Het Nationaal Archief manages an extensive collection of photographs of about 15 million items, making it the largest photographic archive in the Netherlands. A large part of the more than 500 photographs in Eye Catchers was shown to the public for the first time. We showed the world through the eyes of famous and less famous photographers and put the spotlight on three aspects: the digital accessibility of the collection, the visual value of the photographs and the documentary value of the photographs.
The National Archives are always seeking contemporary ways of making the historical collection accessible, letting our visitors have a great experience and to give the collection current relevance. By building a virtual city around 10 subcollections and 10,000 photographs, we wanted to create an understanding of the size, scope and diversity of the photographic collection with the virtual reality programme.
Using the Oculus Rift glasses, one could, as it were, fly over and through the city of Photopolis. In the districts, several buildings let you enter: inside one looked at the photographs of a particular photographer or a given subject in that sub-collection displayed in long photo galleries.
On the occasion of the exhibition, the Photographer Laureate Koen Hauser had made a series of photographs with which he delivered a contemporary comment on the historical images. In his photographs Hauser attempted to transpose the impact of the historical images to the here and now.
The Eye Catchers Exhibition – the largest collection of photographs in the Netherlands
The National Archives
The National Archives are our ‘national memory’. The collection tells us where we came from and who we are in 125 kilometres of documents, 300,000 maps and drawings and 15 million photographs.
The wider public is generally not aware that the Dutch National Archives – het Nationaal Archief – manages an extensive collection of photographs of about 15 million items, making it the largest photographic archive in the Netherlands. The photographs originate from private archives (families, politicians, companies, and foundations), government archives (ministries, civil service) and tens of separate photograph collections that include for example Anefo, the Deli Company, the Army Contact Service, Elsevier, Het Leven magazine, the Government Information Service and Spaarnestad publishers.
The photographs defines moments in Dutch history. These moments can also be traced to other parts of the archival collection. Thus, the image is complementary to the written source material.
By giving ample attention to the printed media, for which the majority of our photographs were produced, as well as to other sources in the collection, the photographs are put into their context and the public is then better informed as regards the function of the photographs in the National Archives collection.
A large part of the more than 500 photographs in Eye Catchers was shown to the public for the first time. These are exceptional vintage prints, made shortly after taking the pictures. One could examine prints by photographers such as Alexine Tinne, Onnes Kurkdjian, László Moholy-Nagy, Robert Capa, Eva Besnyö, Emmy Andriesse, Cas Oorthuys, Ed van der Elsken, Paul Huf, Cor Jaring and many others.
It was not our intention to give an overview in the Eye Catchers show – and we couldn’t anyhow – but to show a selection. The intention of the selection was to give an impression of the scope and diversity of the collection in various aspects: as regards quality, time (eras), genres, subjects and sub-collections of archives to which the photographs belong.
We showed the world through the eyes of famous and less famous photographers and put the spotlight on three aspects: the digital accessibility of the collection, the visual value of the photographs and the documentary value of the photographs.
On the occasion of the exhibition, the Photographer Laureate Koen Hauser had made a series of photographs with which he delivered a contemporary comment on the historical images. Each time his starting point was the question how these images would have been interpreted in their own time. In his new photographs Hauser attempted to transpose the impact of the historical images to the here and now.
Various strips of photographs took us from the entrance to the exhibition space. These strips gave an idea of the scope, the quantity and diversity of the collection in its digital form, accessible via the gahetna.nl website holding 1.2 million images. The key words on the floor underneath the strips reflected how these images can be located on the website.
410,000 out of the 1.2 million images on the website are freely available. Of these open source images, 65,000 were included in the Histagram programme, which visitors could use to search by key word and send the photographs as an e-card or print them as a post card.
Digital accessibility was also the starting point for building a virtual city. The National Archives are always seeking contemporary ways of making the historical collection accessible, letting our visitors have a great experience and to give the collection current relevance.
We had depicted the National Archives collection as a digital map of the world in the opening exhibition ‘The Memory Palace – with your head in the archives’ in so-called data visualisations . Now, we had taken this one step further and made a 3-D variant of one of the five continents on this world map with photographs which could be visited with the Oculus Rift.
Virtual Reality has not been used that often in the cultural sector and the National Archives believe that it is an exciting combination: a historical collection experienced via a novel and futuristic technology!
We wanted to create an understanding of the size, scope and diversity of the photographic collection with the virtual reality programme. This virtual city was situated in the centre of the exhibition hall. The city, Photopolis, gave access to 10 sub-collections which hold 10,000 photographs. The city had ten neighbourhoods, symbolising ten photographic collections. The larger the sub-collection, the larger the city district. The buildings in the neighbourhood were an interpretation of the collection of photographs held by that sub-collection: the more photographs in that collection, the higher the building was.
Using the Oculus Rift glasses, one could, as it were, fly over and through the city. The lower one flew, the more one heard the noise of the traffic on the ground. Flying along, one gathered an impression of the magnitude of the ten sub-collections. In the districts, several buildings let you enter: inside one looked at the photographs of a particular photographer or a given subject in that sub-collection displayed in long photo galleries. One wandered past the photographs and requested the details by flipping the photograph over. The visitor commanded the controls by moving his or her head and/or by using a game controller.
Spread throughout the city, there were five buildings where different people welcomed you to the specific collection of photographs in their galleries and who gave you a brief and personal comment on the collection (the conservator of the photographic collection, the CEO of Spaarnestad, the sons of Cas Oorthuys, the photographer, and photography historian and writer Flip Bool).
One might also have been guided round the city by Koen Hauser, the Photographer Laureate. He took you round the various districts and selected a building in each neighbourhood where he stayed a little longer.
The documentary value
The third section of the exhibition dealt with photography as a documentary medium. Our focus on the documentary value of the photographs was manifest in eight historical themes around the Netherlands and around the globe. We did this by putting the photographs in a context together with other photographs, but also with maps, documents, magazines, cameras and associated photographic paraphernalia. Thus the visitor gained a better understanding of the function, use and background of the photographs. The themes depicted history, from the early days of photography, where we kicked off with Alexine Tinne, the first female photographer in the Netherlands. We continued our exploration in New Guinea, where we mounted an expedition of the photographer Jean Demmeni. The Dutch East Indies of Onnes Kurkdjian was compared with the images from various company archives. We observed the Spanish Civil War through the lens of Robert Capa and still more anguish through the eyes of the Clandestine Camera in the Second World War. We found huge infrastructural constructions shot by Pieter Oosterhuis and the imposing Delta Plan works alongside these, photographed by Aart Klein and Carel Blazer. But before this, the great Flood Disaster struck, recorded by Henk Blansjaar among others, who won the Silver Camera with one of his shots. We ended the images with pictures of the Dutch landscape as seen by Adriaan Boer and Cas Oorthuys. These eight themes covered the largest part of the 176 year old history of photography.
All the photograph books, the photo albums and handwritten documents that were exhibited in the eight themes have also been digitised for electronic viewing. The original ones were open and could be inspected in the showcases, but only be viewed on the pages that were exhibited. These documents couldl be requested within the computer software, and the photograph books and albums could be leafed through from beginning to end, while one could zoom in on specific photographs.
Handwritten documents were shown with a transcribed text (when the visitor touches a sentence the transcription appeared above it), and a translated or repeated text appeared on the side of the screen in modern Dutch. This way, the visitor could scan a larger part or the whole document and as such gain more understanding of the object and its significance in the narrative.
Education and families
The exhibition was principally aimed at the adult visitor, but a programme guide had also been produced for the 7/8 year group in primary education. The programme attempted to contribute to media savviness: students were stimulated to examine the photographs in detail and they could see that photographs were already manipulated at a very early stage. There was a preparatory lesson under the theme of photographic deception; #fotoliegen. This showed how one can make a clear statement as a photographer and that making photographs is more than just representing reality, but in fact knowingly choosing a point of view.
Students were guided through the exhibition in small groups by a quiz on a mini-tablet. The quiz asked different kinds of multiple-choice questions as well as open ones. During the debriefing, the scores for each group and for the entire class were shared and the open questions were discussed amongst the students.
Within the framework of inter-generational learning, a quiz had also been compiled for the family as a pilot scheme for this exhibition. Parents and grandparents with children or grandchildren could walk round the exhibition with a tablet. Sometimes they were asked the same question, but at other times these were quite different. The idea was that they tell each other their experiences or discuss the subjects. So sometimes one person and then the other was given additional information for this purpose. Because this was a pilot scheme, families who visited the National Archives would only be actively approached to follow the tablet quiz once they were inside. The response was very positive!
Online course in photographic deception
Various activities such as guided tours, lectures and workshops were taking place during the exhibition. Part of these was an online course in photographic deception:
Do photographs show the truth? Or do they lie like a trooper? Is it possible to make an impartial photograph? These questions were examined by photo-philosopher Else Kramer in a free online course that was inspired by the photographs in the Eye Catchers exhibition. The participants dealt with truth in photography in 3 assignments. The photographs that the participants made based on the course were shared on Social Media and collected on Pinboards on Pinterest. This resulted in a wonderful view of how almost 1500 participants interpreted the assignments. A selection of the photographs made on the course was also on show at the National Archives during Eye Catchers.
To conclude the project, the workshop #fotoliegen took place at the National Archives on Sunday 29 March 2015.
For further information about the exhibition, see: www.gahetna.nl/themaplein/blikvangers
For an impression of the exhibition, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjnK5jqvxP0
For an impression of the VR-programme, see: https://youtu.be/26iFq6lw_yg
For a digital tour in Eye Catchers, see: www.gahetna.nl/themaplein/blikvangers
We are working on a VR-tour of the exhibition, which should be ready and to be seen in the Nationaal Archief in the first quarter of 2016.