Rineke Dijkstra, Rembrandt, Night Watching and our pupils in the Rijksmuseum

dijkstra1It is a strange experience to arrive at the iconic façade of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and look up and see the faces of pupils you have taught looking out from the huge banner promoting the museum’s newest exhibit. But there we were, just over six months on from the start of this unexpected artistic journey. Dutch photographer and video artist Rineke Dijkstra had completed her work and turned the many hours of film that she and her team had shot after closing time back in the winter, in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, into a finished artwork. The result, a three-screen video work, condensed into around half an hour and is now being displayed in the gallery of honour, next to Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

For the official presentation afternoon our group, made up of art department colleagues, the girls involved in the filming and their parents were joined by various clusters of others who had been filmed. We all crowded into the museum’s auditorium where, after a short introduction, Rineke Dijkstra came to the stage. She thanked all the participants and went on to explain a little about the process and the intentions she had had when constructing the final video arrangement. In truth there was little explanation needed, certainly once the presentation of the artwork itself began.

Anyone who has ever eavesdropped on the conversation of other visitors in front of a famous artwork in a museum will understand the principle. The viewing of such a work unlocks all sorts of opinions and personal narratives. In the artist’s film we see a range of people offering their own lines of thought. These are sometimes very considered or opinionated, others are quite light-hearted or simply funny. It is into these areas of reflection that Rineke Dijkstra’s work, entitled Night Watching takes us. The girls from our school who participated provided the voices and faces of high school age. Other groups included supermarket personnel, art students, university students, Asian businessmen, younger school children and pensioners.


The visual arrangement of three screens is not overly complex, but allows fascinating combinations to be made, viewing the same speakers from different angles, close-up shots and groups arrangements. All the figures participating were filmed against a stark white background. Our attention is fully focussed on the faces involved as one group fades out and another appears. This reduced format keeps us visually interested but also gives every chance to focus on what is being said. This in turn leaves you adding to your mental picture of Rembrandt’s masterpiece which, in the film, is never actually displayed.

Although the Nightwatch itself is never seen, it is hanging only a few metres away and you leave the video work wanting to check and reflect on these new observations and insights (both the credible ones and the less credible ones!)

As a teacher involved in teaching one of the groups who were filmed it is of course fascinating to see how your pupils are presented. In the case of these teenage girls the image is surprisingly studious and serious. Elsewhere in Dijkstra’s film there is a considerable amount of humour. Often, we are laughing with the subjects, but on odd occasions it feels more like we laugh a little at them too.

It is surprising just how open and forthright Rineke Dijkstra was able to get her subjects to be, but this is the charm of the project. Whilst the visual arrangement was carefully constructed and controlled, the reactions are anything but that. The gallery of honour in the Rijksmuseum is generally a busy but also a fairly serious sort of place. It will be interesting to see and if the regular visitors and tourists experience the humour as tangibly as my colleagues and I did.

The story of how we became involved

Rijksmuseum podcast with Rineke Dijkstra talking about the work (in Dutch!)

Brexit….three years on and three years back


This is generally not a political blog but………..I wrote the text below relating to my post-Brexit referendum views more than three years ago. I never imagined that three years on the whole debate would have reached the point that it has. Reading it again I despair, but I still stand completely by what I said:

June 2016

I left The UK more than twenty years ago. Not because I didn’t like it there, but because I had had a Dutch girlfriend, the Maastricht treaty had just been signed and this interesting opportunity just came along. It wasn’t always easy, certainly dealing with the bureaucracy in the early years was complex and at times, less than a pleasure. But now, all that time later, I have absolutely no regrets. I have, for as much as it matters, dual nationality and I feel integrated into Dutch society. If you asked me if I feel more British than Dutch, then I would still say yes, I feel more British. Your formative years as a child, teenager and young adult, are it would seem, just that, very formative.

Working in education it is a privilege to play your small part in helping steer young people through these influential years and giving them some extra baggage and vision as they step out into the adult world. At the school where I work, we make great efforts in broadening the international perspectives of our pupils, helping them see and understand wider contexts. We organize trips abroad, exchanges with other countries and work experience placements that sometimes take the pupils quite literally to the other side of the world. This is my Dutch educational context, but there are educational institutions all over Europe working along the same lines. The message is very much, ‘the world is your oyster’. With this as background it is very easy to see why the younger voters in Britain have been so despondent about the result of the referendum.

This week I have been asked so often for my thoughts on the whole Brexit debacle. I have watched from a distance with increasing disbelief. On Thursday night I was genuinely starting to believe that the remain campaign had done just enough. But no, headed by a group of opportunists behaving like secondhand car salesmen throwing their promises around a Pandora’s box has been levered open. What were the voters hoping that they discovered inside, a sort of nostalgic 1950s view of the country that never really existed?

There is clearly a very long way to go in this complex situation, and it does seem apparent that the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove might just be starting to realize just how complex. A poison chalice? Maybe, time will tell.

This week, when I get back to school, I will doubtless be asked again for a perspective as one of two token ‘Brits’ on the teaching staff. I will talk about my bafflement at the behaviour of the politicians and my feeling of despair at the outcome. But above all the insular, inward turned message it gives. The world is a complex place, with difficult issues on any numbers of levels, it needs and requires cooperation and understanding, not distancing yourself when the going gets tough. My teaching I hope reflects this stance. I want my pupils to feel engaged and that they have a place and a constructive relationship in the broader world. Maybe if you plough through the statistics there are reasons for hope, a more open-minded youth vote may seem to suggest it. But departure from the EU restricts perspectives, limits choices and does little to help young people find their place and their voice in a broader world. I don’t want the opportunity that I had, and took, to belong to the past.