Museum & exhibitions
Expo

Life in a working class neighbourhood

What was it like to live and work in a working class neighbourhood 100 years ago? You can find out in the Dutch Museum of Working Class Districts (Volksbuurtmuseum). The museum has re-opened after substantial renovations. ‘And we’ve updated our narrative to include the modern day. What’s changed and what hasn’t?’

This is where, over 250 years ago, the city’s poorest children were taught to read and write. For the past 30 years, the building on Waterstraat in Wijk C has been home to the Dutch Museum of Working Class Districts. The museum recently underwent substantial renovations – ‘a metamorphosis,’ according to the director Lysette Jansen. And yes: anyone who’s been to the museum before won’t recognise it now. It’s been updated and repainted, there’s a clearly marked route that takes you past various themes, and new video and audio installations to add extra layers to the narrative.

Campaigns

So what’s the story behind the Dutch Museum of Working Class Districts? We need to return to when it was founded in 1993, or perhaps even earlier to the 1970s, when Wijk C was dubbed a ‘problem area’. A lot of buildings were already gone, as in 1939, houses had been flattened for the construction of Jacobstraat. Forty years later, the local authorities wanted to build more shops and offices and the entire neighbourhood was scheduled for demolition. ‘Protest campaigns led to the formation of the Wijk C Committee,’ explains Lysette. ‘Members met in the former school on Waterstraat, now a community centre. This is where they planned their successful campaigns to save Wijk C.’

Positive image

To press home their demands, the members of the Committee took photos in and around their neighbourhood documenting their living environment. The photos of flea markets, the brass band and street-life in general, came later. They were used to create a positive image, showing that a working class neighbourhood was not automatically an ‘antisocial neighbourhood’.

This photo collection gradually evolved into what later became the Dutch Museum of Working Class Districts. The museum also has film footage, furniture, shop interiors, paintings and written memories.
The museum doesn’t only highlight Wijk C, but also focuses on working class neighbourhoods in general, Lysette continues. ‘What was life like 100 years ago? Wijk C wasn’t very different from the Jordaan (Amsterdam) or Schilderswijk (The Hague) in that respect. In our new lay-out, we’ve been able to continue the narrative into the present day. What’s changed and what hasn’t? For example, we show how people lived at the beginning of the last century, sometimes ten people living in a miserable, one-room house. But so-called reflection films tell us about how we live now, and explain that housing crises aren’t entirely a thing of the past.’

Other underlying themes in the museum include working, shopping and school. Visitors are introduced to fictitious Wijk C residents: members of the De Jong family. In a series of videos, they explain the ins and outs of their past lives per theme. How the father worked as a bag carrier at ‘de kaai’ on Paardenveld, where ships were loaded and unloaded. How the daughter did the shopping at the local grocer’s store on credit. And how mother De Jong did her household chores outdoors on the street, peeling potatoes, doing the washing and chatting to neighbours. The smells from bygone days add an extra dimension. Ever wondered what a poop barrel or washtub smelled like? You’ll find out in the museum.

Equal opportunities

The Story Room is a special feature, revolving around spoken history. You can listen to interviews with people who lived in Wijk C in the 1990s, as well as more recent interviews with residents of other working class neighbourhoods in Utrecht. The Local Movie House is screening a film about Woonschool Houtplein, where ‘socially and economic deprived families’ were housed. Lysette: ‘People who were unable to run their household, couldn’t raise their children properly, drank too much or didn’t pay their rent, were placed under a court order and moved into this supervised housing. It’s difficult to imagine now, but this went on until the 1970s.’


The Dutch Museum of Working Class Districts (Volksbuurtmuseum) re-opened on 27 December 2023. You can listen to all of the videos and interviews in English and Arabic! Check volksbuurtmuseum.nl

Location

Volksbuurtmuseum

Over one thousand years of the history of the most famous Utrecht working-class area, Wijk C, is on display in the Dutch museum of back streets and popular neighbourhoods.

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