“Keeping grows; giving flows.”
-The Archivist of the Library of the Madrone Lodge at Wakwaha-na (Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home
In 2022 the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands celebrated its 900th anniversary. Centred on a medieval walled town with the huge Dom Tower at its heart, the city expanded significantly from the 19th century onwards. More recently, a new neighbourhood has emerged in Leidsche Rijn to the west of the city. What was once fields and farmland is expected to house 80,000 people by 2025, with Leidsche Rijn just one of a network of new neighbourhoods built across the country to accommodate the Netherlands’ growing population.
This of course is a familiar story across the world. 55% of the global population now lives in urban areas, a figure which is only expected to rise in the coming years. Urbanization typically divorces people from land, separating individuals and communities from ways of living that sustained them for generations. Alongside this, industrialized agriculture has significantly reduced the number of people who directly depend on the land for their livelihoods. In the Netherlands, the number of agricultural enterprises has decreased by 80% since the 1950s, driven by modernization, centralization, and a lack of young farmers willing to take on the work.
As French historian Pierre Nora recognized over three decades ago, the disappearance of ‘peasant culture, that quintessential repository of collective memory’ often gives rise to a nostalgic desire to document, collect and historicize rural life. As a result, it is not uncommon for new developments to include some hint of the agricultural past, whether in the form of evocative road names, individually preserved structures, or whole new museums designed to bridge the gap between rural past and urban future. In Leidsche Rijn, this can be seen most visibly in the historic farm buildings dotted across the landscape, dwarfed by shopping malls and new housing (Image 1). With the farms themselves now gone, such buildings are given over to new commercial purposes, even as they come to define the area as heritage ‘landmarks.’
In 2018 Utrecht based artist collective The Outsiders
and Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons
joined together with various community members in Leidsche Rijn to ‘inhabit and animate’ the Terwijde farmhouse, one of the few remaining farm buildings in the area. Over the course of a year – from seeding to harvest time – various activities were organized to reflect on the agricultural past and urban present of the site, focusing on questions of food, ecology and heritage. This collective project sought to turn the farmhouse into a space of commoning, weaving together stories of human and non-human habitation to draw out the ecological value of the site.
While the farmhouse was eventually sold to a developer in 2019, the spirit of commoning and connectivity has endured in the Travelling Farm Museum of Forgotten Skills,
‘a travelling, participatory museum that listens to the history, (im)material heritage, and present-day inhabitants – human and non-human – of Leidsche Rijn to develop skills and stories for fair and sustainable world-building’. The museum in this context is a mobile vehicle that evokes the shape of the old farmhouse while quite literally reflecting the new areas through which it travels, offering a repository for objects, stories, knowledge and – crucially – ecological relationships between ‘farmers, citizens, artists and non-human beings’ (Images 2, 3, 4 and 5).
It would be easy to imagine the developers and architects responsible for Leidsche Rijn proposing a new museum for the site; somewhere to tell the story of the area before urbanization – a memory bank of objects, words and images such as can be found in many cities around the world. Perhaps this will still happen. For now, however, the Travelling Farm Museum of Forgotten Skills
offers a very different model for the role museums might play in an era of environmental degradation. Their approach is rooted in giving and receiving, in connectivity and sharing, in movement and care. As the project website
asks, ‘How can we listen together to the earth, trees, insects and children of Leidsche Rijn? And if we do, what do we learn from what we hear?’ This is a generative rather than extractive use of heritage and memory, a way to build together from what has come before, rather than simply hold on to what has been lost.
900 years is a short time geologically speaking, but for humans it would take us backwards – or forwards – around 32 generations. In 1999 Yale statistician Joseph Yang calculated that everyone alive on Earth today shares a common ancestor over such a timespan. Webs of life transcend temporal and spatial boundaries. The foundations laid down by the people of Utrecht 900 years ago resonate into the present, materially and discursively. What futures do we make possible or stop from ever happening in decisions made today? Perhaps the Travelling Farm Museum of Forgotten Skills
will continue its journey over the next nine centuries, knitting together communities and stories undone by years of exploitation and neglect. In this, the museum might be a gift to the present and the future, rather than simply a storehouse of lost worlds.