Culture in Quarantine

The Netherlands has adopted social distancing en masse since 12 March. The situation has had, and will likely continue to have, a massive economic impact as companies, big and small, struggle to adapt to the ‘stay-at-home’ situation. But the effects go well beyond the economic, as the desire for entertainment and culture is rising as a result of self-quarantine. Due to the increased demand, streaming and video viewing platforms, like Netflix and YouTube, are lowering the maximum resolution on content to carry the increased load without excessively straining European servers. But what about culture outside the living room?

With the governmental mandate stopping gatherings of more than 100 people, many cultural venues, like theaters, galleries, museums and concert halls, have been forced to close. Prime art museums like the Kröller-Müller in national park De Hoge Veluwe, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam are all closed, at least until 6 April. Nevertheless, despite the forced closure of their collections, digital repositories like those of the Rijksmuseum do allow for digital tours. The digital collections of, for example, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris permit year-round viewing regardless of whether the doors are closed. As such, essentially any collection of art is available through your computer. This raises the question of the usefulness of digital tours of art galleries, as the art housed there is generally available through a general Google image search anyway. Yet, can these online options in any way scratch the cultural itch that comes with the quarantine period? Museums attract a focused attention to the experience of art, culture or history, and making these resources available to the consumer at home counters the focus that these galleries offer. The real experience is unavailable, and online viewing cannot replace that. After all, Google Street View has had a hard time replacing actual holidays.

Movie theaters are also closing in accordance with the government’s directive. This implies that film releases expected in the coming months have had to be pushed back. Notably, the James Bond sequel, No Time to Die has seen its release date moved to November, while other blockbusters like A Quite Place: Part II, Disney’s new Mulan and the Marvel projects New Mutants and Black Widow, have been delayed indefinitely. This punch to the film industry may see more and more reliance on streaming services. Netflix, for example, has been releasing films on its platforms to some success, like The King and Bird Box in 2019, which sparks hope for home releases.

Theater, on the other hand, has no such established platform. All theatres in the Netherlands are closed, forcing the postponement of any stage performance until the end of quarantine. Unlike the museum equivalent, online broadcasts of plays and musicals may perhaps be a good alternative. The Grand Theatre in Groningen is currently offering free registration to watch videos of specific performances. While perhaps not the same as getting dressed up to go to the theatre, and removing the social aspects, these videos still offer the cultural experience of the performance.

Music venues are also feeling the losses. Most European tours by big artists like James Blake, Madonna and Bombay Bicycle Club, to name just a few, have been postponed. Furthermore, the festival season is fast approaching, and with King’s Day celebrations already canceled the near future for the festivities is uncertain. Several big international festivals, like Glastonbury, Re-Textured London and Coachella have been either canceled or postponed. Dutch Festivals, like Pinkpop and Lowlands, are still holding hoping to continue, and have yet to cancel or postpone. Yet, given the uncertainty of the situation, it is likely that the pressure on the organizations will only increase. Online streaming platforms can facilitate the showcasing of performances, but the live experience is not easily replicated.

On the positive side, food culture in the Netherlands is being allowed to continue, as food delivery services like Thuisbezorgd, Deliveroo and Uber Eats are offering contactless delivery. Undoubtedly, these businesses will have to sustain some losses during this time, but they will likely be able to keep their doors open. As for local bars and clubs and other small businesses, the question is still up in the air. The Dutch government has provided help to small businesses in the form of tax exemptions and wage support. However, this measure is only valid for three months.

For now the situation is uncertain, and there is no accurate guess as to when things will return to normal. As such, it is best not to assume anything about the duration of the measures, and simply to take the necessary precautions to avoid a worse situation developing in the future. Thankfully, culture in the Netherlands is alive and well, in whatever form it needs to take in the current predicament.

Edition 10 April, by Maurits Seijger