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A Dangerous Moment to Retire for Lejo Schenk

By Stella Toonen

Two weeks ago the Dutch government announced it is going to put a halt to the subsidies for the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. It is a decision with much impact, however, life goes on and director of the museum Lejo Schenk (62) will still be retiring in two months. “I feel much remorse to leave my team at this crucial moment though” he says.

Coming from the communication sector, Schenk was not yet a familiar face in the world of museums when he started as director of the Tropenmuseum in 2000. He had always been working as a journalist, editor or anchorman for various news programmes, and even directed a 50 minute documentary on euthanasia. In 1993 he became director of the Interkerkelijke Omroep Nederland (IKON), but when he turned 51 he decided to make a career-swap. “I felt I had seen and done everything in the world of communication. I had created concepts and productions, I had done programming and I experienced how it was to be responsible for a large media corporation. I didn’t want to do that for another ten years, I wanted something new.”

He then applied for the vacancy of director of the Tropenmuseum, and saw that the two disciplines were actually much alike. “Both journalists and exhibition designers have to present information in a way that is most attractive for their audience, because they want to get their message across.” And looking back at the last eleven years now, he is quite satisfied about his museum. “The number of visitors has grown, the collections have become bigger, and we have enriched the lives of a broad range of people by teaching them about non-Western cultures. That was exactly what we wanted to achieve.”

However, the last months of his career currently seem to cast a shadow over his satisfaction. “When I decided to retire at the end of this year, I knew some budget cuts were coming, but the management team and I were convinced that we would be able to handle them. That the government withdrew all subsidies was unexpected.” At the moment the museum is still discussing alternative sponsoring with the government, but if that does not provide a solution it might start taking legal steps. At the same time it is looking for other sources of income and for possible cooperation with other cultural institutions. An additional solution is to focus on the tourist audience, as now most of the visitors live in the Netherlands.

“Perhaps the most difficult thing here in the museum at this moment is dealing with the anger of the staff. It is great to know that they feel responsible for their museum, but they need to put off their protest until it is clear what the final decision of the government will be. Some people even started a petition to help us, but for now we can’t do anything with that.” For the Tropenmuseum these are unstable times, in which no one exactly knows what the future will be like.

It has been suggested in the media that cutting the budget of the cultural industry would create a more commercial supply of art, which would devalue the quality of this art. Schenk does not agree. “It is true that many museums try to create blockbuster exhibitions, and in some way it is good to adapt to the wishes of the audience, but we have come up with a more balanced strategy. In our exhibitions we combine the ethnographical pieces we want to show with contemporary art such as design or photography.” In that way he thinks the museum does not let down the audience interested in ethnography, but it also attracts new people.

Another critical question has been whether we should actually sponsor museums at all. If they turn out to not be popular enough to commercially stand on their own, why would we then keep on investing in them? “I suppose we are indeed not as essential as for instance a hospital” Schenk admits. “But we do add to the wellbeing of society. We have an educative function and we teach children and adults about other cultures, but also about their own identity and the norms and values they have to deal with. In the end we’re just a product of an educated civilization. And practically, we’re a safe place to store art.” He does not think a museum can ever stand on its own; no museum in Amsterdam does. “It is already quite an achievement if the museum earns around thirty percent of its costs back.”

While Schenk’s possible successors are still in the application procedure, the situation required him to adjust the criteria for the job several times. His regard to the future has also changed. “I was looking forward to January, when I would finally have time to write, study, do some sports, collect more ceramics and to revive my social life, but I still feel remorseful to leave my successor with the assignment to solve this disaster as a first task.” However, Schenk will not be completely leaving the cultural industry; he will still be active in several small boards and he is always willing to give advice to people in need. “If I know that the new director makes use of the full potential of the staff and does not feel threatened by change, I will start to enjoy the calmness of my retirement and the lack of any responsibilities in business.”

On November 2nd the Tropenmuseum presents the new exhibition Death Matters and on January 1st Schenk will start his retirement.