play van abbe


Play Van Abbe was the most important project for the museum running for 18 months, from 28 November 2009 to 26 June 2011. It was a multi-faceted programme with and related to the Van Abbemuseum collection and used most of the exhibition space. Play Van Abbe consisted of exhibitions, projects, performances, lectures, discussions and new ways of provoking a public critical reflection on the relationship between art and society. Bearing in mind the social changes of the past twenty years, with Play Van Abbe the museum raised topical questions about the museum’s identity and aims, and about institutions dealing with the cultural heritage. What is the role of an art museum in the 21st century? What are the codes which apply to a museum and to what extent are we aware of these? How did these codes develop and do they still apply? Can we display them, or change them, or play with them?  For 18 months the multi-faceted Play Van Abbe programme used the collection as the starting point to answer these questions. The focus was not only on the works of art themselves, but also on the way in which we look at them and talk about them in the museum. Questions were raised about form and content, copies and originals, good and bad. The apparent neutrality of the museum was tested, and the relationship between the process of exhibiting and collecting art was examined. The history and aims of art museums in general and the Van Abbemuseum in particular was unveiled as being subjective, and related both to ethical decisions in society and to aesthetic choices related to order and beauty. 


Play Van Abbe was a role-play in which visitors, artists and employees of the museum were asked to play an active role. The programme aimed to playfully stimulate all those involved to think critically about how works of art find their way there, and what the museum can do with them once they are there.

Together with visitors, artists, (guest) curators, researchers and national and foreign institutions, the Van Abbemuseum wished to play the museum like an instrument and learn more about itself and the possibilities of cultural production in our time. In order to do justice to the questions that were raised, the museum delayed the temporary exhibition programme for eighteen months and focused entirely on Play Van Abbe. The inspiration for the questions in this programme consisted of the museum’s observations about how society has changed in the past twenty years.

For example, what influence has globalization and the creation of online communities had on museums? How can we create space for interpretation and reflection in an apparently constantly changing environment? With Play Van Abbe the museum made a contribution to the theoretical discussion about the identity of museums for contemporary art in the 21st century. The subjects of these discussions were shown in the museum’s daily practice. Christiane Berndes, the collection curator, explained: “We wish to show the museum in a new way in relation to everyday life and the world around us, so that visitors start to think, ‘I hadn’t felt or experienced it in this way yet.’ I hope that this kindles a spark of inspiration.” 


During its 18 months the Play Van Abbe programme was subdivided into four parts, each with its own theme. Each part raised subjects for discussion related to the particular theme. Artistic visions were explored, and the museum was examined as a model using works of art and methods of mediation. New stories were told using the collection, old stories were reconstructed and new works were commissioned from artists. Each part included an intervention or interruption, a project which broke into the theme of the part concerned and explored the boundaries of museum practice. During the intervals when the parts changed over the Van Abbemuseum invited visitors to take a peek behind the scenes. The four parts of Play Van Abbe were supplemented with lectures and discussions, a research programme, an international conference and publications.

Photo: Peter Cox


Play Van Abbe developed from the Plug In programme which took place in the Van Abbemuseum between 2006 and 2009. During this three-year period of development the museum always highlighted the collection using new and challenging perspectives. It was also a response to the challenges which arise in the different disciplines such as art, art history, cultural studies and sociology, but also for the people involved in museum practice. Their questions relate to the work of art as a material object and to the museum as the context in which the work of art is given a position and identity. With the help of interdisciplinary and international cooperative ventures, Play Van Abbe examined how a museum can present itself as a knowledge institute aimed at retaining a “collective cultural memory”. It wished to surprise and inspire people, and at the same time stimulate critical, long-term ideas about the role which art plays in our contemporary world.