Beyond the white Western perspective

Marian Duff is the founder and director of OSCAM (Open Space Contemporary Art Museum) and has always been an avid thought provoker throughout her life. As HKU fellow, she also hopes to stimulate debate and get people to think about what the word ‘museum’ actually means. Shouldn’t it be a bit more accessible and multi-voiced?

OSCAM is a rare kind of museum. In the heart of Amsterdam Bijlmer, its large front is completely open. Everyone can walk in, free of charge (or for a donation), to watch the expositions or order a coffee or tea from the friendly hosts at the small counter.

The museum’s founder, Marian Duff, is also of a typical kind. She jumps from one project to the next, always puts her ideas immediately into practice, and leaves a trail of eagerness and passion. She started her career in journalism, as city reporter for Amsterdam’s local newspaper Het Parool. When she interviewed the retired soccer player Winston Bogarde about his new event agency, she was instantly invited to come and work for him. Duff started working with artists from all over the world and ended up at Amsterdam Fashion Week, which turned out to be a white and Western bastion. ‘Both on stage and behind the scenes, I could not find a single person who looked like me.’

From fashion to museum

This prompted Duff to start organising her own fashion events, around the theme of cultural diversity. She organised “fashion battles” between designers. First within Amsterdam South-East, then between cities and eventually even countries. ‘But in the end, I missed a clear focus; it had to be about something.’ And so, the battles were linked to museums, such as Amsterdam Museum, Museum Van Loon and Tropenmuseum. And as you can guess: Duff became triggered by the world of museums and got pulled in. ‘I was asked if I wanted to do something for the fifty-year anniversary of the Bijlmer neighbourhood. That’s how OSCAM was born. Originally as pop-up museum, but by now it has been standing for almost 4,5 years.

‘Museum’ sounds old-fashioned and dull

Duff calls it remarkable to be a fellow at HKU. An honour even. ‘I now have the opportunity for a three-year-long research and hope that this will lead to something valuable. I see myself as an initiator and want my fellowship to have that same effect.’ When asked what exactly she wants to initiate, Duff has a clear answer: ‘I want to make people think about heritage and their depots. How we can open them up to a broader audience. For visitors, but also for the communities that are the owners of that heritage. Museums can and must become much more accessible.’

Duff’s first step is to get a picture of how people think about the term ‘museum’. I am thinking about that now; how I can easily approach a large number of people and ask their opinion. Perhaps with a series of interviews, or a survey.’ As try-out, she asked a few people on the streets what they think of when they hear the word “museum”. ‘They mostly associated it with something dull and outdated. They also voiced a desire for more variety and rejuvenation.’

Beyond the white Western perspective

What is a shining example of this rejuvenation, variety and diversity? Indeed: OSCAM. ‘It was a deliberate decision to link OSCAM to this question’, Duff explains. ‘The name ‘Open Space’ speaks for itself: we want to be a safe haven for everyone involved with art. We aim a lot on social topics, such as stolen art –in an exposition together with Black Archives, and female artists in the hip-hop scene. And young artists can expose their works for the first time at Young OSCAM Art Kitchen.’

Last year, Duff organized a number of sessions in OSCAM with students and professors of HKU, about “new ways of looking at art”. ‘What I want to share with my students is: ‘try to create a “safe space” for yourself, from which you dare to look at art and culture in a different way. The current view is mainly from a white and Western perspective. But the world is so much larger than that.’

After three years of fellowship, Duff hopes to have completed an online manual. One that offers a new definition of the term “museum”, with a broader meaning: accessible and with multiple voices. ‘Hopefully we can use that to stimulate thought, among everyone from the museum managers to the cashiers.’