses, and her passion for playing with fire.
In the new exhibit the masses of words have vanished from the museum walls. Instead, the 2020 exhibit uses contemporary art and historical objects from the museum’s vast collection as a platform for marginalized neurodiverse voices. There are transgender stories, trans-cultural stories, tales of broken families and of ordinary people swept into the wards of the vast psychiatric hospitals of North Holland. These are the patient biographies that museum director Hans Looijen believes are so critical for comprehending the world of madness. Similarly, curator Floris Mulder told us the writings of Wilma Boevink, a well-known Dutch expert with lived/living experience were an important source of conceptual inspiration for the 2020 exhibit.
Visiting the museum for the first time, the maze of small rooms made it easy to imagine the former Dolhuys in operation, inhabited by residents, keepers, and regents. We came upon a small alcove with a cloud of inflated plastic bags suspended from the ceiling, a solitary yellow chair in the corner, and a messages in yellow tape across the wall. This must be a story about the emotional and/or physical isolation of madness, we surmised. In the back of a sunlit room 30 arms tattooed with diagnostic labels like “epilepsie” and “imbeciel” shoot out of the wall, pointing an accusatory finger at you, the visitor. The effect is dramatic. Looking down at the contents of a glass-covered case we discover a neat wooden box containing a 1919 IQ test, a photo album open at a page of sepia-toned patient portraits, and an 1899 print depicting the horrors of the guillotine. Perhaps the story here is about medicine and the way it exercises power by naming difference. As we move through the museum the old Dolhuys speaks for itself on our audio guide, weaving together a commentary on the art and objects on display and the story of this building that held the lepers, the mad, the poor, all sufferers cast out from society. Although the exhibit is physical in the sense that there are representational objects, the real collection is the stories that are associated with each object.
The installation with the pointing fingers was designed to give visitors the feeling of being labelled. Maybe you are happy to explain about yourself, or maybe it’s, “Hey I didn’t choose that label.
~ Lieke Ketelaars
The exhibit was conceptualized and created through an extended consultation process. When staff articulated a concern that the museum sent out a negative message about mental health care, the KossmandeJong design team proposed that visitors be encouraged to begin by developing their own thoughts about how they might cope with a mental health crisis, in themselves or among people close to them. Situating themselves within the world of mental health, visitors would see that people exist on a spectrum of mental differences, a central tenant of neurodiversity and the new exhibit. With historical asylum sources largely silent on topics of race, gender fluidity, and other markers of diversity, the museum team’s concern for inclusivity was met by art contributed by creators with lived/living experience of mental diversity. Spatial designers on the project then took the curators content plans and gave them the shape of a story with, as KossmandeJong’s Lieke Ketelaars explained, “an arc of tension, and a first glance that draws you into a story, and then this big finish.”
As the exhibit took shape, curators, stakeholders, specialists, and experts by experience joined with KossmandeJong’s content and design team for eight brainstorming sessions and then provided feedback on design mock-ups. Using a model of shared curatorial and public authority, the museum created a space where neurodiverse voices could be heard with as little interference as possible, letting the stories speak for themselves. Only narratives by people who had lived them were included and interpretative text was mostly limited to notes relating to providence, a move that met concerns about accessibility. Physical spaces left open in the exhibit allow visitors a chance to reflect or take a step back from the content. Overall, the mood is deliberately positive, even celebratory, with most stories bending a neurodiversity narrative toward beauty, acceptance, and sometimes love.
I’m fascinated by how we can have a conversation throughout art and culture about, “How are you?” and “How am I doing?”
~ Jolien Posthumus
The abundance of contemporary art in the museum’s new exhibit makes this an unusual display of an historical collection and provides another avenue for the transfer of interpretative authority from the curator to the museum visitor. Fine art pieces like Annaleen Louwes photography, which the audio guide tells us were produced in a New York psychiatric hospital, are not presented as separate gallery works, but are integrated into a larger theme and can be understood in multiple ways.
Museum staff that we spoke with believe that the art installed for the 2020 display is an important tool for opening visitor minds to new ways of thinking about mental health. Noting that, “art is able to convey messages which are sometimes not easy to grasp in texts or need huge novels or studies to describe,” Hans Looijen added that that the public were free to find their own meaning in the multiple works placed throughout the exhibit. Coming from the design side, Lieke Ketelaars stressed the importance of art for personal reflection and emotional connection.
Although some of the museum art predated this process, many pieces were created specifically for the new exhibit by artists from the Netherlands. The KossmandeJong team and the museum curators stressed the importance of process, sensitivity, and collaboration with artists creating new works for the display. Interviews were done in a location that was comfortable for the creator. Floris Mulder reported that a key question was: “What do you think is important to tell in the museum?” The moment when Turkish-Dutch artist Ahmet Türkmen learned that his pink elephant piece about societal stigma and personal shame would be going into the museum, Mulder recalled, was emotional for them both.
Together we are a society and neurodiversity is a line that goes through us.
~ Hans Looijen
Without doubt, the 2020 Museum of the Mind exhibit is a conscious and aspirational embrace of neurodiversity over a psychiatric and social doctrine of difference. The museum’s work with neurodiverse artists signals a commitment to inclusive institutional practice, allyship, and mental health advocacy. In showcasing stories of experts with experience, it elevates the progressive perspectives of the Netherlands patient recovery movement, as exemplified by Wilma Boevink. Museum specialist Elaine Heumann Gurian would say that this signals a welcome institutional shift from being knowledge accumulators, preservers, and translators to becoming knowledge brokers and sharers.
Like others in the museum world, a careful reflection of the 2020 permanent exhibit suggests that the Museum of the Mind is less ready to embrace the political activist ethos that is central to the neurodiversity movement. The movement’s end goal is a society in which there is no such thing as a normal or neurotypical mind and where the psych professions have been exposed as a tool of oppression. Nor does the museum close the door on a specific mad identity within the neurodiversity paradigm, a question of debate in disability scholarship. In this the institution hones to its heritage in mid-twentieth century social psychiatry and its earlier relationship with the survivor organization Pandora while advocating for an expanded social model/ neurodiversity model of mental wellbeing. While the museum itself is not explicitly political, it certainly does not aim to depoliticize the messages of the exhibiting artists, but in fact aims to amplify them.
At the close of each interview, we asked each person to share their dream for the future of mental health in the Netherlands. In Marianne de Bruin’s dream future, mental health care is tailored for the person and their optimal life. In Han Looijen’s dream future, the museum has closed its doors – mission fulfilled – because society has embraced neurodiversity and the health care system places the same value on care for the mind as care for the body. Jolien Posthumus dreams of a future where physicians provide prescriptions for patients to attend a mindfulness day at the museum. The new Museum of the Mind exhibit, Lieke Ketelaars said, illuminates her dream of giving people the space to be their authentic selves, to the enrichment of all. That’s pretty utopian.
Marianne de Bruin Interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Lieke Ketelaars Interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Hans Looijen Interview, Haarlem, 23 November 2022.
Floris Mulder interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Jolien Posthumus Interview, Haarlem, 17 November 2022.
Joost Vijselaar Interview, Haarlem, 17 November 2022.
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