#2 Workshop Street Values: Commons


Workshop Street Values #2: Commons, 19-20 April 2016

Following last March’s successful first workshop, on ‘Placemaking’, the second Street Values workshop took place at Reinwardt Academy on the 19th and 20th of April, with the theme ‘Commons’. The key question of the workshop was: “How can we view the changing meaning of museums and other ‘heritage places’ from the perspective of the commons and collective communities?” Professionals from the field of heritage and museums and others explored this question from various perspectives over the two-day workshop.

The Commons workshop kicked off with the 15-minute documentary You Can’t Move History, exemplifying the relevance of the question in the context of a dispute over an iconic skate park on the London Southbank used by a large community of skaters, threatened by demolition and relocation. It reflected a number of key issues concerning the commons: the presence of the community, the importance of space and place in the creation of a commons, and the urgency to create or protect an existing commons. The central question was framed further by the presentation by Michiel Schwarz - Founder & Director Sustainism Lab. Using the sustainist perspective, his presentation “Commons as Lens’ demonstrated that the commons play an important role in the changing society in the definition of values, interest and actions, for both communities and the public and private domains.

Three case studies from the fields of heritage and museums explored the practice of the commons, and the communities of practice in relation to heritage making. Christiane Bosman discussed how in her organisation “taak.me” researchers and artists collaborate on social issues. Her example of a project at the Amsterdam Dappermarkt showed that a communal interest is not always a strong enough basis to establish a commons. She concluded her presentation with the urgent question of how heritage professionals should deal with the activation of a commons whilst serving a larger narrative or cause.

Daniel Metz -Initiator Museum zonder Muren discussed the project Museum zonder Muren (Museum without Walls) – a museum without a physical location that has been active for the last three years in the small neighbourhood Transvaal in the eastern district of Amsterdam. In this neighbourhood, the initiative led to a series of cultural activities, bringing together various local groups and concerns. An important lesson here was that before the project and activities could be embraced by the local community, it first needs to explore and acknowledge the interests of the people living in the neighbourhood.

Marlous Willemsen and Danielle Kuijten - director Imagine IC & freelance curator Heritage Concepting gave the final presentation on the initiative Imagine IC. With examples of, among others, the project “Panna’s and Akka’s” they demonstrated the various shapes that commons can take, each with their own characteristics and set of values. Imagine IC is currently exploring the use of ‘emotional networks’ as a productive perspective in heritage research, a perspective that may prove to be very interesting when applied to commons.[1] In the discussions following the presentations, it became clear that there seems to be a tension between the idea of the commons and the (conventional) idea of the museum – can they be united? One solution proposed was to explore the commons concept, whilst questioning the current terminology – if not practice – of museums so that the commons may be accommodated conceptually and practically.

The program changed venue in the afternoon, moving to the Cruquius area of Amsterdam and the initiative ‘Cruquius Circulair’ spearheaded by local film producer Leon Paquay. At his film production studio he discussed the ongoing changes at this fringe of the Amsterdam Eastern Harbour. Extensive modifications are currently being allowed by the city council in the absence of a master plan for the area. On the one hand, this allows a number of creative initiatives and start-ups to reside here on the basis of temporality, though on the other hand this gives developers free reign to plan large mono-functional building projects, risking the island’s history and industrial character. Showing the group various commons initiatives in the area, Paquay illustrated the fact that administrative opportunity and the presence of a community can be important forces in the development of a creative area with the utilization of a strong historical profile and ‘bottom up’ initiatives. It lead to plans for ‘Circular Cruquius’, creating a kind of commons where housing development, sustainability, local qualities and social cohesion can all play their part. The downside of the administrative void is that it also accommodates a game of the free market, which considers itself unhampered by the local history, leading to Côte d’Azur-like apartments in a previously industrial harbour.

During a working dinner in Restaurant Roest, near the Van Gent Warehouses, the essential characteristics and prerequisites for the creation of commons in heritage institutions and museums were elaborated on. The next morning these provided the basis for further exploration and research. Elements like trust, urgency, engagement, governance, shared values and empowerment were deemed to be necessary components in the creation of a commons.

The final case study of the workshop was presented by Jaap Westbroek, former ‘local neighbourhood organiser’ (http://www.cooperatiefeigenwijzer.nl/ en PVDA-blij-met-behoud-ketelstraat-23 en Praktijkonderwijs dient hoger doel in Haagse Probleemwijk Laak Noord) in the Laak district of The Hague. In a presentation full of passion and personal commitment he showed how the lack of action on the part of local authorities, or their unwilling to take responsibility, can also be an important factor fuelling the development of commons. In his discussion of the case of the Ketelstraat, Westbroek discussed neighbourhood developments where he worked for various years to improve both the living environment area and the opportunities for the people living there. The presentation put great emphasis on the importance of engagement and forms of becoming part of the/a community, an element that also featured during the previous evenings gathering at Roest restaurant. To productively engage with the commons, its pioneer needs to be embedded in its community. As Westbroek stated: “You need to become part of the Agora.” This demands authenticity and reflection. How credible can and should you be?

The final discussions and reflections by Eline Hansen and Joost Beunderman emphasized the importance of commons as a tool for citizenship. Yet there was also some critical reflection on the problems associated with the use of the singular concept of ‘community’, as it always begs the question who is represented in or by a commons. For the future heritage professional the commons will certainly be an important issue, especially from a sustainist perspective – both as a tool and as a goal in itself. How to create commons, and how to employ the concept constructively are by no means a simple tasks.


[1] H. Dibbits and Willemsen, M. (2014) ‘Stills of our liquid times’, in: S. Elpers en A. Palm eds., Die Musealisieriung der Gegenwart p. 153-174, available http://www.imagineic.nl/sites/default/files/files/26-DibbitsHWillemsenM-Stills.pdf 



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