As a leading museum for science and culture in the Netherlands, Museon has accumulated a large and diverse collection. Although laying a sound foundation for many varied opportunities in programming and education, this comprehensive scope has also contributed towards a rather fuzzy public image. Added to this, developments within society have forced us to readdress our role in the community and the sustainability of our concepts.
So we began asking ourselves, and our stakeholders at Museon, how we could become more socially relevant without abandoning our longstanding traditions. How could we continue to showcase the beauty and diversity of our planet while addressing major contemporary issues like climate change, nationalism, isolationism, war and conflict.
We came to the conclusion that to stay relevant, we should present our established collections in more interactive ways, combined with a growing focus on temporary blockbuster exhibitions. This brought about a mindshift in modus operandi to remodel our educational facility into a popular and relevant modern day science attraction.
Adopting this new approach meant that we needed to find a way to exemplify our contemporary core displays in an appealing way while incorporating relevant physical and social geography in an exhibition aimed at a family audience.
The solution became apparent when the United Nations launched its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. Over the next 15 years, the SDGs aim to address 17 global social and economic development issues: poverty, hunger, health, education, global warming, gender equality, water, sanitation, energy, urbanisation, environment and social justice.
Using this as a framework, we weaved together 17 content concepts and exhibits to produce a comprehensive, consistent and topical narrative that would be relevant and engaging to the lives and interests of our target audience: families. We then had to work out how to use our existing collections in such a topical exhibition. Fortunately, we quickly discovered that, despite their long history, our collections actually provided a surprisingly apt starting point for a “storytelling” design approach for the new displays – and so One Planet was born.
On 24 October 2016 (UN Day), One Planet opened to the public with a special video message by the then-Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon.
Each display in One Planet examines a single SDG and together they address the major challenges facing humankind today. Interactive elements are presented in combination with items from the our multifaceted collections, focusing on the many different things people can do to guarantee the sustainability of life on earth. These range from dramatic, large-scale solutions to modest ideas that may impact a single square metre.
Importantly, our guests are invited to seek inspiration, to contribute their ideas and to proceed to action – and, in doing so, make themselves “heroes on our planet”, central to the cause.
Primarily aimed at 8-14 year olds, One Planet embraces the principles of enquiry-based learning and features many specimens and artefacts from our collections, such as ethnographic objects or natural history specimens.
Our main message is empowerment: we want youngsters to feel confident tackling global issues. We also offer pre- and post-visit resources to teachers and have special partnerships with vocational schools and universities. The overall tone is optimistic, solution-oriented and often humouristic, without brushing away the importance of difficult issues.
For each SDG, we start with a Dutch example (close to our visitors’ hearts) before linking it to a global question. Each visitor is also given a card featuring 17 yes/no questions related to each SDG (e.g. Should poor people be given free solar panels? Do you think the Netherlands could take in more refugees?). At the end of the exhibition, a ‘station’ analyses their answers and suggests a way for them to get involved (e.g. someone might be a perfect social worker or a defender of the environment).
The museum restaurant has also been rebranded into a Peace Café displaying worldwide flags, while information on the main international and UN-institutions in The Hague can be found in the International Foyer. This comprehensive transformation is very immersive.
One Planet has attracted 750,000 visitors and the associated repositioning and rebranding of the museum have been equally successful. While retaining its traditional identity as a museum, Museon has regained its relevance in the eyes of local communities, stakeholders and sponsors. Sufficiently impressed, the UN now recognises Museon as an official partner in publicising its SDGs.
In addition, Museon now hosts a rich programme of events around global issues (Just Peace festival) and contributes to The Hague Talks Youth.
A core aim of One Planet is to express to visitors that they each have a part to play – and to motivate them to help solve the problems facing our planet. With this mission in mind, we also invited 17 people from around the world (one for each goal) with the energy and determination to believe that something can be done to make the world a better place. These 17 people have, against all odds, worked to find solutions to immense problems like scarcity, poverty, war and inequality. They are the true heroes on our planet. Museon is now bringing them together – online, in publications and via educational programmes – to form “Team One Planet”. Visitors can learn about their ideas not only in the exhibition, but also in other areas of the museum like the International Lounge and Peace Café.
All this has turned Museon into a lively social hub within the city as, in recent years, The Hague has also rebranded itself as the “International City of Peace and Justice” and attracted a host of international organisations. For physical planning reasons, these facilities are mainly concentrated in the area around Museon, dubbed the “International Zone”.
As a museum with a progressive and inclusive approach, we see Museon as part of a larger mission to bridge the gap between this highly international community of non-governmental organisations on the one hand and “ordinary” citizens on the other.
Using the complex themes of peace and justice to unite the city in this way is no easy task. It’s a question of trial and error. We are constantly experimenting and doing a lot of “rapid prototyping”, not only in the development of exhibitions, but also in terms of devising new formats for workshops and events.
Needless to say, our educational concepts for these are based mainly on the STEM curriculum, but we have chosen to include the humanities and social sciences as well. This combination contributes to the social discourse about the implementation of the SDGs and through it we hope to foster visitor commitment to the science, technology and political culture necessary to ensure the achievement of the SDGs by 2030.
Managing the political dimension of these changes remains a challenge. The SDGs imply certain political choices, which has led some to question the traditional intellectual neutrality of the museum. However, at Museon, we have sought to resolve this issue by implicitly assuming the additional function of the “social lab”: a safe place in which difficult discussions can be conducted.