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The spectator as a spiritual conservator of artistic heritage. Roger Marijnissen on museum education

Willem Elias


Throughout his life Marijnissen  has often advocated the significance art education as an important aspect of a museum’s mission. He even provided some valid suggestions as to how the public can be enticed to engage more closely with a museum. In this article we get an insight into Marijnissen’s views on museum education and his answers to the question:  how to safeguard the museum collection in the minds of humanity?

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  • 1  G. DELEUZE, Nietzsche et la philosophie, Paris, PUF, 1962, p. 126.

1Starting off by telling an anecdote that highlights one aspect of Dr. Roger Marijnissen’s extensive oeuvre may not be the most scientifically sound beginning of an article. Yet I feel backed by the French post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s saying: “Anecdote is to life what aphorism is to thought: it is subject to interpretation”.1

2Deleuze is referring to Nietzsche’s abhorrence of systematics. Nietzsche preferred the anecdote, the poem, the joke and the aphorism. Which is why I insist on starting with an anecdote, as it illustrates the fundamental issue I am going to present to you by reflecting on the question: what are Roger Marijnissen’s thoughts on museum education? He considered ‘being in contact with art’ the greatest happiness, because art is the most exceptional and outstanding product of mankind. Starting from this conviction, he devoted his life to the art of keeping art safe and, failing that, restoring it as best one can without turning it into a falsification. As I share my uncle’s conviction regarding these matters and the fundamental value of art, I made it my life’s work to study how to give art an interesting role in people’s life plans. A work of art only ‘exists’ in the viewer’s mind, where it may or may not be properly safeguarded. This means everybody is the conservator of his own spiritual museum. Small wonder then, that in ‘Mélanges Marijnissen’ I had to question what his views on museum education really are. I asked him a few questions about that. I will cite his answers dispersed throughout the present text. I also refer to a relatively recent text in which he comments on this subject, among others. But the anecdote I’m about to cite is an apt introduction to all that. It is quite revealing of the interrelations of knowing and looking, observing and appreciating. Can we love something, knowing that it is not the real thing? One day, years ago, I was standing outside his office in the venerable buildings accommodating the ROYAL INSTITUTE FOR CULTURAL HERITAGE, waiting for him, as we had booked a table at a nice restaurant. But first, he had to receive some people who had made an appointment to come and see him for expert advice. A couple turned up. In his arms, the man was cradling a painting, carefully wrapped in a blanket. They ware both smiling happily, like people about to declare the birth of their newborn baby to the appropriate council services. Fifteen minutes later I saw them come out again, this time looking like people leaving an undertaker’s premises. Roger Marijnissen had regretfully told them that the painting, of which they had recently become the proud owners, did not fit the data regarding the putative author’s name and date suggested to them by the seller.

3This scene from his daily life has always remained with me. How could joy turn to sorrow, just because of a change in perception of a work of art? The material object itself did not change. In those fifteen minutes, their ability to see was not enhanced, nor had it deteriorated. A person’s tastes just cannot be overhauled in such a short time, nor can his aesthetic categories be exchanged for those of a different culture.

4Only science – in its most basic shape (= the fact of knowing something about a subject) as well as in its complex meaning (= the systematically organised complex of knowledge) – can is alter people’s experience of a work of art as drastically as this. How?

  • 2  E. GOMBRICH, Art and Illusion, Oxford, Phaidon Press, 1980, p. 24.

5The answer was given as early as 1959 by Ernst Gombrich in one of the fundamental books on the psychology of art: “There is no rigid distinction, therefore, between perception and illusion.”2

Gombrich and the art education

6According to Gombrich, all representations are by necessity open to an infinite number of interpretations and it is the viewer’s prerogative to pick one specific reading. What we see can never be completely separate from what we know. We may mistakenly think we see something, while that is not what is really there. Once we see where we went wrong, we can start seeing the same object in many different ways. And choose one. It is this mental activity, a kind of hankering after meaning, which ensures that the world does not suddenly dissolve into an ambiguity that may prove fatal. This theory of looking at art is about interpreting signs, deliberately attached to the support. Gombrich’s should be credited for pointing out how the things we see are not just self-evident, but rather the result of a process of corrections, related to repeated observation and knowledge-based progressive insight.

  • 3  M. J. PARSONS, How we understand art. A cognitive development account of aesthetic experience, Cam (...)

7With regard to art education, this would mean that the viewer is blind, initially, and has to learn to see by gaining knowledge or by being taught. Of course, everyone sees ‘something’, but this is a hindrance more than an advantage. In modern art, until the present day, toying with sensory habits, even wreaking havoc with them, is a major rule. But traditional art also used to strive to amaze the viewer, either by displaying exceptional craftsmanship or by incorporating allegorical symbols, which were often mysterious, like rebuses. In his interesting description of the various stages in aesthetic development, Michael Parsons3 mentions  ‘favouritism’. What he means by this is that the viewer judges only by his personal taste and that his understanding of the work of art is based on associations with elements from his own universe: ‘the little dog in the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck looks like my auntie’s mutt’, while the expert will read a wealth of messages into exactly the same painting.  It goes without saying that, in a democracy, everybody is welcome at the museum, if only to take shelter from the rain. But the person who sees no more than a few personal projections in the art, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the true nature of the work of art, may just as well stay away from the museum.

Roger Marijnissen's views

8That a certain amount of knowledge of art and art history is a condition sine qua non for us to experience the museum as a privileged place that enriches our minds, and thereby enhances our lives, is also Roger Marijnissen’s view. The fact that his endeavours to safeguard art became his life’s work stems from his conviction that subsequent generations should, in centuries to come, be given the chance to enjoy these masterpieces. In a postscript to his Museum – which I consider to be his spiritual testament –he describes his views on the educational relation between art and the public in a few succinct paragraphs. I would like to elaborate on this.

  • 4  R. H. MARIJNISSEN, Museumverzamelingen sinds 1945, Beheer tussen verantwoord gebruik en destructie (...)

“Each visitor is a potential hazard. Putting a sheet of reinforced glass in front of the Mona Lisa is, alas, not an excessive precaution. People who attack a famous work of art are guaranteed to receive a lot of media attention. His motives may just as well be philanthropic as just plain stupid.”4

  • 5  See on this subject: W. ELIAS, ‘Vandalisme, expressies van andere culturen? Benadering vanuit de s (...)

9By designating ‘philanthropy’ a potential motive for art vandalism, Marijnissen reveals an idiosyncratic characteristic of the value of art.5 Art is important enough to be significant even when being destroyed. He who attacks De Nachtwacht damages the whole of the Netherlands; his action is like ripping the Dutch flag. He who attacks the Mona Lisa aggresses the western culture it stands for. This turns the vandal, unless he has just been irremediably stupid, into a very peculiar kind of art lover. Theoretically, he is higher-up in the ranks of art critics than those who remain indifferent to art or who damage art out of sheer ignorance. I repeat: ‘theoretically’, because the deed is, of course, too horrible to accept.

10The highest degree of art appreciation is expressed by the person who, preferably alone and undisturbed, exchanges impressions with the work of art and enjoys construing interpretations.

  • 6  Museum, o.c.

“A true experience of art is an individual, silent conversation with a work of art. In the case of museums presenting extensive collections, this option is open only to a rare happy few, like Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre, who preferred to walk the museum rooms on his own at night, or Wim Delvoye, who enjoyed a similar freedom during the preparation of his exhibition at the Louvre (2012), when he had permission to discover the wealth of the Louvre museum collections on Tuesdays, when it was closed to the general public.”6

11Roger Marijnissen is no advocate of the elitist view that museums are significant only to a very restricted number of people. He does not, however, believe that there is a cultural necessity for museums to be overpopulated at all times. To him, what is important is that the museum creates the right circumstances for visitors to gain something from exposure to the works on exhibition.

  • 7  e-mail 14 mei 2015.

“Having them visit a whole museum (either with or without guidance) is the most efficient way to give them an allergic reaction to museums. Luring the masses to the museum  - never mind having them wander around in droves – is the wrong approach. On the other hand, attracting a public consisting of people who are interested in getting valid information on selected pieces from the collection – and giving those who attend the opportunity to ask questions – is certainly worth a try.”7

  • 8  Museum, o.c.

12Because: “Only a minute percentage of the population is even aware that the museum has spiritual pleasure to offer”.8  A museum should not become an amusement arcade or a media circus everybody will flocks to, eager be a part of it, so as a consequence there will be no worthwhile experience to be had.

  • 9  Idem.

“Blockbusters are first and foremost campaigns to compensate the museums’ often meagre budgets. Art and culture are beautiful banners, enticing the public will go and stare at works of art in the most excruciating circumstances. Any positive follow-up in the form of subsequent ‘normal’ museum visits will, understandably, be zero or neglectable.”9

13The whole operation is certainly not profitable when weighed against the risk of damage – a subject on which no information is ever divulged.  As Roger Marijnissen has been pointing out time and again, the population is being offered plenty of opportunities to participate in art. The fact is that there are no takers. Until recently, every town had its library, and the whole of world literature has been published in the majority of languages.

14And what goes for literature goes for museums also:

  • 10  Idem.

“There’s this tendency to plead on behalf of the common man, to assert that he, too, should be given the opportunity to see something beautiful. As if he never has the opportunity… Why he rarely or never goes to look at all the beauty that is constantly available for him to view – for instance at museums that are not being overrun by hordes of tourists – is food for endless discussion.”10

  • 11  See on this subject: W.ELIAS, "Cultuurparticipatie: Kermis, kerk of kerker, een cultuurfilosofisch (...)

15The issue of cultural participation11 is a complex one. Though most museums are at times accessible for free, not everyone feels the urge to visit them.  Marijnissen deplores this:

  • 12  Museum, o.c.

“Do people not realise that visiting a museum can be, for anyone who wishes it, a perfectly useful, cheap or even free way to de-stress, to escape from the stressful, crazy ratrace and find himself again?”12

16What Marijnissen has in mind is not the kind of visit where the purpose is ‘to see it all’, as this would get boring pretty soon.

  • 13  Ibidem.

“A museum visit with a group of exhausted tourists trailing a guide, never mind the obligatory visit to a blockbuster show, are certainly no incentive for participants to go on to look at art on their own initiative. A museum visit that is useful and agreeable requires some preparation. It is also, of necessity, selective. The visitor goes to see a specific series of works, or works by just one master. At a later stage, even just one masterpiece. Aided by the digital documentation that is available today, the visit can be prepared perfectly. Why would a museum not organise seminaries for restricted groups of people who are really interested and register to gather around a certain work of art or theme, ask questions from one or more professional experts, formulate objections or criticism… This seems to me a valid method to invite people to come and explore the road that leads to the collections. None of the present budgetary problems will get solved that way, but the main thing should get precedence at all times.”13

17By ‘preparation’ Marijnissen does not mean providing people with a short introduction. Everything starts with the home environment, the family. It is important that art initiation of children, preferably with the intensive cooperation of their parents, starts as early as possible. And let us not forget the value of the grandparents’ support in this matter. Then there’s school. It is important for children to learn to distinguish cultural contexts. Maybe not from an art history course, but knowing the origins of art, which are often religious, is crucial.

18Marijnissen’s advice:

  • 14  e-mail, 14 mei 2015.

“Start early, with cultural history, a comparative history of the main religions, illustrated extensively with the art they gave rise to.”14

19Religion and society are tightly intertwined. Just look at the cultural differences that exist between the Netherland and Flanders, even though they share a language.

20Thirdly, the museum itself should prepare visitors for their visit. It is Marijnissen’s firm belief that staff should be well-versed on the subject of a museum’s three functions, and specialised in one subfield:

  • 15  Ibidem.

“The function of the museum remains to conserve-to research-to disclose. Staff ranks should consist only of members who are trained in erudition (general and specialised) and museology (general and specialised). A full-fledged executive should be versant in the three functions of a museum and a specialist in his own field. Extreme emphasis on research leads to narrow-minded specialism. In today’s museum, there’s little danger of that: disclosure has been given overriding importance. Research happens only if it benefits exhibition catalogues”.15

21Besides competent staff, the museum also needs specialised space.

  • 16  Ibidem.

“(Starting from a certain level of collection value) every museum should have an educational team disposing of an appropriately desiged space and sufficient means. Art initiation starts with didactic material, shown in an auditorium, to prepare for the confrontation with the actual works in the collection. The activities of the educational team should focus on preparing viewers for a subsequent (guided) visit.”16

22Educational information and didactics have, with the explosive growth of the internet and the possibilities offered by ever-increasing computing power that rather than as an ‘auditorium’ this should be described as an ‘educational laboratory’, youngsters can explore for themselves and where they can find interactively whatever they are not yet able to find by themselves. Google ‘Cézanne, Mont-Sainte-Victoire’ and you get pages and pages featuring some sixty-plus versions of this inspiring mountainscape, accompanied by interesting explanations of how impressionism heralded cubism. Not that long ago, it would have been a specialist’s life’s dream to be able to see these images in a row. Complementing this ICT technology, the superior quality of today’s digital photography and reproduction provides these images detailed realism en colourfastness.

23Besides views on staff and space, Marijnissen also has suggestions for course themes:

“I’m thinking of a hands-on group of proper education professionals, teaching a thorough introductory walkthrough.


  • What daily life was like at the time

  • Food - agriculture - famine – still lifes – moralising allusions

  • Jurisprudence – inhumane interrogation techniques (torture) – execution (dismemberment for lese majesty!)

  •  Religion – trade corporation (patron saints) - inquisition - iconoclasm

  • Abbeys - scriptoria - Christianisation - education - analphabetism

  • The work of art as credo

  • Disease, health, plague epidemics - begging

  • The French Revolution and the birth of the museum

By way of an example, focus on a detail (at the MSK Ghent):

  • 17  Mail 16 februari 2015.

Two panels, an apparently well-to-do couple (identifiable from their motto) + children. The middle panel is missing. There are various hypotheses as to what it may have represented. Above the children’s hands, small crosses are visible: these were added posthumously (after they died)). The average lifespan at the time of Emperor Charles V. The original purpose of the work of art. A comparison with our time.”17

25Clearly, providing context is required for old master paintings, as it is central to understand the society these paintings sprang from and specifically the role of religion. His reasoning behind this view is:

  • 18  Museum, o.c.

“In today’s education programs, the study of the past has either been dropped radically or reduced to a minimum. To many, it is just old-fashioned, obsolete. People just don’t realise what great significance the past has to the present.”18

26As it is too powerful not to be cited in full as a plea for the value as both old and contemporary art, I would like to quote him verbatim:

  • 19  Ibidem.

“Leaving aside criticism and bemoaning the state of history teaching, I would like to plead for a thorough reform of education, to give culture a central place. Treaties, edicts, battles, heads of state and historic heroes are all significant and useful from a historian’s point of view, but not to an individual living in the 21st century. All great cultures are based on a religion – religion in the broadest sense of the word - meaning a philosophical discourse on man’s origin, life, and ultimate destiny. The worldview they offer is (or was) a collective, societal one, not individual. Religions are averse to other religions. Succinct, but thorough education on the subject of the various religions, their history and their age-old conflicts provides people with insights that will prove useful for assessing their own, modern time. Assessing intolerance, fanaticism and racism against what human suffering and disasters were caused by them in the past will serve to see attitudes in contemporary society in the harsh, cold light of day. Sociological comparison of past and present teaches us a lot about art and its purpose, both now and in the past. This spiritual journey that is accessible to anyone who is eager to learn, reveals the meaning and social significance of a common worldview and helps them to get to grips with the reasons why our contemporary art is as it is.”19

  • 20  D. BRAECKMAN, S. HERTMANS EN R.H. MARIJNISSEN, Heaven of Delight Jan Fabre, Brussel, Mercatorfonds (...)
  • 21  In: W. ELIAS, Camille D’havé & La Relève, Zebra, Gent, 2015.

27Here we touch upon an interesting duality in Marijnissen’s mindset. He is a great connoisseur of traditional art, yet he has always been interested in contemporary art. His writings in recent publications by Jan Fabre20 and about Camille D’havé21 are ample proof of this, but also – in fact, mainly – the way he used to write art criticism for De Standaard newspaper, which he did for a sustained period, and which was often awaited with great apprehension by those who were his subjects.  Besides a manual for identifying the quality – or lack thereof – of the exhibits, he also provided very clear insights as to potential interpretations and actual context.

Marijnissen and the medias

28Marijnissen also provided readers with information regarding the technical aspects of works of art. What is relevant about this is the fact that this information was provided through a newspaper, a medium legible to all. This was a time when even newspapers such as ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ had several specialised art editors on their payroll. Nowadays, unless he has committed a murder, newspapers will not pay him any attention whatsoever. Even other printed media tend to show more eagerness to publish biographical facts about artists that are likely to cause sensation, and to report on aspects of the art world that have little or nothing to do with the work itself, such as disproportionally high sales prices.

29As in a self-fulfilling prophecy, only the big names get a mention, which is a practice that serves to make them even bigger – in name, anyway. In Marijnissen’s time, art reporting was an integral part of news reporting. Newspaper content had to be intelligible, in stark contrast to the eminently ambiguous and turgid ‘art criticism’ that is encountered in catalogues. The latter is another aspect of the religious origins of art that is still present in modern and contemporary art: the art critic as high priest, or ‘pope’, who routinely uses a language that is intentionally unfathomable. This contributes to the mystification of art that, like religions, does not strive for clarity, but revels in obscurity. The work of art is looked upon as a pseudo-sacred object. Marijnissen has never wanted any part of that and always endeavoured to remain true to his own Cartesian ‘clair et distinct’ self.

  • 22  W. ELIAS, Signs of the Time, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1997.

30This said, he did always make a clear distinction between, on the one hand, art that has reached the status of ‘acquiredness’ – a word he taught me – and on the other hand contemporary art, which still has to prove itself. We both agree that a ‘museum of contemporary art’ is a hazardous contradiction in terms – especially now we are living in times where (since the institutional definition22 was minted) art is ‘that, which is exhibited at a museum’. We think art has to ‘prove itself’ in the temporary area of art galleries and fairs before reaching the status of an object important enough to be safeguarded for generations to come, given the fact that the ‘contemporariness’ that is seen as an important quality of ‘fresh, new’ art implies that it may shortly cease to be important, as it will soon cease to be contemporary. In any case, the degree of contemporariness of a work of art is not per se directly proportional to its need for safekeeping.

31In Marijnissen’s terms:

  • 23  e-mail, 14 mei 2015.

“A museum is an institution that safeguards the evidence of movements that have run their course, chapters that were closed. Meaning: up to and including expressionism. Pop art: not yet. Call it ‘Contemporary art’ but by no means ‘Museum of Contemporary art.”23

32Whether certain periods have been concluded or not may be debatable – there are those who assert that postmodernism has run its course, which I personally doubt. But what should be clear to everyone is that the liveliness of the contemporary should not be made to reside in the respectable repository of dead things a museum can be considered to be. ‘Museum = mausoleum’ is how artists described it in the sixties.

33Reading Marijnissen’s writings and talking to him through the years made me realise that art education is plagued by a kind of fetishism on the part of the public, which exhibition makers eagerly respond to because they are required to attract crowds. Leaving aside any sexual connotations introduced by Freud, by fetishism I mean the spectator’s desire to see extremely rare and valuable works of art ‘in the flesh’, up close – to touch them, in fact. In itself there’s nothing wrong with this: it should be the ultimate aim of art education to end up with lots of people who are eager to see a work of art up close - were it not that this yearning is exactly what characterises the untrained eye that cannot see the difference between real and not real, what is authentic and what is fake. This ability requires a learning process, and the road to ‘connoisseurship’ is long. ‘Fetishism’ means: attributing supernatural powers to objects that are not there. With regard to art appreciation, what this comes down to is over-appreciating a work of art on the basis of characteristics that are irrelevant. In themselves, the aesthetic qualities of a work of art and the way its formal specificity contributes to the production of meaning already constitute the magnificence of a masterpiece. It makes no sense at all to give in to fetishism of the highlights of culture and thereby run the risk of damaging them, by taking them on tour.

34Or as Marijnissen puts it:

  • 24  Ibidem.

“Fetishism is what it is. Giving in to it is deontologically irresponsible, but the accusation that works of art are being kept in bank vaults is a fabrication. The discourse on the democratisation of art was formulated quite a while ago by the French Revolution. What is happening today is that some people are demanding the right to destroy heritage in order to show it to the people. These days, lots of technical resources are available to bring art and culture to the masses, without having to resort to this desperate lugging around of fragile masterpieces.”24

35This sentence seemed to me to be an apt closing sentence for the present article, as it is an apt illustration of Marijnissen’s idea, that art belongs to all mankind, and it is precisely for this reason that we should handle it with utmost care.

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1  G. DELEUZE, Nietzsche et la philosophie, Paris, PUF, 1962, p. 126.

2  E. GOMBRICH, Art and Illusion, Oxford, Phaidon Press, 1980, p. 24.

3  M. J. PARSONS, How we understand art. A cognitive development account of aesthetic experience, Cambridge – New York, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

4  R. H. MARIJNISSEN, Museumverzamelingen sinds 1945, Beheer tussen verantwoord gebruik en destructieve exploitatie, KVAB, Brussel, 2012, pp. 88-90.

5  See on this subject: W. ELIAS, ‘Vandalisme, expressies van andere culturen? Benadering vanuit de sociale filosofie, in: C. VAN DAMME & F. VANDEPITTE, Hedendaagse kunst en vandalisme, Gent, Academiapress, 1998, pp.53-74.

6  Museum, o.c.

7  e-mail 14 mei 2015.

8  Museum, o.c.

9  Idem.

10  Idem.

11  See on this subject: W.ELIAS, "Cultuurparticipatie: Kermis, kerk of kerker, een cultuurfilosofische benadering" in: M. BULTYNCK, 360° Participatie, Brussel, Demos, 2009, pp. 14-25.

12  Museum, o.c.

13  Ibidem.

14  e-mail, 14 mei 2015.

15  Ibidem.

16  Ibidem.

17  Mail 16 februari 2015.

18  Museum, o.c.

19  Ibidem.

20  D. BRAECKMAN, S. HERTMANS EN R.H. MARIJNISSEN, Heaven of Delight Jan Fabre, Brussel, Mercatorfonds, 2002.

21  In: W. ELIAS, Camille D’havé & La Relève, Zebra, Gent, 2015.

22  W. ELIAS, Signs of the Time, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1997.

23  e-mail, 14 mei 2015.

24  Ibidem.

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Electronic reference

Willem Elias, “The spectator as a spiritual conservator of artistic heritage. Roger Marijnissen on museum education”CeROArt [Online], HS | Juin 2015, Online since 04 June 2015, connection on 06 December 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Willem Elias

Willem Elias is Doctor of Philosophy at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). He also studied pedagogy and museum studies at the Rijksuniversiteit Leiden (NL).Is professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), in the field of Cultural Education. Is an art critic (AICA), ICOM member and president of the Hoger Instituut voor Schone Kunsten, (HISK – Vlaanderen) (Higher Institute of Fine Arts, Flanders, BE).Is a member of the Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten (Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts).

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Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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