Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Child's Play at Het Scheepvaartmuseum

Het Scheepvaartmuseum (the National Maritime Museum), offered a comprehensive overview of the people, things, & places that relate to Dutch maritime history. The building was built on an artificial island in the Amsterdam harbor in 1656. Though originally a port building for the Dutch East India Company, it has since been transformed into the largest collection of Dutch maritime artifacts in the world. Museum exhibits aimed to engage audiences of all age groups and backgrounds: cartoons and plush toy displays for the youngsters, a history of Dutch maritime paintings for the older but still imaginative crowd, collections of porcelain, globes, and a replica of a Dutch sailing vessel for the sailors, amongst many other exhibits.
The open pleyn (ground floor) of the museum consisted of a vast open space and staircases for accessing the north, east, and west wings of the building. This compass-like floor plan emphasized the importance of navigation as a maritime tool, but also served to engage the visitor by making him think like a sailor. Directly above the open pleyn was an intricately interwebbed structure of metal beams and glass panels. The seemingly stochastic palimpsest of lines contrasted with, but also emphasized the importance of trajectories for maritime ventures; each line resembled the path of a sailing vessel, and the innumerability of lines emphasized the wealth of technical and cultural knowledge gathered by the Dutch sailors throughout history. Still in the sunlight, the metal beams casted shadows on the building walls and the visitors below. Throughout the day, these shadows changed their positions, and transformed the open pleyn into a sundial (albeit one with multiple versions of time, perhaps representing the different time zones that had seen Dutch influence). Paradoxically, the restrooms/coat-check area on the -1 floor (below the open pleyn) closely resembled a dungeon, with a repetitive array of archways and rectangular pillars made of mottled-gray bricks. Though visually appealing, this design was an awkward transition from the expansiveness of the ground floor, and made me lose a sense of place.
On the second floor of the West wing was a multimedia exhibit called Maije & Roosje En Circus Zee (Sal & Lori and Circus at Sea) which aimed at conveying the wonders of the sea to children. The sound of slushing waves reached me before I passed through the high wooden doors; this sensory introduction was followed by a rather immersive space. I walked through a maze of mirrors that distorted reflections, and diminished the sense of confinement imposed by what was in fact a rather small room. Standing between mirrors, sound crackling through oversized oyster shells amid plush toys of otherworldly jellyfish and fish, I felt both lost and a welcoming sense of abandonment.
While the main exhibit encouraged almost reckless exploration, the film that followed instilled a sense of intimacy and surrealistic wonder. Characters were projected onto a large glass panel situated in front of a small sailing vessel perhaps 1-2 meters in length. A screen was installed on the wall opposite the viewer (and behind the ship), an expansive width that was reminiscent of an endless horizon on a cloudy day. Moreover, the ship was sailing with an impossible configuration of sails; there is no sail on the fore mast. This subtlety would have likely escaped many youngsters; however, to the sailing crowd, this small inaccuracy served to highlight the magical quality that was enforced by the dim blue-green lighting, the width of the performance stage, and the movement of light over a textured surface to create a sense of motion. While the characters do at times make eye contact with the viewer, the experience felt rather voyeuristic. In one of the longer scenes, a young sailor boy stood with his back to the viewer, and in absolute silence, gazed at the stars. As a viewer, I felt a conflict between my desire to see his gaze and my appreciation of the tranquility of the scene.
All the characters conversed in Dutch, with no alternative translation. The lack of a clear understanding was rather welcoming because the transformation of sound from a perceptual to a cognitive experience gave the viewer the power to decide what the take away point was. Moreover, the hugely whimsical quality of the space helped in removing all preconceived notions about how a story can be told. The juxtaposition of the sound of waves with those of seagulls, footsteps, and the Dutch tongue was effective because it created the tempo with which the story proceeded. The story itself became a ripple moving across water, being carried at different speeds. Moreover, the experience invited the viewer to be playful and imaginative. While all the human characters looked undeniably human, the sea creatures that visited the sailors were all surrealistic in appearance. For instance, when the gray jellyfish began to talk, his mouth moved liked a clapping cymbal. Moreover, a blue whale only twice the size of the jellyfish appeared and disappeared quite abruptly, waking up the viewer from his sensory complacency (because after all, the film was quite long).
Maije & Roosje En Circus Zee was a successful experiment in the recreation of childhood playfulness and surprise. One would not think of turtle plush toys or an animated jellyfish when thinking of the Het Scheepvaartmuseum. The exhibit succeeded because it broadened the meaning of child play. Reflections, and strategic moments of sound and silence made the exhibit into a complete experience. I left the exhibit reminiscing about my own childhood, and curious to go back once again, to visit another one of the dozen exhibits. 

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