Staff Shares #4
Emma Harjadi Herman interviewed by Valeria Mari
Emma Harjadi Herman interviewed by Valeria Mari
October 27, 2022
As an intern in the Stedelijk’s Research and Curatorial Practice department, Master’s student Valeria Mari researched the new vision put into practice since Rein Wolfs became director in 2019. For her research project Staff Shares: Towards a Museum of Belonging, she interviewed Curator Leontine Coelewij, Head of the Education and Inclusion department Emma Harjadi Herman, Senior Editor Gwen Parry, and Press Officer Marie-José Raven. Her questions arose from her interest in how the Stedelijk is reframing and repurposing its collection to be more inclusive of women artists, gender-diverse makers, as well as artists associated with diaspora. By doing so, she sets out to understand how the Stedelijk is changing its narrative through its research, curatorial practice, education, and publication programs. The interviews will be published weekly throughout October 2022.
VM: When did you start working at the Stedelijk Museum, and what do you consider to be the central goal of the Education and Inclusion department now?
EHH: I started working at the Stedelijk Museum on the 16th of March 2020. Unfortunately, it was the Monday after the whole country went into the first lockdown due to Covid-19, which impacted and wholly changed the job I was going to start with on day one. However, when I arrived, many education programs were very solid and could run perfectly. The initial plan was to shape our political profile, improve our accessibility, and look at diversity in our team and collection presentation. But, due to the circumstances, the team agreed to do no-brainer tasks instead of writing policy and taking all those crucial steps that would not have taken off during the health crisis.
VM: I can imagine how much effort it took to reorganize the entire museum’s programming because of Covid-19, which we hope will have a less significant impact going forward. Thinking more generally, in your opinion, how has the transition within a decade among three directors (Rein Wolfs joined in 2019, before him, Beatrix Ruf left in 2017 and Ann Goldstein in 2013) impacted the Education and Inclusion department, and why?
EHH: It is difficult to comment on the period before Director Rein Wolfs since I was not yet working at the museum. I used to work with Mama Cash in Amsterdam, organizing an annual festival for International Women’s Day of which the Stedelijk was the leading partner. So, I knew the museum as a partner, but not from the inside out. Since my arrival, I have seen that Wolfs has created space for long-term changes, hiring colleagues who are pushing the institution toward inclusivity.
We are trying to include all those voices we have been hostile to for a long time because they were not making the institution money. Now we have a chance to change the dynamic by creating space for those voices.
VM: It is encouraging that there is room for change at the museum—if I am not wrong, the department even changed its name. Before your arrival, it was “Education and Interpretation”, and right after, “Education and Inclusion”.
EHH: Yes! This was possible thanks to the work of many activists and artists who have been pushing for it for decades. Thankfully, inclusivity is valued more highly in the cultural scene now. In order to let changes take place within an organization, it has to be organized vertically and horizontally. In the case of the Stedelijk, at least one person in each department must oversee the actions decided together. For example, Gwen Parry, Senior Editor of the Research and Curatorial Practice department, takes care to turn such actions into accessible language in research, wall texts, and publications. I am personally responsible for these actions and rendering these approaches mainstream throughout museum departments.
VM: It is great to dive into the behind-the-scenes of the Stedelijk. I also believe that these dynamics should consider the community around the museum to which the projects are addressed. How has the external community responded to the new direction?
EHH: We are open to feedback from stakeholders and visitors around the Stedelijk. Their comments are based on different experiences, priorities, and projects offered by the museum. For instance, tours and initiatives for visitors with limited hearing are much appreciated, as opposed to the videos of the Hito Steyerl exhibition that lacked subtitles. These observations are valid and help us to make concrete improvements and move forward. Sometimes it is not easy to deal with 125 years of the museum’s history and popularity, but we are working to gain trust, which takes time. Feedback collected for the new collection presentation is very encouraging. Visitors appreciated the inclusion of new voices and perspectives that are more relevant to our time, which is excellent, but we still have a long way to go.
VM: Since you mentioned the new collection presentation, what kind of education and inclusion programming has been applied there?
EHH: The Education and Inclusion department approaches the permanent collection presentation as a single unity even though it is split and presented in three different moments, going from the newest to the oldest part (1980–Now, 1950–80, and 1880–1950). The programming has a slower pace than that for temporary exhibitions, which require particular approaches—for instance, involving the living artists—where we want to offer extra information that stimulates curiosity, especially for regular visitors. We treat the permanent collection slightly differently; it is more educational and targeted to those who do not visit the museum regularly or those visiting for the first time. For instance, we give guided tours combined with a treasure hunt via WhatsApp (Whatsapp Trail: Discover the Museum), mainly involving family interaction with the museum’s collection (fig. 1). Additionally, we have included the artists talking about their work in the audio guides, providing the public with a more immersive experience. This approach has helped the museum to make archival materials of older generations of artists more accessible and relevant.
Fig. 1: Whatsapp Trail: Discover the Museum, guided tours every Sunday at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Maarten Nauw.
So, the main goal of our education and inclusion programming is to invite people to take the first look, take a breath, and maybe say aloud what they are seeing and start a conversation. Also, the program aims to let visitors build confidence in expressing their opinions, associations, and feelings during a fun and enjoyable experience. All of these elements are valid and useful for learning and respecting different perspectives.
VM: I wonder how your department deals with artworks that do not ideologically represent the current diversity of society or that may be problematic to show at the Stedelijk today.
EHH: This can happen, but it is never the artwork’s fault.
Perspectives made available in the museum do have the potential to be jolting, discriminatory, and obscene, but sometimes we still have reasons to show them. We must think deeply about why and how we present works, giving our visitors a chance to engage with these stories and consciously choose whether to accept or reject them.
I remember one of my first meetings about the exhibition Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism (2021) at the museum (fig. 2), which caused me such a stomach ache! I felt so shitty, to be honest. I was sitting in that conversation and thinking, why is it making me feel so bad and why are we doing it? What if hundreds of thousands of people come to the museum and get the same stomach ache? Is it worth it?
Fig. 2: Exhibition room centred on Papua New Guinea in Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2021. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
I can now say it was worth it! I think the reason is that we did not shy away from that pain. We went head-to-head with it and figured out that this is painful because the exploitation is visible in the paintings, even without reading the wall texts. It just hits you right in the face!
We also elevated perspectives, artworks, and artists associated with diaspora that had been pushed out of the modernist museum concept. We struggled with this legacy, but we ultimately managed to take a step forward and present their stories.
VM: Thank you Emma for sharing in such a direct and transparent way how the internal and external museum community struggles with this sensitive topic. I want to shed light on women artists who have also been unequally represented at the Stedelijk in the past. A big step forward can be appreciated in the composition of the new collection presentation rooms, many of them dedicated to women artists, like those that open and close Everyday, Someday, and Other Stories, collection 1950–1980, I wonder if there is a strategy being used toward subverting the dominance of male artists that have tended to be exhibited at the Stedelijk, and the Education and Inclusion programming that conveys that presence.
EHH: I am not a curator, so all the credit for putting that show together goes to the curatorial team. They have done a terrific job of giving the collection a good shake and presenting it with fresh eyes (fig. 3). It is also exciting to see these women artists with such fierce works boldly presented. Is it an education-inclusion strategy? No, it is a curatorial strategy!
Fig. 3: Figurative Art between 1880 and 1940: the Female Perspective in Yesterday, Today, collection until 1950 at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
However, I think it might have been affected by actions taken by the museum a couple of years ago. Before I joined the Stedelijk and was still working for Mama Cash, we invited the Guerrilla Girls as the main speakers at the Feminist Festival at the Stedelijk. The feminist group gave performances and lectures about their art, activism, and position of women and artists of color. They brought a thoughtful and intersectional approach to exclusion and inclusion in the art world. It was an example of an inspiring moment that I took with me in the conversations about our collection.
I learned from the Guerrilla Girls’ pragmatism that we can talk endlessly about our collection, but it is more constructive to go to our depot and count how many works are by men, women, and artists of colour. How much can we understand from the resulting numbers?
I remember doing that for the collection presentation proposal, looking at sexuality, race, gender, and a couple of different axes by which people and artists are often discriminated. The resulting numbers were a great starting point for our conversations because we found that the category of non-binary artists did not exist in the museum registration system. This somehow brings me back to the protest by supporters of the Guerrilla Girls collective that took place in 1996 at the Stedelijk following a survey of American paintings (fig. 4). The activists pointed out that only one percent of the exhibited works were by women artists while artists of colour were completely absent. This episode exemplifies how simple methods, such as inventory and survey, can bring up important issues impacting conversations aimed at inclusion policies.
Fig. 4: Supporters of the Guerrilla Girls on the sidewalk in front of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1996. Photo: Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen.
VM: Based on inventories and research, what do you think could be the causes of the gap in the museum’s registration system?
EHH: I think the cause is the patriarchal structure of our society.
We have been battling against this structure that has been built and fortified for thousands of years. Activists and artists have been trying to dismantle and question it. A museum like the Stedelijk takes their cues as much as possible, following their lead and supporting them.
We as an institution will not be the front-runner in this type of thing ever because activists and artists lead the way, but we have to try our damnedest to keep up.
VM: It is optimistic that the museum emphasizes these topics intending to acknowledge differences by including them. We all hope that soon the museum’s system for registering artists into its collection will also be as inclusive as possible. Would you like to add any further thoughts?
EHH: I notice my discomfort in having this conversation because I think this kind of stuff needs to be done instead of talking about it too much. Talk is cheap. So, we just have to get our act together. As I said, we need to take cues from artists and activists leading the way and then bust our asses to get it done simultaneously. We are not operating in a vacuum but as part of a big, vibrant, multifaceted society. Conversations are also part of the learning: sharing our actions, failures, questions, and struggles helps us understand each other and move forward. I feel torn between putting a sock in it and getting on with the work. However, I know it is also essential to share these thoughts to understand where we are in our work, which is why I appreciate this interview.
 Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism (2021) curated by Beatrice von Bormann (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) and Dorthe Aegesen (Statens Museum for Kunst) together with a number of external experts. This exhibition was centered around the encounter between the artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde with the art and peoples from former German colonies, within the German empire and in Papua New Guinea, shifting the focus from the story of the European appropriation of “other” visual art cultures to the untold stories of the people and artworks depicted in the works of both artists.