2 minutes to read Posted on Monday December 13, 2021

Updated on Monday December 13, 2021

An interview with Museum Geelvinck

As we continue to explore stories, projects and collections which highlight Black history in Europe and beyond, we interview Jurn Buisman from the Museum Geelvinck about the institution’s inclusive approach to classical music heritage.

James Oesi and Gerda Havertong sat in conversation at a table
James Oesi / double bass player and Gerda Havertong / actress, speaking about the issue of how to promote the representation of musicians of colour within the classical music scene
Michel Agterberg Video Production
Museum Geelvinck
The Netherlands
James Oesi / double bass player and Gerda Havertong / actress, speaking about the issue of how to promote the representation of musicians of colour within the classical music scene

Thank you so much for speaking to us today! Tell us about the Museum Geelvinck.

Museum Geelvinck is a historic house museum with a significant collection of stringed keyboard instruments from the 18th and 19th centuries, and by far the largest collection of early period pianos in the Netherlands. It offers audiences both a general overview of the development of the piano and its music, and a specific exploration of piano as a craft and industry in the Netherlands. For the Museum, this is living musical heritage: we support the vocational education of both musicians and piano technicians, (co-)creation by composers and performers, and academic research. 

Can you tell us about your history?

30 years ago, we started as a historic house museum in which we presented the story of the building’s wealthy inhabitants from the 17th - 19th centuries. Unavoidably, their colonial pasts can be seen from alternative perspectives. This was reason enough for us to mount ‘Swart op de Gracht’ in 2013, an exhibition on transatlantic slavery. During that year, 150 years of the abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies Suriname and the Dutch Antilles was commemorated. The preparations for this impactful exhibition, in which we involved the local communities from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles, took us over five years. Since then, this theme of our shared heritage has remained a significant part of our museum’s policy, albeit that we shifted emphasis to musical performances. 

One of your main areas of focus is the ‘Beethoven is Black’ initiative; can you tell us more about this? 

In our culturally western biased view, we tend to think of classical music as a universal value. We commonly characterise traditional music from other cultures as ‘world music’. Within the museum world, we have started to look at our collections from more inclusive perspectives and, catalysed by the Black Lives Matter movement, we had to conclude that classical music is inextricably linked to western imperialism and white supremacy. 

Diving into this issue, we came upon the story behind ‘Beethoven is Black’ and its use as a metaphor in the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, and more recently, to highlight an exclusionary approach to culture. And so, we adopted it as a way to introduce people to our work in this area. We started out to decolonise the living heritage of our collection of early pianos and to strive to make the classical music sector in general more welcoming and inclusive for both musicians and audiences with roots in non-western cultures.  

What steps did you take to establish this initiative, and others in your institution which celebrate Black history?

From its very start, our museum has had an international outlook and has developed collaborations with institutions abroad; for instance, around the turn of the millenium, we collaborated with the United Nations within the context of the UN Dialogue Among Civilisations. The leadership of our museum includes one of the four initiators of ‘Dolle Mina’, an influential Dutch women’s liberation movement, which was inspired by the Black Power Movement with Angela Davis as one of its icons. For decades now our non-executive board has included members with African roots from the Dutch colonies. We strive to work with musicians of colour and we have been staging both cross-cultural performances and compositions. 

What role does digital technology, practices or engagement play in this work?

Several years ago, we started recording some of our concerts on audio and video. We dreamt of the potential of a worldwide internet audience and the possibilities of streaming our events. The COVID-19 pandemic gave an enormous boost to this. Recording and sharing online became necessary to stage concerts and provide an opportunity for our circle of musicians to perform for a virtual audience. 

The internet does not only give us the potential to gain a global audience. It opens opportunities to reach out in new formats to different communities and age groups, who may not otherwise feel welcomed and culturally safe in a traditional classical music concert setting. 

What were the biggest challenges that you encountered in setting up these concerts? 

First there were the technical challenges. Professionally developing an online project for streaming of classical concerts took far more time than we first anticipated. From the start, it was obvious that we had to adapt the format to reach out to new audiences. This meant a whole new approach for the way we present our concerts and interpret the repertoire. 

Another challenge we came across is that musicians of colour often feel restrained to talk about their encounters with structural racism within the classical and early music sector, as this may backfire on their career. This while the sector considers itself already welcoming and inclusive. However until recently, the under-representation of Black musicians in Europe from students entering music schools and conservatories to ensembles and orchestras, has been paid little or no attention.

Last, but not least, it is a challenge to reach beyond an audience, which is already convinced, or ‘woke’. Our aim is not only to address the issue within classical and early music circles of musicians of colour. Far more important is to create awareness and place the topic on the agenda within the classical and early music sector at large. When the sector ignores the issue, it refrains from the necessary changes in attitude to become more welcoming for both musicians of colour and new audiences and develop outreach to communities rooted in non-western cultures.

What work can the sector do to promote these necessary changes in attitude? 

To start with, we have to acknowledge that musicians and composers of colour are not only historically under-represented in early and classical music, but that their existence up until recently has been greatly ignored. Driven by the work of the Black Lives Matter movement and targeted incentives and funds for inclusion in the cultural sector, we have recently seen an increase in interest for performing works by composers of colour. Although this may be seen as a step in the right direction, and further research may bring to light more compositions by composers of colour from the past, the choice of repertoire remains quite modest. A more convincing approach could be to acknowledge different interpretations of classical and early music compositions, allowing for non-western musical influences. For instance, the renowned classical flutist Ronald Snijders introduces rhythms and tunes from his youth in Suriname, which have clear African roots, into his interpretations of classical compositions. He is indignant that within the classical music sector his efforts are dismissed as ‘world music’, and not equally appreciated as classical performances. 

Other approaches could include crossover contemporary classical compositions, which combine early pianos with instruments from non-western music cultures. Over the last 10 years, we have staged performances of such repertoire regularly in our annual festival. No difference is made between the cultural background of the western and non-western musical traditions. 

Another best practice is to deviate from today’s western classical concert etiquette, as well as to allow for orchestras with a wider scope of both classical and non-western traditional instruments. This could help to enhance cultural crossovers and give opportunities for new generations to enjoy and perform their parents’ non-western musical traditions as part of the global art music tradition, in which western classical music shares significantly, but is not the only choice. A less western-centred presentation of the story of classical and early music could also help to relate a wider, multicultural audience to classical music. 

What steps can cultural heritage institutions take to acknowledge, surface and highlight Black history in their own collections? 

Looking at an object from an alternative angle already offers a different perspective on the story behind it, which audiences may not have been aware of. For example, in our exhibition in 2013 ‘Swart op de Gracht’, we presented the visitor with the fact that when you sip a nice cup of coffee with a sweet, the coffee, sugar and chocolate all have a past directly linked to Black transatlantic slavery; these commodities are still linked to involuntary labour today. Black history often lurks just below the surface of our perspective. By making the audience aware of this, we widen their view and possibly appreciation of our shared past. The interpretation of objects from the past and the way these are publicly presented can highlight stories showing Black history. And the same goes for living heritage, such as classical music performances.