Accidentally agile: An interview with the Rijksmuseum’s Taco Dibbits

Here is a brief excerpt from an interview of  Taco Dibbits for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. The director of the national museum of Dutch art and history describes the central role of agility in the museum’s massive renovation project—and in its drive for perpetual renewal.

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When its current building was completed in 1885, the Rijksmuseum, the national art museum of the Netherlands, was intended to serve as a cathedral to house the greatest treasures of Dutch art and history. Throughout the 20th century, it was increasingly deprived of its glory: its decorations were painted white, and it slowly became cluttered with modern offices and archives. To some, it had become a dusty labyrinth where people struggled to find their way.

At the turn of the millennium, the Dutch government, along with a group of corporate sponsors, offered a singular opportunity in the form of a major monetary gift: the chance to transform the entire museum all at once. Despite bumps along the way, including a surprise discovery of asbestos in the building that stretched the museum’s closure to ten years, the museum’s physical transformation ultimately spurred an organizational one as well. As museum director Taco Dibbits describes in this interview with McKinsey’s Wouter Aghina and Allen Webb, the museum’s staff inadvertently embraced agile organizational principles—forming, dissolving, and reforming teams that were more interdisciplinary than those it had employed in the past—as it worked to redesign its galleries.

After a successful reopening in 2013, Dibbits, as director of collections at the time, first stepped back with his team from an agile process, then reintroduced it when he and the team embarked on a 21st-century vision for the museum. Along the way, Dibbits says, he learned a great deal about the characteristics of great teams, the power of constraints to inspire creative solutions, and the role of the leader to get people out of their comfort zones. Although the Rijksmuseum differs in many respects from the typical company experimenting with agile approaches, Dibbits’s experiences as an accidental agile leader should be thought-provoking for a wide cross section of organization leaders.

The image above and the ones that follow in this article show the multifaceted process of the Rijksmuseum’s transformation—from gallery arrangements to working processes. Photos courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

The Quarterly: How were things organized at the museum before the renovation?

Taco Dibbits: In the old museum, the art was arranged by specialization and was, in a sense, a reflection of the organizational diagram of the museum staff. The curator of ceramics had her gallery of vases and bowls, the curator of glass had his gallery of champagne flutes and pitchers, and so on. Within these galleries, separated by medium, the materials were then organized chronologically. So, for instance, in the paintings galleries you would start with the Middle Ages and walk up to the 20th century. With each new category, the public would have to start all over again.

The Quarterly: What was the motivating idea for a new approach? How did it change the way things worked?

Taco Dibbits: What we sometimes forget is that when visitors come to a museum, they don’t generally know what they’re supposed to get out of it. We sought to change that by creating an experience that would give the public a sense of time and a sense of beauty. We thought the best way to do this was to create a more sweeping chronological arrangement, because a national museum like ours also serves as the physical memory of the nation. Therefore, if you want to create a historical narrative for the public, you have to start mixing all the collections that traditionally had been arranged by material.

We decided that we would divide the gallery installations century by century, starting in the Middle Ages and working all the way up to the 20th century. The question we wanted to answer was not how to assign objects to spaces but how to place objects in groups that are linked aesthetically and historically in some significant way.

This would mean a change for our curators, who had previously worked quite autonomously. Now, everyone would have to start working together. We did this by establishing a working group for each century made up of different curators, as well as a person from the education department who would think about the right interpretation approach for the public.

Accidentally agile: An interview with the Rijksmuseum’s Taco Dibbits

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Taco Dibbits is the general director of the Rijksmuseum. This interview was conducted by Wouter Aghina, a partner in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office, and Allen Webb, editor in chief of McKinsey Quarterly, who is based in the Seattle office.




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