Blog — 7 Nov 2014

Every year, fifteen young people – the Blikopeners – make the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam their own. Now, with the peer-to-peer program in its fifth year, the moment has come to look back on what the program has achieved. And to discover how taking part in the program has affected the Blikopeners, the people they know, and the museum.

‘I think that ten out of the ten Blikopeners saw the program as part of their personal development rather than a regular side job.  We were all so passionate about being Blikopeners,’ says Kaoutar. She was part of the second group of Blikopeners that worked for the Stedelijk Museum. Since the program’s inauguration in 2008, the Blikopeners have given guided tours, organized activities and offered the museum advice. The museum launched the Blikopeners to connect with young people, through young people. After all, adults don’t always know how to trigger young people’s interests, and the museum was keen to harness and benefit from their knowledge. Each year, a group of fifteen new Blikopeners take over; so by now, the Stedelijk has 75 Blikopener alumni. As the program celebrates fifth birthday, it’s time to take stock: what does the program mean to the museum? And, more importantly, what does it mean to past, and present, Blikopeners?

In early 2014, researcher Eva Klooster met with thirty (alumni) Blikopeners, eleven people who know the young people (parents and teachers) and twelve museum employees who are involved in the project. Klooster researched the program’s impact on the Blikopeners’s personal development, their friends and family, and the museum. Did the Blikopeners actually learn something from their experiences at the museum? Has the program had an impact on how their friends and parents participate in culture? And what was the Blikopeners’s impact on the museum? These questions are answered in the report Five Years of Blikopeners (Blikopeners Vijf Jaar), which concludes that, over the past five years, the Blikopener program has yielded a wealth of valuable outcomes.

Someone that makes a difference

Perhaps the most striking thing to emerge from the program is its positive impact on a Blikopener’s personal development. Of the Blikopeners who were interviewed, 73% said that the program helped to boost their self-confidence.  One of the most important factors is that Blikopeners feel that they’re taken seriously. This stems from the fact that a Blikopener is truly part of the organization – he or she is a paid employee, gets to know other members of the museum staff, and is asked to offer advice. Coenraad, who took part in year 2 (2010-2011) puts it like this: “As a young person, it’s unusual when people actually listen to what you have to say. At the museum, they want to know what you see, and what you think. At school, as a pupil, you have to listen; at home you’re part of the family – but here, you’re someone that makes a difference.”

Blikopeners often say that it’s unusual for each person’s opinion to be given the same weight – that no distinction is made on the basis of educational background or knowledge of modern art. A Blikopener may be preparing for university or technical college; a Blikopener may live in a flat on the fringes of the city or in an historic townhouse along one of Amsterdam’s canals; a Blikopener may be an art lover or may never have set foot in a museum. Social and economic backgrounds don’t mean a thing. When Kaoutar first became a Blikopener, in year 2 (2010-2011), as a Moroccan she was anxious about being different: “But you soon discover that you’re no different from anyone else in the group. That’s what makes being a Blikopener so amazing.” In recent years the museum has given more attention to selecting young people who aren’t necessarily from the same backgrounds, and don’t know each other socially. This way, the Blikopeners get to meet young people they might not necessarily know through their current social network.

They are bright, empowered young people and their contributions and options matter. I truly loved being infected by their energy, curiosity and ambition

— Ann Goldstein, former director Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

The Blikopeners meet each week to talk about their plans. They learn practical skills like working as part of team, communicating, and vocalizing their opinions. One of the most important skills, they say, is learning to listen and value different opinions. “I used to want everything to go my way,” says Kayleigh of year 4 (2012-2013). “Being a Blikopener taught me about working together. And I feel the benefits of that with my own group of girlfriends, and at school. Now, I’m aware of the value of a lot of things, especially contact with other people. Being a Blikopener made me far more aware.”

Whether or not art will continue to play a part in their lives in future highly depends on why someone wanted to be a Blikopener in the first place. For her survey, Klooster divided the Blikopeners into three groups, based on what they’d filled out on their application forms. Group 1 has little interest in culture and is mainly interested in having a side job that’s special. Group 2 has a broad interest in culture and group 3 has an affinity with (modern) art or the Stedelijk Museum. In the course of the year, to a greater or lesser degree the three groups learn about art. 80% of the young people interviewed say that they visit museums more often since their year as a Blikopener. The impact on cultural participation is greatest on those who had a broad interest in the arts to begin with. These alumni visit museums most often and some have even decided to pursue their cultural studies at a higher level. All of those in group 3, who were already interested in modern art, are planning to involve art in their lives in future. But an incredible 94% of Blikopeners interviewed says that taking part in the program helped them gain a clearer understanding of what they wanted to achieve in life.

Magnet function

The idea of peer-to-peer education is to connect with young people through young people, and thus have a greater impact on the individuals in their network. However, the effects of peer-to-peer education differ greatly in practice, depending on the individual Blikopener. The group with little interest in art has most impact on family members. The group of art-lovers primarily influences other young people with an interest in art.

Klooster’s interviews show that the youngest Blikopeners (15 years old) in particular still feel fairly insecure about their work and don’t dare to invite friends to take part in their guided tours. Other Blikopeners see the museum and the program as a separate world and want to keep it distanced from school or friends. “I didn’t ask anyone else; all my friends said museums are boring. For me, art’s a kind of escape, a world that’s separate from school. I was young when I started as a Blikopener and wasn’t really as confident as I am now. I think that if they came to me now and asked me to give my friends or class a guided tour, I’d do it”, says Gena of year 3 (2011-2012).

Do the Blikopeners share their experiences at school as well? Teachers aren’t so sure. Vanessa Hudig of the Barlaeus Gymnasium: “I don’t think they talk about it in class. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it’s to do with not feeling that class is a safe place to talk about it. But despite that, the project definitely works like a magnet. Other children want to be Blikopeners too.”

More comfortable with somebody young

School students are more open towards Blikopeners than teachers or adult tour guides. They tend to keep quiet while another young person is talking, and even adults are less likely to complain when they’re dealing with the Blikopeners. A security guard at the museum spots this the instant people enter the museum: “If people have been waiting in line for a while, they’re often a bit irritated. But when they come face to face with a young person, their irritation de-escalates.” And having tour guides the same age as the museum visitors is encouraging. Abdoella, 18, took a tour with Blikopener Karima and concluded: “You feel comfortable with a young person. You feel that if someone your age has learned about this stuff, you can, too.”

Visitors who are more familiar with art do say that they would have liked to hear a little more background information. But a Blikopener guided tour isn’t about sharing knowledge – it’s about interaction. In future, it might be better if the museum made this clearer to visitors in advance.

In theory, the Blikopeners act as the bridge between the Stedelijk and the young audiences it’s trying to reach. But does this work in practice? The Stedelijk press officer says that, with their questions and suggestions, the Blikopeners help museum staff to see beyond ‘their world of adult art-lovers’. Rixt Hulshoff Pol, head of the Education and Visitor Services department, confirms this: “They ask questions that often go overlooked by people who already know so much about art.”

The Blikopeners also have an impact on organizing openings, symposia and workshops. The Blikopeners are responsible for much of the organization of Museum Night and, in 2013, the museum won the N8 Award (the public prize for young people), thanks in part to the Blikopeners. What’s more, the Blikopeners’s cheerfulness also has a positive effect on the work floor. “They are bright, empowered young people and their contributions and options matter. I truly loved being infected by their energy, curiosity and ambition”, said former director Ann Goldstein.

Ready for the future

Blikopeners are more self-confident after their year working at the Stedelijk Museum. They have learned more about teamwork and are more comfortable with modern and contemporary art. They feel valued by the other Blikopeners, by the museum and by the (young) museum visitors. In its turn, the museum reaps great rewards from the Blikopeners – from their fresh approach to art, the way they connect with young people through their guided tours and activities, and from the energy they bring to the museum. The Blikopeners is an incredible and rewarding program that offers enormous scope for the museum to build on for the future.