What’s in a name? Why the Hague’s Gemeentemuseum will soon become the Kunstmuseum

Gemeentemuseum
The Gemeentemuseum. Photo: Nachama Soloveichik

My article “What’s in a name? Why the Hague’s Gemeentemuseum will soon become the Kunstmuseum” appears in The Art Newspaper.

Here’s my broader email interview with Gemeentemuseum director Benno Tempel:

MW: I’m so fascinated by this decision to change a museum’s name. Are you aware of others who have done this from whom you’re drawing inspiration?

Benno Tempel: I am aware of a few other museums in the Netherlands that changed their name. Mostly it concerns small alterations or variations. For example the Amsterdam Historisch Museum (Amsterdam Historical Museum) changed its name to Amsterdam Museum in 2010 and the Letterkundig Museum (Literary Museum) to Literatuurmuseum (Literature Museum) in 2016. However, we have not drawn inspiration from other museums. The Gemeentemuseum itself has had several names since its founding in 1866. The founders chose Museum voor Moderne Kunst (Museum of Modern Art). Later Museum van de Dienst voor Schone Kunst (Museum of Fine Art) and Haags Gemeentemuseum (The Hague Municipality Museum) were used until it was changed to Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in 1998. The larger and smaller adjustments show that the name never actually functioned properly. The name has been repeatedly questioned, also by people outside the museum. As a result, the wish remained to choose a name that makes clearer to the public what to expect: art.

MW: If readers and visitors assume that a name change of this sort isn’t something a museum makes from a position of strength and stability, how would you respond?

BT: Increasing numbers of visitors come to the Gemeentemuseum every year, and the exhibitions attract a large audience. The visitors doubled over the last 10/15 years. Yet, despite this success, several surveys commissioned by the Gemeentemuseum have shown that the museum is not well known by name. The collection is international renowned, the name is less known. Building on strengths, we are confident that our collection and exhibitions will reach an even broader and larger audience in the future.

MW: What led the museum to conduct those surveys about its name? Is this something that museums frequently do, or is Gemeentemuseum innovative in this regard?

BT: Conducting surveys about the name is not something that museums frequently do. As for the Gemeentemuseum, questioning the name is part of its history. As said before, the museum has had several names. In 1935, when the current building at the Stadhouderslaan in The Hague was completed, it was one of the first museum buildings especially designed for displaying contemporary art. The architect (H.P. Berlage) and director at the time (H.E. van Gelder) already discussed and exchanged ideas about a new name. Over the decennia, the name continued to be repeatedly questioned. The name change is not something we decided from one day to another. We wanted the new name to last a lot longer. Hence the surveys. The name Kunstmuseum Den Haag will truly reflect what we are. A museum housed in a work of art, for the building designed by architect H.P. Berlage is also part of the museum’s collection.

MW: You noted that foreigners have trouble pronouncing the name. Is it your thought that they are likelier to be able to pronounce the new name? Would your advice to museums like Rijksmuseum and Boijmans and Mauritshuis that they consider the same?

BT: Foreigners indeed have trouble pronouncing the name Gemeentemuseum, but that’s not the only reason for the name change. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag is often literally translated. In English it is translated to The Hague Municipality Museum, a name that comes with other connotations than art. This translation issue doesn’t occur when a museum is named after a person, like Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen  and Mauritshuis.

MW: It looks like the Mondrian exhibit was a huge success. Were these surveys related to that exhibit, by any chance, or is the timing here coincidental to the major exhibit?

BT: Every year we make an exhibition of a world-renowned artist, for example Alexander Calder in 2012, Mark Rothko in 2014, Alexej von Jawlensky is currently on show, and Monet will be in 2019. In 2017 we spotlighted Mondrian, showing our entire collection of Mondrians (the biggest in the world) as part of a year-long nationwide celebration of Mondrian and De Stijl. As Kunstmuseum Den Haag we will continue to do show the work of key figures in the history of modern art.

MW: What does the current name mean?

BT: If you translate current name you get something like: municipality museum. But what happens often is that it gets the connotation of a (in German): Landesmuseum.

MW: How would you explain how to pronounce the name to someone who isn’t Dutch; rhymes with X? What are some of the worst pronunciations you’ve heard?

BT: Pronunciation is difficult to say. The G is a very strange sound. For people from abroad. But the confusion is always something we feel.

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