#GoldenAge: stories from the 17th Century in social media language — Interview Merel Willemsen

@Interactive Storytelling Meetup #2 –11 February 2016

Interview by Klasien van de Zandschulp and Femke Deckers

Storytelling app #GoldenAge: chat and interact with painters from the 17th century
Nikita Gerritsen (Amsterdam Museum) at Storytelling Meetup #2

Merel Willemsen (art historian, writer) and Nikita Gerritsen (educator at the Amsterdam Museum) presented their education project #GoldenAge at Interactive Storytelling Meetup #2, Amsterdam.

#GoldenAge is part of the “Portrait gallery of the golden age”: an exhibition combining thirty enormous 17th Century group portraits from the collections of the Amsterdam Museum and the Rijksmuseum brought together on display at Hermitage Amsterdam.

The project #GoldenAge translates the stories behind networking and power in the 17th Century into a social media language of today in a way the young target audience can relate to. The result is an app #GoldenAge that uses mobile technology and iBeacons (Bluetooth transmitters) to allow the public to interact and socialise with them.

Using social media messages the audience becomes friends with the Golden Age heroes and receives status updates from characters such as Rembrandt van Rijn or an update of Govert Flinck who created a selfie in his painting for Captain Joan Huydecoper.

The app #GoldenAge uses mobile technology and iBeacons to allow the public to interact and socialise with the painters.

After the meetup we interviewed Merel Willemsen (MW) on her research and creative writing process for the #GoldenAge app.

Merel Willemsen and Nikita Gerristen at Storytelling Meetup #2

The Golden Age consists of loads of stories. How did you get to a selection?

MW: “That was the challenge of course. I tried to combine what students need to learn from an educational point of view, and to make it an interesting tour at the same time. There are masterpieces in this exhibition which you can’t ignore; I mean, you have to include a Govert Flinck. That was the easy part in the selection process. A more challenging aspect was the choreography of the exhibition. Watching three paintings next to each other is super boring.

We created a story line that would make students move from A to B and cover as much ground of the exhibition as possible. This way we made sure they would also look at other paintings and not just the ones they were connected to by a story line. The content was created in collaboration with educational expert Moniek Warmer.”

In your presentation you talked about 3 main storylines (‘Friendship’, ‘Power’ and ‘Social Safety Net’). Why these stories?

How did these 3 storylines interact in the #GoldenAge app?

MW: “For this we used hashtags. For example, imagine you are following the storyline ‘Friendship’. But at some point in the exhibition you would come cross a hashtag that is typical for the story line ‘Power’. Like this you’d also get information on the story ‘Power’ without actually following this story line.

Next to that, I put some conflicting information in the story lines. For example, a statement was made in the storyline ‘Friendship’ . That same topic would be discussed in the storyline ‘Power’, but with a slightly different take on the subject. This conflicting information would foster the discussion later on, during the educational session of he tour.”

How did you build up a story line not knowing the order of visited paintings? Would you call this non-linear storytelling?

MW: “At the start of the tour students would choose their story line (Power, Friendship or Social Safety Net). They would then get a few ‘intro’ stories that were meant as an introduction to the exhibition (i.e. how does this app work?). These stories were quite linear.

Once they’d enter the main exhibition hall, we would indeed not know which painting they would visit first, second or third, neither would the students. They just had to start walking around, look at the art works and then somebody (a character from the paintings) would start talking to them via the app.

The 3 story lines are of course all standing on their own, but the stories were also linked to each other. Though all the information that students would need to know or learn, would be spread over the 3 story lines. And yes, I guess you call this non-linear storytelling :)”

In your presentation you talked about a ‘status quo’ that needed to be challenged. Can you tell us more about that?

“The stories we tell shape the way we perceive our reality. And history is just another story in a certain way.”

Did you create a protagonist in the story? If so, who did you give this honor to and why?

MW: “Each story line has its own protagonist(s). For example, for the Nachtwacht I chose to have Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck (two contemporaries of Rembrandt) discuss the Nachtwacht - which made these two painters the protagonist of that story, not Rembrandt. I also chose to have a lot of women be the protagonist of the stories, even though they were often not the main characters in the paintings of this time.”

“If you want to challenge the way our society is organised today, you need to take control of the stories we tell.”

Were there stories or facts that you decided to highlight in the #GoldenAge app?

MW: “Yes. I highlighted the position of women and the arrival of immigrants. For instance, I chose to have a lot of women tell stories. The male to female ratio in the exhibition is about 22 to 1. By deciding to make these women more prominent in the stories I had a chance to challenge the status quo -challenge history as it is written down in our schoolbooks.

During the presentation I gave some examples of women being erased from the history as it is happening. If we don’t step in and give these women the credit they deserve, some years from now, the contributions by these women will be forgotten.

Image of the exhibition ‘Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age’

If this can happen right now under our noses, it is safe to assume this happened to women from the Golden Age as well. There were female painters in the Golden Age running their own ateliers, there were female scientists active during the Enlightment and it was a female coder that got humans to the moon.

For example, there is a painting in the exhibition that I think is very funny. There are 5 men sitting behind the table being very important. There are also two women in the painting, sitting left of the table. Compared to the men these women are super tiny; a sort of dwarf ladies. Of course they tell the story in this case [smiles].

De regenten en regentessen van het Oude Mannen- en Vrouwengasthuis, 1640 by Nicolaes Moeyaert (1590–1655)

One of them is Elizabeth Reaal, a very rich and wealthy woman. In the #GoldenAge app she is sending a message to the painter, asking: ‘What are you doing?? Can’t you see this is a miserable representation?’ I think it’s very funny to have this woman question the ability of the painter — it’s a way to raise awareness about the position of women at the Golden Age with the students using the app.”

I guess the language from the Golden Age is very different from the language used in 2016. How did you approach the translation?

MW: “We had to translate the stories from the 17th century to the social media language from today; a language which would correspond with students’ way of communicating and their way of learning and getting information.

The written language in the 17th century was super formal and very hard to understand because it had a lot of French and Latin in it.

While translating the old stories from this formal tone into a social media language for the #GoldenAge app I realized that it would go terribly wrong if I tried to mimic social media language as spoken by kids. Students would see through that, in a heart beat. So I decided to just stick with proper Dutch, short sentences, smileys, hashtags and... humor.”

“I used proper Dutch, short sentences, smileys, hashtags and humor :)“

As a history writer, how is this way of writing a story different for you?

MW: “While doing research, I found a lot of funny information about the painters which to me made these people come to life. For example there is this story about the wife of Van der Helst, who was throwing stuff at her maid and was therefore taken to court. Ferdinand Bol appeared to be a really grumpy man. Rembrandt was super anti-social in my mind. These details really brings a story to life and it’s a nice way to transmit the information to the students. So as a history writer, it was a pleasure to write these stories.”

“Ferdinand Bol appeared to be a really grumpy man. These type of details really bring a story to life”.

Can you tell us more about your creative writing process?

Tom van der Molen, the curator of the exhibition, gave me a couple of tours in which he explained the choices he had made and the stories behind the paintings. His enthusiasm worked very well and it was a big help.

After that I went through piles and piles of books and highlighted what stood out for me. Actually, all these pieces around the themes Power or Friendship came together naturally. Also, a lot of the content that needed to be included was pre-defined by the school exams (the curriculum).

For the last stage: testing with the students of course. In the beginning they found the stories way too long and extremely boring [laughs]. To be present in some of these user tests was very inspiring. It gave me knowledge about how students perceived it. I mean, it’s their app!”


#GoldenAge is a collaboration project with Amsterdam Museum and Lava Lab Foundation. Read more about the #GoldenAge app.

The project is being developed as part of the storytelling platform Flinck.

#GoldenAge demo at Storytelling Meetup #2