Searching for Identity in the 1970s

February 8, 2013

by Miriam L. Weiss

Wauw poster.jpegStill under the impression of Den Bosch’s very own 70s show, I find a copy of the weekly magazine intermediair (last issue of 2007) on the train back to Maastricht. It is titled The Year of Identity – The Netherlands from A to Z and I read keywords like bicycle, Maxima, holidays, Yab Yum (it was one of the best-known brothels in Amsterdam), and kissing that are supposed to be characteristics of Dutch culture and identity. It is not the first information I have come across recently, indicating that the Dutch are trying to define themselves. To a great extent, this search for identity can be traced back to the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh.

The violent death of Fortuyn in 2002 initiated a vehement discussion about freedom of opinion and national immigration policy in the Netherlands. Two years later, Van Gogh’s murder added fuel to the debate and instigated the Dutch to wonder where they are from, who belongs to them, and what makes them typically Dutch. This has led to cultural reactions as the planning of a National History Museum in Arnhem and the creation of the Dutch canon, which serves as a summary of Dutch history and is part of history lessons at Dutch schools.
The decade exhibitions at the Noordbrabants Museum can be seen in the same light of this search for identity. Following the success of the 1950s exhibition and the public demand for an exhibition about the 1960s, curator Charles de Mooij and historian Han van der Horst decided to present something even more wauw! – the seventies! Patchouli, platform shoes, jeans, and cork wall papers; yes – we find ourselves back in this great and fun decade of macramé, odd shapes and patterns, in brown, yellow and orange. A time in which anything seemed possible.

The seventeenth-century building of the Noordbrabants Museum does not necessarily convey that it could present such a hip and fun period, and indeed, the first exhibits are sixteenth-century paintings and regional coats of arms. To enter the hallway leading up to the seventies, the visitor has to pass a room with works of Vincent van Gogh and Pieter Bruegel de Oude, where people silently look at the paintings. Once in the wing of the temporary exhibition, music starts playing, people laugh and talk. One already feels the seventies’ light heartedness… Seventies TV commercials for cookies, cars, and detergent welcome the visitor, who starts chatting right away as he recognizes the TV spots or products.
In the central exhibition room, the decade’s fashion is displayed in a large glass cabinet and two replicas of 70s living rooms welcome the visitor to a different era. Everybody follows the invitation to take a look at a seventies toilet – the installation (in green, orange, purple), provokes laughter as people recognize the colourful tiles, the hanging flower basket, and the books by Jewish-Dutch comedian Max Tailleur hanging on the wall. At the same time, one can smell Fresh-Up, Old Spice, Tabac, and Nina Ricci’s perfume L’air du temps – a scented wall provides typical seventies aromas. Although the decade is inevitably linked to the smell of cannabis and marihuana too, these odours are not included in the scented wall.
There is also the orange fondue set and numerous other utensils of the same colour, the flare and parka, the caravan, the contraceptive, the oil crisis, John Travolta, etc. It seems De Mooij and Van der Horst have displayed everything of the seventies according to Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of ‘antiquarian history’. In his work On the Use and Abuse of History for Life (1873), Nietzsche distinguishes three ways in which mankind approaches history – monumental, critical, and antiquarian history – the third one meaning that there is a blind mania for collecting in order to preserve and remain in the past, which in turn impedes man from moving forward in time. Luckily, though, it is the year 2008 and we are not stuck in the seventies.
At one point, De Mooij tends to be a bit more selective. As central part of the exhibition, he let people compile goods – provided that the items tell a personal story – and put them in an oversized display cabinet. There are platform shoes, in which people danced the nights away; handbags, tunics, and ties (all in those fashionable colours of course), which were bought somewhere on vacation or for special occasions; and agendas, long-playing records, a portable gramophone, a colourful tapestry which belonged to the seventies lifestyle.
In the next section we are introduced to what can be called the ‘Golden Seventies’ – an era of welfare without boundaries. In the seventies, people had enough money to go on vacation, buy a second car, TV, or house and equip themselves with utensils with a cable: mixer, toaster, drying hood, tape player, etc. All these electronic devices are displayed, as well as a caravan with which people travelled through Europe. There is also the thermos flask, which is an essential object that many Dutch tourists still take on vacation even today. According to the exhibition panel, the Dutch economy was virtually at full-employment, workweeks became shorter, people became more equal in financial terms, and the gap between rich and poor narrowed. In how far the consequences of the oil crisis in 1973 affected the welfare state is not taken into account at this point by De Mooij and Van der Horst, though. Thereby it is known that it had immediate and severe impact in the oil importing countries as well as dramatic effects on oil exporting countries.
After a short section about sports documenting the successes of Dutch athletes during the 1970s and the losses of the national soccer team during the 1974 and 1978 Soccer World Cups, the exhibition presents the entertainment society of the seventies: foreign (foremost American and German) sitcoms and series and Dutch game shows. The introduction of new popular TV stations and more shows reflects the increased acquisition of TVs, the emergence of the colour TV, as well as the consumer society’s desire for more variety on the screen. Many visitors are drawn to the video-compilations of 70s TV shows such as Derrick, The Waltons, and Charlie’s Angels.
On the second floor, one room – sort of detached from the rest of the exhibition – is reserved for the political issues of the 1970s. A video, provided for by a Dutch TV history channel, tackles in short trailers political polarization, crisis and reforming of the Dutch government, the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the abortion discussion, labour unrest, the oil crisis leading to car-free Sundays, the women’s movement fighting for equal rights, the New Market riots in Amsterdam, and the emerging squatters movement. It also covers the Moluccan question (South Moluccans in the Netherlands demanded the Dutch to help them gain independence from the Jakarta regime and seized a train in the Netherlands taking hostages to enforce their demands) and the Kabouterbeweging (a Dutch movement protesting against consumerism and environmental pollution). Most issues are sufficiently explained in the video, but some are left unclear. In eighteen minutes, a decade of politics is explained to us.
The only international issue covered is protest against Vietnam War and Nixon’s presidency. There is no mentioning of the Cold War or the threat of the Red Army Faction in Germany. Thereby, the Netherlands were put to the test when three RAF terrorists were imprisoned in Maastricht and The Hague and a Dutch policeman was killed during the attempt to arrest one of the terrorists in Utrecht. Even though these political events predominantly had an international dimension and were not of Dutch origin, they did affect the Netherlands as well and therefore should have been part of the exhibition.
Moving on to and passing through the next part of the exhibition turns out to be quite a struggle, simply because it is packed with people. It documents the sexual revolution, sexual freedom, and happiness, for example by the illustration of sex magazines, movies, posters, and a cabinet full of contraceptives. As people glance strangely at me because I am taking pictures and notes in that section, it is debatable how successful the sexual revolution has been after all and how much is left of the ‘free spirit’ of the seventies.

The make-up of the exhibition is attractive for every age group. As pointed out by Julia Noordegraaf in the Strategies of Display (2004), changes occurred in the way exhibitions have been designed during the last two decades of the twentieth century. In order to turn the museum visit into an experience for the individual as well as for families and groups, different types of presentation have tended to coexist in a single museum, sometimes even in a single exhibition. According to Noordegraaf, the hybridisation of the museum script – mixing old and new ways of communicating art and knowledge to the people – has also generated the temporary exhibition: a way for museums to stand out of the mass and to offer an alternative to the increasing variety of leisure activities. The use of TVs and computers provide the opportunity to access information more easily and interactive devices attract a thrill-seeking audience.
Thus, of particular attraction for children (as well or even more so for hip parents) is the disco area where a DJ console and dance floor invite to imitate John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney, the stars of Saturday Night Fever (1977). For those more interested in fashion, a wardrobe and changing rooms are at disposal. The installation of a computer and webcam enables the dressed up fashion victims to keep this memory and to send it to friends and family.
Before leaving the 1970s, everybody is asked to contribute actively to the exhibition by typing his or her own story and experiences of the decade in the seventies’ story archive. Hooked up to the internet, the personal account is immediately transmitted to the world wide web. In this regard, the entertainment-seeking audience of today very much reminds of the consumer society that developed in the 1970s due to the welfare without boundaries.

As the patterns and colours were quite the same everywhere and peace demonstrations and women’s movement actions were on the order of the day worldwide, a large part of the exhibition could have been put on display anywhere else in the world if one had the intention to present the seventies. Likewise, political and societal polarization could be observed in many countries. The changing social relations, economic and political situation led people to an ideological crossroad. While many became aware of the need to save the environment, show solidarity with the Third World, and engage themselves socially, a large part of society turned more conservative, retreated to the private, and looked after their own well-being. There existed a sense for the common good on both sides, but more so among the squatters and hippies movements on the Left.
The possibility to easily compare the seventies internationally and to identify them as this predominantly light-hearted decade across borders must indispensably be attributed to the achievements of the 1960s worldwide. After the 1950s, a decade of reorientation and reconstruction (particularly in many European countries), during which dealing with the war-past dictated everyday life, politics and economy, the 1960s turned out to be a period of crucial change in the political, public, as well as private spheres. As expressed by Mark Kurlansky in his book 1968 – The Year that Rocked the World (2004), it was the universal “desire to rebel, […] a sense of alienation from the established order, and a profound distaste for authoritarianism in any form” that led to the eventful year of 1968. The resulting student protests, civil rights and anti-war movements, and the increased influence of and voice given to the Left smoothed the way for individual self-realization, female emancipation, changing social relations, while also leading to an increased affiliation with the hippie movement in return. What could be observed was a shift from social activism (for society) to social activities (for the individual), which was countered again by the leftist movements demanding a return from middle-class conservatism and individualism to a sense of community for the common good.
This indispensability to set the seventies into historical context has also been pointed out by Stephen Miller and Shelton Waldrep. Both confirm that the seventies were a crucial decade as during this time, initiatives from the sixties were properly established. Moreover, they assumed a future in contrast to the eighties, which predominantly expressed only a return to the past, to the classics in fashion and behaviour. The economic situation had also changed by the end of the seventies and led to increased unemployment especially for the youngsters, who were later referred to as the ‘lost generation’. Once more, despite this international framework, De Mooij and Van der Horst only emphasize the national context in the exhibition.

On the way out, before returning to the works of art of Van Gogh and Bruegel, a poster showing a woman and the smiley (created in the seventies) wave the visitor goodbye. The use of political caricatures by Opland (Rob Wout) effects a smirk on his face. One caricature illustrates the fall of the Joop den Uyl cabinet in 1977 by displaying Den Uyl and other politicians standing in a grave, raising their hands as if praying to get another chance, and saying ‘we are still trying to get out of it’. The gravestone reads ‘Here rests the cabinet of Den Uyl’. Even though an effective and popular media in communicating politics, the caricatures cause the visitor to keep in mind a more positive picture of the abortion issue, political polarization, the atomic bomb, and the oil crisis, instead of the serious issues which they were.
Towards the end, De Mooij reiterates the 1970s once more and emphasizes that they are gone for good – especially in the case of fashion. There is no mentioning of the environmentalist movement or female emancipation. Similarly, no comment is made about the dealing with the Moluccan question or migration issues in general. Concluding the exhibition in this way runs the risk of leaving an image of the seventies that is too neutral and too happy. Even though it was by and large a light-hearted decade – thanks to the preparatory work done by the 1968-generation – one wishes for more criticism regarding what is left of the seventies spirit. Where are the environmentalists today? Where is the willingness to demonstrate? Where are the hippies today? In the seventies, welfare and a feeling of security allowed people the time to think about communal matters and to be active behind the banner. Nowadays, even though a large part of society is also well-off, people look for ways to accumulate more money and to increase their power instead of doing something for the common good. Maybe De Mooij wanted to trigger those questions and issues, but he should have done so a bit more vigorously.
However, after all, De Mooij wanted to show the ordinary Dutchman of the seventies to the ordinary Dutchman of today as he stated in an interview. Inferring from the visitors’ reactions, De Mooij and Van der Horst achieved this goal and therewith contributed to a Dutch feeling of identity. Grandparents remembered the difficulties in raising their children during this time, parents were reminded of the fun they had in the seventies, and children learned about their parents’ youth and laughed at the seventies’ fashion. Thus, the visitor is more inclined to leave the exhibition with a smile(y) on his face and a nostalgic feeling instead of taking a critical look at the vestiges of the seventies and for example realizing the necessity to counter climate change – a process already underway in the 1970s. Thereby, the latter was also De Mooij’s intention as stated on the first panel of the exhibition. Hopefully people will contemplate more about De Mooij’s next decade-exhibition titled ‘Just the Forties’ (emphasis added).

Wauw! Nederland in de jaren ’70 (Wow! The Netherlands in the seventies). A temporary exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum, Den Bosch, Netherlands, from September 29, 2007 to January 28, 2008.