On the Van Abbemuseum Archive


CE: Charles Esche, DF: Diana Franssen, NA: Nick Aikens


NA: What are the aims of the Van Abbemuseum?

CE: To preserve and display the collection of modernist art that we’ve built up from 1936 and to add to that through exhibitions and new purchases. And to understand this archive, which is both the artworks and all the information around them, in the light of the present moment. 

View of the artist files.
View of the artist files.
Courtesy of Janet Chan.

NA: Within that how does the archive fit in? What is the role of the archive within the museum?

DF: As a public institution, it is the policy of the town government that we archive everything from documenting exhibitions [Exhibition archive], purchases [Collection archive], as well as correspondence and materials from the institution itself [Company archive]. We even collect exhibition proposals and purchases that didn’t go through. As long as there is a document there will be a registration of it via a national archival system of codes. It’s regulated by law and gives the civil servant, (which as employees of the museum, we all are), and the town the opportunity to come up with factual documentation to prove if and why things go wrong.

Unique to the Van Abbemuseum is the fact that the archive is immediately accessible for anyone who wants to visit the museum. Many Dutch museums do not have their archives in house, but in the official Regional Archive Institution, because they are the owners of the archive (the museum is only a minor part of the whole bureaucratic organisation of the town government). After we negotiated getting the archive in the museum – it took a few years: 1990-1992 – we turned it into a working archive. In doing so it became an active memory bank for us to look through the past into the present and the future.

NA: To get a sense of the scale of the archive – the museum was founded in 1936 – do we have a record of every exhibition at the museum since?

From Collection Archive.
From Collection Archive.
Courtesy of Janet Chan.

DF: We even have a section from 1933 leading up to the opening of the museum in 1936. That material reveals the policy upon which the museum was founded, and all the discussions between Henri van Abbe, the founder of the museum and the town government. From that day on every ambition of the museum is archived and can be reconstructed. The archive consists of photographs, letters, drawings, correspondence, about mounting an exhibition, the negotiations of a purchase, the production of the catalogues and reviews in the press and the institution itself through to meeting minutes.(1) Even today you can reconstruct what was hanging on every wall in 1936. As a governmental archive it is written in a mandatory archival system. The archivist has to have forms signed by the director if he decides not to keep something. It is a hierarchical and old fashioned model and a very top down, regulated control system. But the rigid system imposed on us has preserved the complexities of the museum’s history, which we can now look back on and dig things up that are relevant for us now.

NA: I’ve got here ‘Archiefwet 1918’, the archive law in the Netherlands. The history ofarchiving in the Netherlands has quite a particular history, no?

DF: I don’t know if that is really typical for Holland but for public institutions in Holland, yes. I know private museums that don’t have an archive or register their shows but public institutions have a duty to archive. A Royal Decision [Koninklijk Besluit on 23 December 1826] forced provinces and towns to start making registrations and inventories of their archives. Later on this archival law was written down in the book you have there, called Archiefwet 1918. You can imagine that this book doesn’t give you the help you need today (despite a few updates) when new archiving policies are needed in the case of Archiving 2.0 and new media. The practical code of the archive was developed at the end of nineteenth century and is called UDC – The Universal Decimal Classification.(2) But of course it is in desperate need of updating!


Archiefwet 1995.
Archiefwet 1995.
Courtesy of Van Abbemuseum.

NA: I want to get a sense of what is allowed into the archive, has to go into it by law, and when are there moments for subjectivity by the archivist; when can they say ‘this would be interesting, lets include it’, or ‘this isn’t so interesting’?

DF: That depends. For the legal part there are lists of what has to go in there with UDC codes. There is a strict building up of the files and things that have to be there otherwise it’s not sanctioned and your archive is corrupt as they say. In this regard, the archivist does not have any freedom. Apart from that, we have what we call the documentation archive, and that is the more interesting part because the archivist can collect what he thinks is relevant. These are the pictures, the catalogues, documentation around an exhibition or purchase. That is a nice way for an archivist to place his mark on things. In the Van Abbe archive for instance, during the directorship of Jean Leering, the documentation part was done well, quite democratically – probably the archivist lost his system so he collected as much as possible. Now we have a vast and strange archive from that period. You’ll find little notes for the guards, sketches of works Leering encountered and wanted to buy. These documents give you a sense of the institution – how democratic it was and how the system worked. On the other hand, if it’s a hierarchical organisation, like in the time of Edy de Wilde, just after the war, you’ll see that the archivist is much more limited, following guidelines and always asking for permission.

NA: So you can’t really speak of an ‘ideology’ within the archive. It’s driven and necessitated by procedures within which there is some room for interpretation or a subjective stance, but it’s quite small.

CE: I think the idea is to make that subjective space as small as possible within the law. The idea is to produce it as a logistical exercise where everything that needs to be collected is collected. Obviously there is an ideology behind it, but it is an ideology that is not transparent, not recognised, not acknowledged. A bit like capitalism itself – its seen to be a logistical exercise, whereas in fact its full of meaning.

NA: But it’s not the ideology of the museum?

CE: That’s what has been beautiful about it. What you do have to a certain extent, you have as raw facts. And what Diana says is really important: a lot of the anecdotes and the subjective information are lost because what they want is objects of information in those rules. But within the objects of information there is a lot of room for interpretation afterwards, because we have the stuff and we can go back to it and say actually if you read this in this way or this in combination with this other part of the archive, or in combination with another museum archive you can understand that what was happening is not quite the same as what was being said, or within the rhetoric and the reality you find gaps.

NA: Charles, when you arrived at the museum and got to know this wealth of history, what did you see as the possibilities with the archive?

CE: One of the decisions that we made quite early on with Diana was to start looking at the collection of the museum as a whole, not to make this distinction between the artworks – the material, paintings, sculpture, installation, whatever – and the paperwork around that artwork. So once you start to treat everything as a single entity – initially the combination was conceptual and gradually it became real – you have a wealth of material in what used to be called the archive that you can start showing to the public and telling stories with. That was a real liberation of the archive because then the material it contained could become the subject of exhibitions and investigation, not only for art historians and people interested in the history of the museum, but for the general public as well. And for us, we were free to think about how the story of this museum is told in public. I think we’re still working on how to fully integrate that idea – that it is one big collection in which the art objects, the things that artists have signed, is only a small part.

NA: Diana, you were heading the library and archive at Van Abbemuseum before and then moved into the curatorial team in 2005. How did this move coincide with the repositioning of the archive as part of the collection?

DF: That was when we started to make exhibitions like the Living Archive using materials from the archive and the collection. The experiment was to try to bring the archive into the exhibitions, thinking about its role, and to make it more relevant as a source for the public and the staff. We wanted to do away with the hierarchy between object, document, and knowledge, because an autonomous artwork could also be treated as an archival piece and visa versa.

So I moved into the curatorial room! Also, you can’t bring an archive to life if you’re working purely in the library and not part of the curatorial discussion. Otherwise you keep looking at the archive in a linear way, only asked to bring books or documents into the show to elaborate on something already told and thought. Charles and I decided that I should be at the heart of the discussion, hearing arguments that could be taken back to the archive for answers, thinking about the wider context or the position of the museum and combining it in a critical way. For me the process starts with a set of critical questions and then looking at the archive for answers or discussion points. It is about treating memory as critically as possible.

CE: It’s also the way that the archive is organised: it’s an exhibition archive, an archive about individual works in the collection, and an administration archive. It’s a control system, which says that this belongs to this sort of information that is about, for example an autonomous artwork, and this is about an exhibition and how it was put together, and this is about decisions that the town council made in relation to the future of the museum. What is interesting is when you can combine these archives in order to see the relationships between what is collected, the correspondence with particular galleries, and the amount of money that the city council permits for those acquisitions to be made. At that point you need to have the kind of knowledge that Diana has otherwise you won’t be able to make those cross and inter-connections but also you need – and this is where I hope that our discussions as curators are key – encouragement to say ‘make those connections’. Otherwise its too easy to stay in those separate zones where the information stays in the manner that it's meant to be given and to be distributed. You have to get out of this silo thinking and into something much more trans-disciplinary and synthetic –

NA: and critical.

Prior to this conversation, you were talking about the archive being relatively inaccessible in terms of the classification structures so maybe it’s nice to talk about the public and how it gets used.

DF: It’s online – at least people know that it’s there, but not all the individual documents are scanned and online – the full digitisation is something we are working on at the moment. The archive gets used primarily by art history researchers. But it has always been publicly accessible. For a long time the archive was in the city building, part of the town government. The city gave it to us to look after some 20 years ago. It looked like shit. It was stored for a long time in the cellar in the town hall in terrible conditions. The town gave it to the Van Abbemuseum to inspect it – because we knew the content. That was also the moment an experienced archivist was hired.

NA: So 20 years ago there was no archivist?

DF: No, only the library and the documentation archive were there, but the real jewels were discovered in the archive from the city. For years those archives were inaccessible. You had to fight your way into the cellar. Only a few archivists knew how to get in there –almost Kafka-esque. At the time it entered the museum we studied the archive from start to finish, making folders and a digital inventory. When we reopened in 2003 with the new building, we wanted anybody to have instant access to the archive. So the public’s attention to the archive grew, but it was really when we started the Living Archive that it was integrated into the exhibition programme. Before that the only connection an exhibition had from within the archive was a traditional one, for instance using a letter from Marc Chagall, in a vitrine next to a painting, to give it more value. So we wanted to do something more experimental that would highlight the content in the archive. That has raised the broader public’s interest in the archive. Sometimes they even bring in their own archives helping us to fill gaps; which means the archive has started to grow.

CE: For example there is an amazing archive of posters from the 1960s and 70s of resistance. There was a small Maoist group in Eindhoven in the 60s-70s who brought their whole archive to the museum because they realised that we were interested in it and that we could preserve it and make use of it in one way or another. We showed the posters together with the Rodchenko Reading Room, putting together two very different time periods.

NA: Maybe we can talk now about the start of the Living Archive because that was, as I understand it, the first time at the museum that the archive was treated as part of the collection that was made visible to the public.

DF: Living Archive is the title of a series of on-going parallel documentary exhibitions which use the archive of the Van Abbemuseum as a starting point, looking at specific moments within the museum’s history and explaining the context of a display, acquisition, or museum policy.

We began the Living Archive because, as Charles said, at a certain moment we felt that we could tell better stories if we started to use archival material because if you talk solely via autonomous artwork you miss things. You can also use artworks as archival material if the story you want to tell needs it or visa versa.

To give you a sense of the content of the exhibition: The first display – in the six Living Archive rooms – looked back at the directorship of Jean Leering (1964-1973) and his policy of broadening the museum’s remit to stimulate a public awareness of the processes of social change and the museum’s role within that. This viewpoint embraced exhibitions like ‘People’s Park’ (1970) and ‘The Street. A Form of Living Together’ (1972). I wanted to use the archive to look at how these presentations came about. What was their aim and how did the public react to something intended to motivate independent opinion and social engagement? The exhibition enjoys an almost mythical status but the process of how it came about wasn’t that mythical and I wanted to show that to the public – the process, from having an idea to the end result and the reception of the whole project. But this first presentation was still presented in an old fashioned way, using vitrines.

Exhibition view, Wo stehst du mit deiner Kunst, Kollege?.
Exhibition view, Wo stehst du mit deiner Kunst, Kollege?.
Courtesy of Peter Cox.

From here we developed something that could inform major exhibitions like Forms of Resistance, an exhibition that looked at the position of the artist: an activist who operates within society, or withdrawn into the protected environment of the museum world? The title of the Living Archive that ran alongside the exhibition was Wo stehst du mit deiner Kunst, Kollege? (Where are you standing with your art, colleague?), taken from a work by Jorg Immendorff that served as a metaphor for critical perception – for artists and museums. Wo stehst Du mit deiner Kunst, Kollege? highlighted historic moments showing whether artists and museum directors demanded or rejected the ‘right of self-determination in their own field’ or the ‘right to participate in the self-determination of other fields.’ Thus the museum is seen here as a podium for pushing back boundaries, in which artists and museum take a progressive stand – hand in hand as it were – yet also representing diametrically opposed views.

We incorporated one of my favourite pieces from the archive, a letter denoting the fall-out between Hans Haacke and then director Rudi Fuchs. On 27 July 1980 the German- American artist Hans Haacke wrote a letter to Rudi Fuchs expressing his disappointment and lack of understanding concerning Fuchs’ affinity to work by German artists Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, and Anselm Kiefer. Haacke thought it inappropriate to use highly emotionally charged themes from the Teutonic mythological world and Germany’s cultural history without adding a critical note.(3)

CE: Another thing that was important about the Living Archive was that it increased the level of transparency. Often the museum is presented as a smooth surface, where everything is pacified and decisions are made without too much difficulty. What the archive shows is the struggles that the directors have had with politicians, that artists have had with galleries, that curators have had with artists, often revolving around money, but also politics. Hans Haacke falling out with Rudi Fuchs because of his purchase of Anselm Kiefer is one example of many. These are actually held in the archive and can only be shown through the archive. You can tell the history of the museum as a series of disputes and struggles. So it opens the door to not thinking about the authority of the museum as a given, as an elitist position if you like, but a set of subjective choices that have been made and could have been made otherwise. It also allows you to think of the museum as a living thing, which has internal fights and ideological disputes.

DF: It also became clear that there was a big public appetite for this kind of presentation – one that used the ‘facts’ of the archive alongside artworks. When the two are presented alongside each other you open both up for interpretation by the public. People can read letters or the minutes of a meeting and make their own interpretation. Those facts, which are really the underside of the museum, act as a bridge for the public to engage with our history in a new way.

NA: Thinking about three words that we’ve been discussing a lot at the museum: transparency, agency, and dispersion. It seems like a lot of these ideas have been contained within what has been happening at the archive.

CE: In a way, the experience we’ve had with the Living Archive is one of the leading edges of the policy of the museum; to try and shift it from, essentially this pseudo- religious atmosphere of the museum as a temple in which relics are presented, into the idea of a narrative, the museum as a story-telling machine. For this, the Living Archive has been absolutely essential. The experimentation that Diana has been doing with the Living Archive is now fully integrated into the next stage of our plans. That’s probably why you find terms like transparency and agency in the Living Archive even in the earlier years. Dispersion is interesting because we want to and have been invited to show exhibitions outside of the museum based on the collection in some way. We still haven’t quite cracked the idea of taking the Living Archive out because it takes a surprising amount of work – just shipping a painting is actually very little work, but to make a Living Archive presentation you’ve got to think about what would make sense: how much background information do you give? What languages are you going to do it in – most of the archive is in Dutch, German, or English. There are huge amounts of work needed to translate the Living Archive into other contexts and this is something we’ve still got to work on. So agency and transparency we have got cracked; dispersion not yet!

NA: Maybe we talk a bit about the future: how does one develop this approach, or this methodology? I am thinking about the next phase of the museum. Beginning in late 2013 there will be the collection display that is currently being developed, The Transparent Museum. This will follow three histories: an art history, a history of the Van Abbemuseum – an institutional history, and a world history. How do you see the archival material being used? What stage are you at in your research?

DF: I think the archive will play the role of the missing link – what the artworks can’t deal with – but it will also allow us to criticise the choice of artworks. I also want to try to make the archive’s role broader. We have to address a world history within the Transparent Museum and there has to be a connection between the vast history of the world and the smaller history of the Van Abbemuseum. In that sense, the archive doesn’t have to only tell one story, it can also be used to address problems which concern world history. That’s important, because otherwise we restrict ourselves again to institutional critique.

Just as artworks don’t only refer to themselves but can be understood within other contexts, so too must the archive deal with a wider set of questions. Here the archive can leave the restrictions of the institution and enter a world history. I wouldn’t make any restrictions because it can be a kind of virus, constantly dealing with all kinds of issues that are addressed in the exhibition.

CE: This new exhibition, which has been planned for five years in the whole of the new building, so 3⁄4 of the space at the museum, is an important project for us. The idea is to be able to tell the story of our position through our understanding of our collection, of our relationship to where we are and to the world, and our relationship to art history. And how we can tell this particular local story in relation to a much bigger story is the real challenge. And how you relate particular artworks to all those narratives, which are whirling around it. I think the archive is the thread that can knit this whole thing together.

NA: Lastly, to talk about other archives, and relations to other institutions: there is the Internationale project which the Van Abbe is involved with – a network of six institutions and archives. Can you talk a little about that relationship?

CE: One of the things we’ve become particularly interested in, particularly with Manuel Borja Villel’s programme at Reina Sofia in Madrid is the idea of ensuring access to artist’s archives or collecting artists’ archives – not necessarily physically owning them but digitising them and making them available.(4) Therefore the archive of artist René Daniels, an important artist from Eindhoven, we are really interested to ensure its availability to people from here. We’re also looking at the Julius Koller archive or the KwieKulik archive, which we’ve been involved with through the Internationale project in trying to assist and make them more accessible. I think that’s quite an important development. If we’re to develop Internationale as an entity that has an identity, these six institutions, from Istanbul to Madrid to Ljubljana to Antwerp we have to find ways in which we can share our archives and see what stories can be told through them all. In a sense, it is much easier to understand the rules, regulations, and ideology of your own archive and institution through the mirror of somebody else’s. What’s being collected in Spain is very different from what’s collected here, what’s being collected in Turkey from what’s being collected in Slovenia. Once you start looking at your own archive through the lens of another archive you are able to learn more about your different positions.

DF: In 2008 we also acquired the archive of the Gate Foundation, a Dutch foundation that collected archival material on artists living in Holland but coming from other countries.(5) When their funding ceased we brought the entire archive into our collection and made it available online. It filled a gap in our collection. For me, it was a way of investigating what was being collected for our museum at the same time that the Gate Foundation started their archive. We were collecting during the same period but from different angles and references. What we missed was how to collect documentation around art from another country, from outside the Western hegemony. But also we could fill in holes in the archive of the Gate Foundation such as the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ (6) which we bought (although it was part of their scope and not ours in those days). So the Gate Foundation allowed us to fill in a big blindspot, allowing us to look again at our own holdings. That is the same with Internationale, by adding others to your archive you start seeing your own archive in a different way. It’s the same as when you add other artworks into your collection, you see the artworks in a different context. That’s why we are always looking at other archives to pinpoint our own restrictions and mistakes.

CE: One thing we didn’t mention is the Grey archive. This is an interesting zone which is a continuity between paperwork and the artwork; it’s somewhere in-between. It includes artworks that were left behind by the artists when they were planning exhibitions, but were not fully realised or never had the status of artworks on the market, so they never really cost anything and somehow stayed here.

DF: Or exhibition material for instance from the 1970s when we started to become environmentally aware and didn’t throw everything out. It’s almost part of an artwork but it’s not taken into the collection and it’s not taken into the archive.

CE: The artist Florian Schneider worked with the Grey archive. Likening it to the Musée Imaginaire of André Malraux so that instead of having reproductions of original artworks you have this grey depot, this uncertain zone which is neither one thing nor the other, neither document or autonomous artwork. But this shows how arbitrary these distinctions are, between the collection and the idea of an archive. It fulfils the argument that there is real continuity between one and the other, also a continuity where things can get displaced, where things can become part of the archive and in the archive things can become part of the collection. So the Grey archive is something that is quite interesting and that we want to continue to play with. Sometimes I think we’re adding more things to the Grey archive than either of the other two because there is a lot of stuff that goes into that category now. It’s such a nice in-between category.

Exhibition view of Musée Imaginaire, 1947, written by André Malraux interpreted by Florian Schneid
Exhibition view of Musée Imaginaire, 1947, written by André Malraux interpreted by Florian Schneid
Courtesy of Peter Cox.

DF: It contains drawings by Joseph Beuys and Christo, big names in the art world – and the market. We cannot bring them into the archive because this material is not paperwork but an object. The curator of collections, responsible for the Collection archive, says there is no proof that it is part of the collection because there is no contract and sign-off stating that it is a purchase or gift. As a result the material becomes nomadic, sometimes pushed into the collection depot, sometimes pushed back into the library/archive depot. So we gave the material an identity, ‘the Grey archive.’

Exhibition view of Musée Imaginaire, 1947, written by André Malraux interpreted by Florian Schneid
Exhibition view of Musée Imaginaire, 1947, written by André Malraux interpreted by Florian Schneid
Courtesy of Peter Cox.

NA: It’s not classifiable?

DF: Well, you could classify it if you want. With Florian Schneider we researched the Grey archive and the ‘real archive’ and found material that linked the two. Florian put this ‘proof’ into a mobile above the pieces on the floor as a kind of moving evidence of their existence.

CE: This does show that the idea of making the collection and archive one thing actually makes sense. These objects prove that you can’t really make this distinction. This distinction is arbitrary and based on market thinking: what was bought for money is collection and what wasn’t bought for money is archive. So really the distinction is based on false consciousness of how art operates, because artists don’t necessarily make these distinctions. So once you’ve joined these things together, you ignore these economic divisions between buying and just being produced by the process of making exhibitions themselves. Then suddenly all this talk about whether something is collection or archive, or autonomous or dependent becomes irrelevant. It is the material that is interesting, and the story it tells which becomes the dominant way in which you look at it. Does this tell an interesting story? If so, let’s use it.



All installation view images courtesy of Peter Cox.

1 | The archive currently contains 5,500 folders dedicated to exhibitions, artist documentation, and the history of the museum. Then there is the Collection archive with 3,150 folders about individual artworks. In 2011 the library began digitising collection slides and photographs of exhibitions. This is accessible on the Internet through our programme Vubis.

2 | The Universal Decimal Classification is a bibliographic and library classification system developed by the Belgian bibliographers Paul Otlet and Henri la Fontaine. UDC aims to provide a systematic arrangement of all branches of human knowledge organised as a coherent system in which knowledge fields are related and inter-linked.

3 | The direct trigger for this letter was an article Fuchs had written for German magazine Der Spiegel in which he sings the praises of Baselitz and Kiefer’s contributions to the Venice Biennale that same year.

4 | ‘[The] universal archive [is] a sort of archive of archives. This implies breaking with the notion of the museum as owner. Rather, the institution should be considered a custodian of goods that belong to all. Of course, making this happen involves digitising works, documents, and so on, and making them available to the community of users. But it goes further than that, because there is also a sharing of opinions, commentaries, and judgments,as well as of the norms underlying such opinions. That is how a choral history is constructed, one in which we can offer our version of the story and others can also explain their perception of themselves and of us. It is important that these stories multiply and circulate as much as possible. If our society's economic system is based on scarcity, allowing artworks to attain stratospheric values, then the universal archive is based on excess, an ordering that escapes accounting criteria. Here, the richest are those who receivethe stories - but those who give or narrate them are none the poorer. It is a matter of constituting federations of free communities that contribute to the common.’ Manuel Borja-Villel, ‘The Museum Revisited’, Art Forum, Summer 2010, XLVIII, No 10

5 | After the foundation closed in 2006, its archives have been housed in the Van Abbemuseum library. The Gate Keepers project seeks to open up questions and conversations around the Gate Foundation’s work since its inception in 1988, using it as a case study to speak more broadly about the establishing of links between the so-called ‘non-Western artistic world’ and the Netherlands.

6 | ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ was an exhibition of art held from 18.05– 28.08.1989 at Centre George Pompidou and Grand Halle at the Parc de la Villette, Paris, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin. Martin curated the show to address the fact that there were, as he put it, ‘one hundred percent of exhibitions ignoring 80 percent of the earth.’



Charles ESCHE



Sat, 1 Dec 2012
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