Why Emilie Gordenker Was Destined to Run the Mauritshuis

By Abigail R. Esman
The Vision Series explores great ideas in museum leadership, through candid conversations with founders, directors, and curators from around the world. Each month, Sotheby's Museum Network profiles a visionary who is rethinking the role of museums in the 21st century and going beyond the walls of the institution to connect with audiences in groundbreaking ways.

E ntering Mauritshuis director Emilie Gordenker’s office is like stepping foot inside a fairy tale. Thirteenth-century castles, now the Dutch Parliament, rise up beyond the window, and pink and yellow tulips lightly scent the room. It is an appropriate setting for a woman whose life reads like a storybook.

Emilie Gordenker never planned to be a museum director. Yet since 2008 she has led the Mauritshuis, a museum in the Hague housing a small but world-class collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings. The institution, established in 1822, has been transformed under Gordenker. Coincidence by coincidence, her entire life had been leading up to the role. And that is as it should be: stories have become central to what Gordenker’s life is all about.

Director of Mauritshuis, Emilie Gordenker. Courtesy: Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo: Frank van der Burg.

Born and raised in Princeton, New Jersey, where her father taught political science at Princeton University, Gordenker, whose mother was Dutch, spent her childhood summers in the Netherlands. At the age of seven, she spent a year in the Hague, where she first learned Dutch – a language she now speaks fluently. She majored in Russian studies at Yale, then worked in the garment business in New York before enrolling in the Art History program at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, completing her doctorate in 1998. Convinced by her professor at the Institute, Egbert Haverkamp Bergmann, to swap her interest in Russian icons for Dutch Masters, Gordenker combined her passions in a thesis that explored Anthony van Dyck’s innovative treatment of clothing and dress in portraiture.

The exterior of Mauritshuis. Courtesy: Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo: Ronald Tilleman.

In the meantime, she worked at various New York museums, assisting in the 1995 exhibition Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt at the Metropolitan, and collaborating with economist and art historian John Michael Montias at the Frick on his extensive database of the 17th-century Dutch art market. The experiences helped shape her understanding of museums – both their obligations and possibilities. “I realised you could ask new questions, which made me realise that this would change museums completely in the data age,” she says. “We could investigate differently.”

Fascinated by the idea of bringing information technology to the museum world, Gordenker moved to the UK in 1999, where, at Antenna International, she produced new media projects, including a multimedia tour for the Tate Modern. In 2003, a job came up at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh in her field – she was quickly hired as the museum’s senior curator of Early Netherlandish, Dutch and Flemish Art.

The interior of Mauritshuis. Courtesy: Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo: Ronald Tilleman.

It wasn’t long before she heard from The Hague. “There I was,” she recalls, “minding my own business, and then one day a group came from the Mauritshuis.” She joined them for lunch, unaware that the director of the museum had just announced his early retirement. They invited her to interview in The Hague. “The first question was, ‘what would you change about the museum?’” she says. “I said, ‘the entrance,’ which turned out to be the right answer. They also wanted to make it younger, less stuffy, and I thought, ‘this is a chance to change how the museum is perceived’.”

Gordenker arrived in her new role on 1 January, 2008. The museum, which houses the largest collection of works by Vermeer and several major Rembrandts, was planning a major expansion and renovation project. But the economic crisis was about to hit. With the Mauritshuis collection and building owned by different government agencies, Gordenker quickly foresaw complications looming over the renovation plans. She requested permission to handle the project directly. The government agreed – as long as she arranged the funds herself.

Johannes Vermeer, Meisje met de parel (Girl with a Pearl Earring), c. 1665. Courtesy: Mauritshuis, The Hague.

She did. With €30 million raised through private and corporate donations, EU grants and other sources, the renovated and expanded Mauritshuis opened in 2014, on time, and on budget. This was no easy task – the building was designed and built in the early 17th century as a residence for Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, governor of Brazil, then a Dutch colony. Four centuries later, it had indeed become “tired”. And though the collection is small – just 850 works – the 200,000 visitors each year overcrowded the galleries.

The new design now incorporates a neighboring Art Deco building, on long-term leasehold from its owners, which provides additional exhibition, library and office space. A new entrance, refreshed interiors, a glass elevator and glass-enclosed stairwells impart a bright, contemporary feel while still honouring the original architecture. Gordenker’s success has now become a model for other national museums.

Jan Steen, Soo voer gesongen, soo na gepepen (As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young), c. 1668-1670. Courtesy: Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Since then, the 54-year-old director has focused on modernising and expanding the museum’s connection to the public, and on promoting its world-class research and conservation capabilities. In this, her past experience plays a crucial role; building on her work for the Tate, for instance, the museum last year partnered with Google to create “Meet Vermeer”, an augmented reality app that takes viewers through a digital exhibition of all 36 of Johannes Vermeer’s known works. “It basically establishes us as a leader in the field,” says Gordenker proudly.

Preperation for the The Girl in the Spotlight exhibition, 2018. Courtesy: Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo: Martijn Beekman.

In 2015, after the Mauritshuis completed extensive research, reattribution and conservation of Rembrandt’s Saul and David, Gordenker drew on her experience with Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt at the Met. During the latter, the curator and conservator couldn’t always agree on authenticity, and so the museum’s director Philippe de Montebello suggested each should write his own catalogue, to be sold as a pair. “It was an informative moment for me,” Gordenker says. With Saul and David at the Maurithuis, she was similarly determined to engage visitors in the conservation process, this time using new media. Through interactive presentation guides, “we showed people discussing and debating. And this, for me, is essential for running a museum in this time – to engage and have conversations.”

Preperation for the The Girl in the Spotlight exhibition, 2018. Courtesy: Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo: Martijn Beekman.

Projects such as this allowed Gordenker to marry her interests in new media and research, and to inspire new ideas among her curators. “We have a formidable research institution,” she says. “As you do the research you discover stories, and from the stories you get shows.”

But running a museum “in this time” also demands more difficult conversations, as Gordenker found last year, when the museum relocated a bust of Johan Maurits that had been in the museum’s foyer. Politicians accused the museum of removing the sculpture out of “political correctness” – though Maurits is still celebrated in Brazil and Holland, he also has a dark history as the man who initiated the Dutch slave trade from Africa.

The interior of Mauritshuis. Courtesy: Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo: Ronald Tilleman.

Yet the sculpture hadn’t been exactly censored – just replaced with a better-quality one and installed in another room. Gordenker appeared on television to explain the situation, noting that in art museums, sculptures are frequently relocated. There was nothing political involved. She further invited those who had criticised the move on social media to visit the museum, free of charge.

The exterior of Mauritshuis. Courtesy: Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo: Ronald Tilleman.

It proved a useful experience, she admits. Dedicated to what she now sees as her responsibility as a public institution “to show the story from all sides”, the Mauritshuis is planning an exhibition on Johan Maurits later this year, incorporating artworks related to Holland’s colonial past. “A lot of the public debate now takes place in the museums,” she says. “I think we shouldn’t be afraid of that. I think we should embrace it.”

And after all, she muses, “how wonderful is it that this museum of 850 paintings – they may be old, but they still resonate. Our place is to tell those stories.”

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