‘Doing justice to cultures that together define our society’

Mama Cash: Meer dan Muze. Foto: Claire Bontje Mama Cash: Meer dan Muze. Foto: Claire Bontje

‘The museum machinery has its own dynamics, focused mainly on practical results: exhibitions and other public activities. As a result, space for research and depth is under pressure. That’s a pity, because there are issues that are much bigger than: how do we achieve our target group this time? The function of the museum itself is changing. The main question is: how can we do justice to the cultures that together define our society? Not just by adding captions to the dominant Western representation and cultural history, as notes written in the margin; but rather by telling new stories with the collection and by actively involving people in doing so; making the museum more inclusive.

‘Because only when diversity is a constant, are you able to make a difference’

‘In the Netherlands there are as yet no examples of a museum that is inclusive at its core. In America I did find an inspiring example in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. A contagious line of research. I am therefore very honoured with the opportunity to invest in that research. Because only when diversity is a constant, are you able to make a difference. So that visitors with various backgrounds and a mixture of cultures can indeed identify with the museum; and feel connected to the museum and its heritage collections.’

These are the words of Museum talent of the Year 2017: art historian Imara Limon (Leiden, 1988), employed as curator in the Amsterdam Museum and as a researcher in Dutch Colonial Heritage. ‘She is an ambitious professional who properly senses the urgency, at this time, for re-evaluating the collections in museums. She tirelessly convinces others – from interested parties to opponents and from boards of directors to peer groups – of the importance of making the museum inclusive,’ according to the jury who proclaimed her Museum talent, praising the exhibition ‘Black Amsterdam,’ held in 2016, which she devoted to black role models in the city, ranging from rappers to writers, from politicians to neighbours and football coaches.

The jury also praised her ability to connect: during the Amsterdam diversity conference in 2017 Limon called for cooperation, an idea which 15 cultural institutions picked up on. She also set up a network of young heritage professionals with various cultural backgrounds, and, together with the Vereniging Ons Suriname (Our Suriname Foundation) and the New Urban Collective, she collaborated in organizing the ‘Black and Revolutionary’ exhibition, an initiative from The Black Archives. In response to these efforts, the Volkskrant newspaper portrayed her in an interview as one of the ‘new mediators’ of 2018.

With the prize for museum talent, a development course of choice, financed by the Mondriaan Fund, Limon will carry out research for a month at the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington DC, where she had paid a short visit once before. Limon: ‘This museum does not present any separate examples of alternative points of view, it is itself an example, exemplary in all respects: a paragon of dialogue and inclusivity. Or, as curator Tsione Wolde-Michael summarizes this perspective: ‘It’s not only an African American story; it’s the American story through an African American lens.’’

This museological innovation, through the lens of various cultures, is what Limon also hopes to be able to carry out through the New Narratives programme that she set up for the Amsterdam Museum in 2017. In 2018, she will expand this programme, focused on the public and on research. ‘New Narratives is a collaborative project of museums and heritage institutions. Among other things, it consists of guided tours through museums and thematic symposiums, such as New Fashion Narratives in 2017, and, coming up in 2018: New Golden Age Narratives, about the so-called Golden Age.’

This week offered a preview of the broadened perspective on this period, with the news that the Mauritshuis, some months previously, had quietly removed the bust of its namesake from the lobby, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil from 1637 to 1644. Limon, who, as Museum talent, was offered to act as guest director of the Mauritshuis for one evening, is a supporter of open discussion about a statue like this one. ‘Heritage is a shared interest, as is our handling of it. Dialogue speeds up the process of development and innovation.’