War museums more popular than ever

24 March 2014

Seventy years after the liberation, interest in recalling the Second World War continues undiminished. The Netherlands has no fewer than 83 museums whose primary focus is on the Second World War, and this number only seems to be increasing. Visitor numbers are growing too. This is the conclusion of Erik Somers, a historian at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, who will be obtaining his PhD from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) on Wednesday, 2 April.

It is striking that – alongside the well-known war museums such as the Anne Frank House, the Memorial Centre at Camp Westerbork and the War Museum in Overloon – many of the country’s war museums (some 40 per cent) have been founded since the year 2000. These tend to be smaller, privately owned museums with an interest in the local and military history of the Second World War. Across the board, interest in the historical military aspects of war is increasing. Public interest in Dutch war museums has shown spectacular growth, with visitor numbers in 2013 almost double what they were in 1995. 

Moral touchstone

Somers explored how Dutch war museums have shaped the history of the Second World War. The history of the war museums is inextricably linked to the politics of remembrance. Even today, the years 1940-1945 continue to be a moral touchstone for Dutch society. With its educational activities and efforts to strengthen the role of remembrance, the government plays an important role in this respect. In recent years, however, the government has adopted a more reserved attitude, creating scope – out of necessity or not – for market forces and cultural entrepreneurship to step in.

Visitors are keen for the experiential

Today's museological field of the Second World War has reached a turning point, believes Somers. The recollection of the War, which for a long time was determined by the generation who experienced it at first-hand, has changed. 'Now, in 2014, the wartime past requires more tangible, solid presentations. "The experience of authenticity" has become a key notion. Today's visitor is keen to, as it were, feel the past and wants "authenticity" in the form of authentic objects, visits to "genuinely" historic sites and identification with personal accounts. But these days the experience of the past is also called into being through a manufactured authenticity, with historical illusions packaged in constructions and reconstructions of the past. This form of presentation is more consistent with the experiential world of a younger generation’, says Somers. ‘Visiting museums has become an important part of our leisure activities. Visitors expect this to be not only informative, but also relaxing and recreational. Increasingly, the objective is to "experience and feel". But how far can we go with summoning an experience of a history layered in meaning? When are moral and ethical boundaries crossed? The balance between responsible education and information, on the one hand, and emotion and sensation, on the other, is precarious’. 

Publication details

Erik Somers: De oorlog in het museum. Herinnering en verbeelding. Supervisors: Professor F.P.I.M. van Vree and Professor R. van der Laarse.

Time and location

The PhD defence ceremony will take place on Wednesday, 2 April at 15:00. Location: the Aula, Singel 411, Amsterdam.

Published by  UvA Persvoorlichting