Blending tradition and innovation
About Dr Emilie Gordenker
The Dutch-American art historian, Dr Emilie Gordenker has been the director of the Mauritshuis since 1 January 2008.
After completing an art history degree at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, Mrs Gordenker went on to achieve her doctorate in 1998 with her dissertation on clothing in the portraits of the 17th century Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck. While in New York, she worked at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA), The Frick Collection and the Netherlands Institute for Art History, and lectured at Rutgers University, New York University, Vassar College and the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts.
In 1999, Mrs Gordenker moved to London and worked for numerous companies within new media while publishing works on her specialism and related subjects. In December 2003, she was named Senior Curator of Early Netherlandish, Dutch and Flemish Art at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh followed by her appointment as director of the Mauritshuis in 2008.
As a valued member of the Confrerie Pictura, Damen takes a special interest in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The Confrerie is an international platform of businesses that are committed to the museum’s mission and currently provides an important contribution to the funding of a new lifelong learning programme, offering adult visitors extra background to the museum and collection. Damen, a staunch advocate and adopter of lifelong learning, and the Mauritshuis are, therefore, a perfect match.
Can you tell us something about the renovation of the Mauritshuis?
Mrs Gordenker: “With over 200,000 visitors each year, there was a severe lack of space. Therefore we decided for an underground expansion into the building on the other side of the street. A big change is the relocation of the main entrance to the forecourt. Visitors descend via the stairs or the one-of-a-kind, glass lift (no cables!) into a light-filled foyer, where they can find ticketing and audio tours. The new wing houses an exhibition space, a restaurant, and the museum shop. It also accommodates the educational Art Workshop, a library and an auditorium. The 17th century house has also been modernised: the windows, the climate installation and the lighting have been optimised and the interior has been redecorated. I am very proud to be able to say that we have completed this complex construction project on time and within budget.”
How do you see the future of the Mauritshuis?
Mrs Gordenker: “Standing in front of a painting is still a completely different experience to seeing an image of it on the internet. In a museum there is more time and concentration to really focus on what is in front of your eyes – and we see a new generation of visitors who are actively looking for that authenticity.
When one thinks of the Mauritshuis, of course one should think of Vermeer and Rembrandt, but not only of their paintings. One could also recognise that the Mauritshuis is a centre of art historical knowledge and technical knowledge. Our expert in-house team of conservators are engaged with conservation, restoration and technical research on a daily basis. Currently we are researching the oeuvre of Jan Steen, one of the most popular painters from the Dutch Golden Age, in order to get a better insight into his technical and artistic development.
For the Mauritshuis, exhibitions, conservation projects and art historical research are interlocking fields. This unique combination is the basis for our future development and success in each of these fields. Since our reopening, visitors can download an app on their phone or tablet. This enables them to easily access extensive background information on all the paintings in the collection. It is a state-of-the-art and innovative way for the Mauritshuis to freely disseminate its knowledge.”
Can you tell us something about the upcoming programme?
Mrs Gordenker: “Our programme for 2015 is quite ambitious. From February to May we will proudly host an exhibition with 36 masterpieces from the Frick Collection in New York. The exhibition includes works by artists who are barely represented in Dutch museums, such as Cimabue, Van Eyck, Gainsborough, Constable and Ingres. Not only paintings will be on show, but also drawings by, for example, Goya and Tiepolo, sculpture and applied arts. In its size and intimate atmosphere the Frick Collection is comparable to the Mauritshuis. However, their collection extends from the 13th to the 19th century, while the Mauritshuis focuses on Dutch and Flemish paintings from the Golden Age.”
What is the relationship between Damen and the Mauritshuis?
Mrs Gordenker: “Well, that actually started a long time ago, before my tenure as a director of this museum. When she was younger, Josien Damen, married to Kommer Damen, used to work here as a volunteer in the picture store, in the attic where we now have our Conservation Department. It was then that her affinity with the museum was born.”
To Josien and Kommer Damen, supporting and highlighting unique elements of Dutch art and culture has always been a serious and heartfelt endeavour. This has resulted in Damen’s sponsorship of many, large and small (maritime) museums and, for example, dance company NDT, one of the highest ranking contemporary dance companies in the world. After getting to know the Mauritshuis, its collection and its director, Josien knew this would be the next long-term project.
Josien comments: “Like NDT, the Mauritshuis is rooted in The Hague, a city with a rich history, home to our Government and with a thriving cultural heartbeat. The Mauritshuis offers the very best of what the Golden Age has to offer, all brought together in the beautiful city-palace that was originally built by Johan-Maurits of Nassau, cousin to William of Orange. Kommer and I actively want to share that beauty with our colleagues, our customers and partners abroad and our friends.”
Mrs Gordenker: “Damen and the Mauritshuis both aim for top quality. Next to that we are both extremely hospitable and inclusive organisations. Everyone should feel at home with us; it does not matter who you are or where you come from.
“Another theme we share is our interest in lifelong learning. Many museums offer educational facilities for young people up to 18 years of age. But learning doesn’t stop when you become adult! Our lifelong learning programme includes activities, which deepen, enrich and expand a visit to the Mauritshuis, such as art history courses, (lunch) lectures, study afternoons and guided tours for both beginners and advanced students.”
And there is of course a mutual interest in the shipping trade.
Mrs Gordenker: “Indeed there is. In the 17th century the Netherlands flourished because of the shipping trade. You can see that in the paintings that were produced in those days. Artists depicted sea heroes, seascapes, beach scenes, river craft, inland shipping barges. There was a lot of prosperity and people wanted to own beautiful things. Buying paintings was not restricted to the upper few; bakers and butchers were collecting as well. Before those days paintings were commissioned and consisted mainly of religious works, such as altarpieces, and portraits. The name of the artist became increasingly important. Connoisseurs certainly made a distinction between a painting from the studio and a work by the master himself.”
As the title says, the Mauritshuis blends tradition with innovation. And should you, the reader, visit Holland – a business trip to Damen perhaps – this museum is a must-see institution.
To engage its visitors in the expertise of its state-of-the-art Conservation Department, the Mauritshuis regularly hosts public conservation treatment projects. The conservation of famous artworks such as The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, the Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer and works by Jan Steen were thus experienced first-hand by a large audience. The Mauritshuis even makes conservators available for questions.
Their work itself is a knowledge-intensive and high-tech undertaking. Solvents which can remove old layers of varnish without damaging the paint are produced in-house. Another example is the handheld X-Ray Fluorescent (XRF) analyser that can detect changes which a painting has undergone over time, repainted areas, damage, repair, even older paintings or studies underneath the surface of the actual image as we see it today. For this work, an intricate knowledge of early 18th and 19th century, conservators and their materials is needed; each conservator has highly specialised, in-depth knowledge of paints used throughout the ages. And then there’s of course the need for historical knowledge, not only about art, but about everything – politics, economics, social developments – to fully understand the painting and be able to make the right choices when treating it.
In 2014, the Mauritshuis won the Best Digital Marketing Solution Award for their website, which skilfully targets a variety of groups. The online activities significantly improved the offline experience. Since its launch, the website has seen traffic triple. Coincidentally, that same evening, Damen won the Business Transformation Award for its website, witch shows industrial products in a completely innovative way, switching from classic corporate marketing to fully integrated digital marketing.