Sensing Layered Meanings
Ninke invited me to have our conversation in the depot of the Museum. Joelle Wagteveld, currently an intern at Centraal Museum whilst studying at HKU, joined. Special to walk along rows of clothing from different ages, hatboxes and shoes. All carriers of stories waiting to find a theme to connect to. Whilst walking, possibilities of connectivity with modern issues arose. What an inspiration.
Whilst reading this, picture us sitting in this building, close to the museum, in an industrial area. This typical shoebox building, exemplary of those areas grey and somber is in great contrast with the colorful collection. Picture us sitting in a room of that building at a high table on high chairs with new donations of textiles and design given to the museum, put on the table to be examined to see where and how it would fit in the collection of the museum.
NK: Shall we do this conversation in English? As you are from the wider museum community. Being associated with the Europeana Fashion Heritage Association and ICOM Costume, you stay in touch with the signs of the time to be translated to museum environments. I know you are a modest person and prefer to stay in the limelight. I’d like to take the opportunity through this conversation to highlight some of your ‘behind the scenes’ work.
“Inclusivity is now a buzz word. Being inclusive in approaching the world is natural to me from young age on”
NK: To start with the subject of inclusivity. Far before 2020 when the fire of the Black Lives Matter flamed high up, you already worked in coolness and with inner conviction (as I see it) on the biased narrative in the museum’s archive. Silently, behind the scene you took your responsibility without anyone having to tell you to do that. Not only racism through color, also racism of gender is your focus of attention. Can you share what moves you from within to pick up on that?
NB: Whilst researching for last year’s exhibition, Voices of Fashion, a conversation with Wayne Modest, now director of National Museum of World Culture, was an eye-opener. We, people working in the museum world and curators of fashion design and textiles, are tempted to say that in our European Western collections ‘we’ are non-biased. The big names in fashion, the high-end brands, as we call them, and designers, mostly men, are highlighted. Not really inclusive, I would say. What triggered after the conversation with Wayne is that I started to question myself: “where do fabrics come from?” At the same time, I was reading the book COTTON, by Sven Beckert. This made me want to dig into the stories around cotton, the most used material for fashion and fabrics. A material which involves many layers in society whilst the fabric is made. Cotton as a bearer of stories. Stories that can unfold decades of history of humanity and give an insight so to be able to make decisions for the future. The stories that are told now are incomplete. That fascinates me. Parallels can be seen between then and now. Symbols of Decision Making. About the role of women and earth, the role of actually everyone and everything.
NK: What is your intrinsic motivation on the subject of inclusivity? What is natural to you putting inclusivity into practice? What drives you?
NB: A strong feeling of righteousness and the ability to see beauty in everything. This is something I remember having from childhood. One grandmother was sewing a lot and I remember my other grandmother knitting very very rapidly, my father making music and my mother taking us to churches, ballets and museums. Already at the age of 10, I wanted to go to a specific creative secondary school in Bergen, NL, a village near where I grew up. Finals included textiles, handicraft, music and drawing. At that time, here were only two of these typical creative schools in the whole of Holland and I wanted to go there, despite the 12 km biking. My parents supported my request.
“Curious observation is expressed in a righteous view on worlds and the interest in culture”
NB: ‘Eigenzinnig’ is the word that suits me well. (NK: a nice word in Dutch which says being your own and sensible in that. Immediate translation is quirky). This was expressed in my clothing. I didn’t conform to the typical dressing in Bergen. Bergen is both an artist village and a posh village. I remember to always have an ambivalent relationship with wearing popular brands (with Levi’s and Palladiums at that time). It was a time of questioning what live is about? Always on the look-out for alternatives but then again also not wanting to convey to THE alternative dress typical in those times. A classmate, Aico Dinkla, was someone I could relate to. He, like I did, went to AMFI- Amsterdam Fashion Institute. School at that age is formative. We are still friends, after so many years. He worked with secondhand clothing and added silicone layers. I included him in our latest expo made by Studio PMS. I like friendships that last. I sustain relationships.
2022 Yasmina Ajbilou Centraal Museum<br>
“Always on the lookout for kindship, affinity in connections”
Love for Fashion as a Connector springs from that inner stand. Aico and I both were not impressed by labels. He is of Colombian Roots and adopted in NL. His search for identity through textiles is the magnet. The way he looked at fashion. Reuse is an intrinsic quality. He naturally reuses, doesn’t think twice when starting something to reach out for what is already there. His shows are fairytale like mesmerizing, full of stories.
NK: Both seeing that quality in someone and expressing it yourself too in an autonomous way made you do what you did; made you walk your talk, find your path, not?
NB: Yes. Choosing for AMFI-Amsterdam Fashion Institute was a natural step. Being an au pair in NY was an alibi to ‘feel’ another world at the age of 18. I wanted to explore different ways of daily lives. I think that is why I have the partner I have. Our first journey together was to Timbuktu. This interest in other cultures started at young age, choosing destinations like Mexico and Thailand before anyone went there.
“Righteousness and the women rights go hand in hand for me”
There is still much that can be researched on the subject of male and female, men and women and their behavior. The fact that women ‘got’ the right to vote in 1919 should be nuanced: they/’we’ had to fight for it. Change is not something that just ‘happens’, the way this is often brought to the light is something I think about. Again, in some parts of the world, it is men that decide over women without consultation. Why? In this age of communications.
NK: Again, I’d like to go deeper into this attitude of yours. It’s really so solid and genuine.
NB: First boyfriend was from a Friesian Father and Indonesian mother. That intrigued me. How family traditions were staged in celebration and death, The way families come together. Coffee was served around the bier; the coffin in the house. The spiritual side of moments in life. What is their more than what these eyes in this body born in this culture in this country? I did a lot of traveling, to Iran, Yemen, Japan, Ghana and to Surinam for example. This, as I call it, hunger for adventure and getting acquainted with a variety of cultures, is deeply rooted in me. In contact with people in their habitat is key for how I look and build stories. The use of their senses expressed in everyday activities.
2019 Japan Indigo
“I like to step out of my bubble and explore. I love to learn through travel”
NK: You don’t only research, you also envision. Your first expo as a curator of Centraal Museum Utrecht, you combined designer Alexander van Slobbe and exhibition agency DeVrijerVanDongen; you are able to make connections, see cross-connections expressed in these typical Dutch icons, so called parallel realities. You saw resemblance. Plus, you could plot a surprising and for the public attractive scenario to explore. I also recall your founding work at Modemuze with all other curators of musea, now a platform for young and old to enjoy short- and longreads and stroll through the Dutch fashion collections. A place to explore, make personal cross-connections and be surprised. Letting other layers within the museum world tell stories, show pearls from archives hidden away in the underground of our national treasure store, is a new thing.
NK: Consider we can’t travel anymore physically. Consider this to happen within 20 years. Within the span of a generation, so all players are still there. Ninke is still curator of the museum and the museum still exists. With that character of yours and your wish to connect people and different cultures, lifestyles, fragrances whatever variety of worlds you can imagine. What would you do? You have an archive, you have this genuine, intrinsic righteousness. You have the city, the country as a playground. What would you do?
NB: The fashion and costume collection is the foundation and key of every exhibition. There is always something that connects. Language, colors, habits. The exhibition ‘Human Hair’ was a good example. Starting with a small drawer with 19th century hair jewelry. By extracting a seemingly normal everyday aspect, hair, something everyone has, stories can be told and times can be connected.
“I don’t look at trends. With a helicopter view and some humor, I go beyond”
2016 HAIR Helen Pynor Exhale <br>
NK: Were the conversations on this Europeana Platform, you are part of and the ICOM Costume, Fashion & Textiles beneficial in that?
NB Last year’s topic of Europeana Fashion was on Crafts. 2019 the archives of the musea were on the menu. Museum of London had stories. The archive of Dior and Westwood. I spoke about our exhibition ‘Voices of Fashion’. Which was a bit of an outsider. What this showed was that there is still biased thinking and ways of looking at the world. The holistic approach is an area of attention. As the exhibition was made with Janice Deul, the platform Europeana was a springboard to start a string of conversations in the international field of museums. She has since been invited in many countries so speak. She shares her experiences internationally now. Works hard to get messages across and starts to succeed. It is a joy to work with her. At ICOM it was this mix of voices that generated the sense of urgency in narrative.
“Voicing a variety of voices is the main focus”
NK: How are you translating your wish to do something about the biased culture in the museum? Or do you have a suggestion to formulate the question differently? Cause I am aware that even in formulating the question a biased mind can shine through.
NB: The collection is of the city of Utrecht, of The Netherlands, of the people. It should show ‘Het Doorleefde Leven’, ‘The Lived Life’.
NK: ‘Het Nederland van nu’? What is being ‘Dutch’ now?
For example, 'Out of Fashion’. Our educational department was closely involved. People could see how clothing was restored in a museum-like way, quite unique at that time. For our Jan Taminiau exhibition, embroidery specialist Anna Bolk joined forces and bought her expertise on the famous Utrecht ‘lapjesmarkt’ (fabric market), that exists since the 16th century. Everyone goes there. The market as a cross-section of society and culture. It was an idea of one of my colleagues. People could join in and embroider themselves. Small pieces that made something big. From patch to patchwork. We look at what is already there, in town. We look at something were everyone can have a say about. In that way creating meaning and relevance in an exhibition is important.
2009 Mali Indigo <br>
“From patch to patchwork we show society through textiles and crafts”
NK: I have heard from people, you invite to work with on exhibitions, that they feel free to research and develop something personal. Obviously, you have communication skills, by nature, allowing people to be themselves. Where does that nature come from?
NB: I Love to give voice to unique voices. (NK: IN Dutch it sounds nice: stem geven aan eigenzinnige stemmen). Duran for example. Harm Rensink and Niek Pulles with our HAIR exhibition, and Maison the Faux, Tessa de Boer and Joris Suk their first big expo is done here.
NK: Yasmina Ajbilou was the one that told me how free she felt. Do you then know what she talks about?
NB: I’m not the kind of person that says “I want this or that of you”. Together we look what is possible in the museum and what fits someone in his/her stage of life. Often, it’s a dive into the deep. Maison the Faux, for example, never had made an expo on that museum scale. To give them the opportunity to work with professional exhibition makers brings something new. To everyone, by the way. I love that.
Curiosity is then what hits in again. I look for cross-overs as the example mentioned before of the combo DeVrijerVanDongen as exhibition makers and the narrative of Van Slobbe once was a surprising intervention that worked out beautifully.
NK: Do these
combinations cross your mind? Do you intentionally look for it or do you make
use of what comes in front of you?
NB: My way of working is organically and I trust on my intuition, the people I work with and on the process. There is a point on the horizon, that is important, but the path is more fluid, it offers room for things to happen. Seeds for ideas can be planted years before the opening of an exhibition, it grows. Exhibition design to me is as essential as the content, it should be a synergy. And I like to connect local, national and international, questioning myself: what is in it for them, for the public, for the participants? How are we of value? How can we as a museum question and contextualize what is happing in society? Fashion offers many possibilities for storytelling and to be relevant. To stay connected with society is essential. The process reminds me of dying with indigo: mixing several ingredients magic can happen!
“I first photograph what I think something could be, as not everything fits in my head yet. Let alone the heads of others. Then, collectively, we make choices”
The theme ‘Women’ always pops up. I am always on the look-out for an approach. My great-grandmother had her own laundry service, working 6 days a week and doing the household on the 7th day. With a cigarette in her mouth. This image sticks in my mind. She died when I was 8 years old. Influences like this weave into the curation and making of exhibitions. Time matters too.
NK: What would you like to give as a suggestion to future ‘workers’ in the fashion design arena?
NB: Start with giving respect to my predecessors Carla de Jonge, José Teunissen and Hanneke Adriaans, who laid the foundation of what’s now a rich fashion and costume collection. Internationally famed. Many museums around the world borrow pieces. I am so proud how its constantly up to date.
“I stand on the shoulders of all of them”
Carla de Jonge started in 1917 at the museum and worked her whole career at the museum. Also, as director and as second or third woman of a museum in NL. She got a professor degree in 1916, which in itself is exceptional in those days. She was a countess and used that to write to people so to ask for donation of exemplary pieces of clothing from their wardrobes. Credit where credits are due. Inspiring too. Often it is said that fashion exhibitions have no depth. In the Ridderzaal Carla created an exhibition ‘Costume and our ancestors’. Thousands of visitors came. The exhibition traveled around the world. A novelty. She wrote about porcelain and silver and Jan van Scorel, the 16th century painter. A broad vision and being multidisciplinary made her stand out.
NK: From multidisciplinary, I’d like to go back to multi voices, the inclusive character you have and exhibit. More on that behind the scenes?
NB: I aim to make ‘layered’ exhibitions. Fashion is an art form that is literally close to us. How can we use this? For example, again the theme of women: do I need to under scribe if an artist is a woman, or not? One of my last exhibitions was with Studio PMS. More or less, everything was done by women. This should be normal, but I still feel the urge to mention it, to highlight it and make sure young girls see these examples. Recently, I had a look at my book shelves, my art history and fashion books and I was stunned by the fact that more or less 90% of them represented men. There still is a lot of work to be done, in silence, and by using our voices. And I am working on a big fashion exhibition for fall 2024, which will more or less build on previous projects, although in a different way.
“I am happy with Fashion as a Discipline. It stands close to people.”
Constant focus is the added value of the museum as a place. A hatch (doorgeefluik). To pass along things, stories. I feel at home here. And I love that it is possible to show more and more diversity and connect.
This collection of qualities of people, working with them and so creating content is also done with Modemuze. I love to work on it and at the same time it is input for ongoing work as a curator for different exhibitions. Right from the start the intention of the different curators of the fashion and textile department of different museums in the Netherlands was to create a platform for all involved and through the collections the museums have. The collectors, the donators, researchers from a variety of departments within and outside the museum, students from art schools doing research and their findings, experts, fashion designers and private collectors, a broad variety of fashion and costume lovers. A rich richer richest place to visit and see what The Netherlands has through their museums. That’s the vibe of that website. Everyone connected to identity through textile has a voice there.
NK: Women NOW?
NB: In Utrecht I joined a Women Society. I normally would not really join a ‘club’. This is a special group of inspiring people, working and or living in Utrecht, working in very different fields. It helps me to get out of my art, museum and fashion bubble. We eat together and invite speakers within or outside the network. Talks can be about artificial intelligence, hydrogen, film makers, different matters. Strong Utrecht women who share their stories. The city has a lot to offer. Women that bring down barriers. A former colleague of mine is researching this and discovers interesting things. There are so many stories to tell.
NK; So, Utrecht?
NB: I came across an assignment, made when I was 16. During an excursion in Utrecht. It was about Fred van der Laken. Things like that, perhaps it was a sign, one of the circles in life. Now, being involved we develop new plans, we come together on long term themes like ‘Wandering’ instead of target groups and ‘Passing On’ instead of the much-used container word ‘sustainability’. We think and wonder. We ponder and converse. With wonderful people around me to explore with.