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A national dialogue about the Golden Coach

**By Maurice Seleky **

The Golden Coach is a recurring topic in the debate about controversial heritage in the Netherlands. These days, the conversation focuses in particular on the controversial panel Hulde der Koloniën - according to critics a glorification of the colonial system in which the Netherlands harshly wielded the scepter over Indonesia, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. On television, radio and social media the most outspoken voices can be heard: opponents of the carriage and advocates of Dutch traditions are diametrically opposed.

Making an exhibition about emotionally charged heritage is a challenge, and so is making a campaign to accompany such an exhibition. In developing the campaign, it dawned on me - head of communications and marketing at the museum - and my colleagues that in communicating about the project we could not avoid the debate about the carriage. Indeed, in our view the museum should even play an active role in that public conversation - as a moderator or discussion leader. That is why, in addition to the exhibition, we at the Amsterdam Museum have launched a national public campaign. The goal: a broad, national dialogue about the Golden Coach as a result of our exhibition.

A new shared experience of the carriage

The starting point for both the exhibition and the campaign was the diverse meanings of the Golden Coach. From its inception, the carriage has been more than a simple utensil. It stands for something greater: the bond with the House of Orange, the self-confident capital of Amsterdam, the constitutional monarchy, democracy, the fairy tale (or golden cage) of royal existence, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and so on. The exhibition - which has been set up in a polyphonic manner - reflects on all these images. But how strongly do they live on today? What meanings does the Golden Coach have for the Dutch today? And where do those meanings touch or overlap? It was our ambition to find out prior to the exhibition, and then to give this information a place in the museum.

That is why we joined forces with the Rotterdam-based social service design agency Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken, which specializes in researching and clarifying complex social issues. Together we developed - with an initial idea in mind about a 'golden carrier bicycle' to travel through the city and question the public - a mobile research installation with five interactive modules. With this installation and an accompanying research team, we wanted to invite Dutch people to increase their knowledge about the Golden Coach and share their own vision of the coach in video, audio and on paper. We saw this qualitative research, which has no scientific pretentions, as an experiment that should at the same time become a participatory public research, awareness campaign and social connector. The plan was to visit all Dutch provincial capitals in the space of a year.

Trial runs with the installation in The Hague and Amsterdam elicited interesting responses from the participants in the study. 'I think it's a beautiful historical item, and I would find it very unfortunate if it were repainted, because of the idea that it doesn't fit in today', said one participant. A second participant said: 'I think it's a beautiful carriage, but I think it would be better not to use it anymore'. A third participant responded with: 'I think the Golden Coach belongs in a museum'. We consider these initial responses as good indicators of the broad spectrum of views on the carriage in the country.

However, due to the corona crisis and subsequent lockdowns, it proved impossible to conduct audience research with the mobile research installation prior to the exhibition. We therefore opted to conduct this research simultaneously with the exhibition. We remain convinced of its importance. Especially with controversial heritage like the Golden Coach we want to actively involve as many people as possible and invite them to form their own image. They get the opportunity to share that image with others, through the website GoudenKoets.nl that we developed. There we present the research data and background information about our exhibition. By playfully sharing visions of the carriage and knowledge about its history, its use through time and its downsides, we can offer the Dutch a new collective experience around this historic vehicle.

In addition, together with the research bureau Motivaction, we are conducting a quantitative study into the meaning of the carriage for the Dutch. The data from this digital survey - an addition to our qualitative research with the research installation - will serve as a baseline measurement of social sentiment in the period leading up to the exhibition. With a follow-up survey after the exhibition, we will be able to determine whether our project has changed anything in society, thanks to this baseline measurement.

The museum as a social particle accelerator

Who would like to be the first to share his or her view of the Golden Coach? By no means everyone is naturally inclined to speak out. In order to lower the threshold and show the versatility of opinions, we are developing a video series analogous to the research with the mobile installation, in which we let scientists, and artists and others share their views on the carriage. The many dimensions and stratification of the Golden Coach we are also trying to show in the image carrier of our campaign - an exploded view of the vehicle, a visual metaphor for both the restoration and deconstruction of the coach and its history. That there are also multiple visions of the Golden Coach within the Amsterdam Museum is reflected in the documentary that accompanies the exhibition.

At the time of writing, the results of the public survey are not yet known. We are very curious about them. What meanings do Dutch people today give to the Gouden Koets? To what extent does this differ per generation or per province? And besides all the differences, are there also similarities? What does almost everyone agree about? We will give the answers a place in the exhibition and on the website. Moreover, we will present our findings to the King, the owner of the Golden Coach.

Thus, this ambitious exhibition project about the Golden Coach is also an attempt to enrich a social debate. It is an innovative exercise in public history - making history accessible to the general public - in which we position ourselves not only as a sender of information but also as a moderator. By focusing on the content of the exhibition and entering into a dialogue about it with potential visitors, we are also seeking an innovative form of museum communication that revolves around qualitative buzz. As a museum that is well aware of the fact that the past has an effect on the present, the Amsterdam Museum is looking forward to engaging in a good public conversation about the history, significance and future of the Golden Coach. Part of that public conversation in response to the exhibition will also be shown in the documentary we are developing for the project - a film that in turn will presumably add a new dimension to the conversation.

With all of these efforts In doing so, we as a museum are also clearly experimenting with a new role as a social particle accelerator. In addition to sharing knowledge, displaying objects and telling stories, we are trying - by stimulating a national dialogue on a complex topic - to make an impact in contemporary society. as a social particle accelerator that brings new information, insights and ideas to a high energy level.

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