Utrecht History Night

What can a condom saleswoman from 1713 teach us about tolerance today?

de Tolerantiecarrousel
View of the choir and tower of the Dom Church in Utrecht. Painting by Jan Hendrik Verheyen. Central Museum, Utrecht / various photographers

During the interactive performance, which will take place inside the city library on Neude square, be introduced to three historical figures from Utrecht’s history whose life stories all relate to the notion of tolerance. At the end of the video, they ask the audience: what about tolerance in your time?

The idea is to start a broader conversation about tolerance. Visitors can react to statements on their phones and submit statements themselves anonymously, although they can also start a conversation with each other afterwards.

Dom Square
The Tolerance Carrousel once started with the subsidy application for a project about the history of the Dom square. “It was an application proposing to present the square as a virtual agora,” says former UU student Tim Overkempe, who was involved in creating the carrousel through the course Living Pasts. “The agora was the marketplace of the ancient Greco-Roman society. People came to discuss all sorts of societal themes but it was also a place where people would just pass by, a central place. So, many interesting interactions ended up happening there, so we thought that the Dom square would actually be a perfect example of that.”

Although the project underwent a few transformations before it took its current form, many of the original themes are still central in the Tolerance Carrousel. Tim: “I started to engage with the monuments that stood there throughout History and I learned that there used to be a sodomy monument. That's one of those things about which the norms and values have significantly changed compared to the 18th century, when this was relevant.” Besides the sodomy monument, the Union of Utrecht from 1579 was also honoured on the squate. One of the first document establishing freedom of religion in the West, the agreement was signed in the current Academy building.

Here to stay
According to professor Toine Pieters, one of the organisers of the initiative, who teaches the course Living Pasts, the expansion of the project into the Tolerance Carrousel is due to a working method characterised by continuous evaluation: “These are all things that are coming together, which we didn’t plan that way originally because of a constant movement of co-creation, co-design and iteration.” That's how the historical figures featured in the carrousel were chosen: “All of a sudden, the project Here to Stay came about. This project shows 900 portraits of people from the past who came to Utrecht to stay.”

With Here to Stay, a project on the occasion of the 900th birthday of Utrecht, the makers of the carrousel had a significant amount of historical material at their disposal, which offered numerous possibilities. “We have tried to offer an interesting perspective while at the same time choosing a recognisable person. So, not only people of nobility, the bigwigs, but rather the less famous residents of Utrecht”, Tim says. This way, the noblewoman Anna Maria van Schurman, who was the first woman in the Netherlands to study at a university, was not part of the carrousel. Maria Ruysch did make the carousel. She was a nun who fled from Gein due to an anti-Catholic revolt in the 80 year-war. 

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The characters of the Tolerance Carrousel 

The search for less famous residents also led to the choice of an anonymous condom saleswoman. “It is so hard to study the lower classes and marginalised groups in History. That is one of the greatest challenges”. However, Tim continues, “in that stage of the project, we knew enough about her to use her as a character”. They considered giving the saleswoman a name, but the carousel creators eventually refrained from doing so: “Not naming her actually suits her much more because she wanted to remain anonymous, that was already in her character.”

Anonymity is not only important for the historical figures themselves. An important part of the performance is the anonymous conversation that the attendees have with each other online. “We take the past as a source of inspiration for conversations on the present and the future”, says Simon Dirks. As an artificial intelligence developer, he is involved in Living Pasts and the Tolerance Carousel. The conversations being held by means of the carousel hit back at the goal of creating a digital meeting place: “We were looking for a way to simulate a digital agora where everyone could share something.”

Uber in Taiwan
The virtual conversation is enabled by the system Polis, which was used in Taiwan for a community consultation about Uber. Dirks: “I was designing and sketching with the thought: 'how do we ensure that we’re not just sending messages but that people are actually engaging in dialogue?' While we were doing that, I got the feeling that we were actually re-inventing Polis.”

Although the team behind the carousel felt that it was a suitable system to work with, much has been tweaked since the first implementation, which happened on the Law Impact Night, held in May. “It’s still not completely finished if you ask me, but it is questionable whether it will ever be”, Dirk admits. He is not unhappy, though: “The only way to make this work is by trying.”

User data
Since visitors can react to several different statements, the Tolerance Carousel generates data that can be used in research later. Dirks: “We collect information, statements, so part of what makes this interesting is the question: what are the statements that people share? They can share anything. And the follow-up question is: how do people react to that? We have that information, which is also meant for research purposes.”

Eventually, the goal is to identify patterns in people's reactions. The question, Dirks says, is whether we can find a better way to start the converstation: “Could we use that as a starting point to begin an effective, open and safe conversation ‘in real life’?” Those present at the Tolerance Carousel during Utrecht History Night will not only contribute to the development of the carousel but also to research into public debate. Dirks: “We want to reach a consensus at some point, and that’s not easy.”

What else is there to do on Utrecht History Night?
The Tolerance Carousel is not the only activity to which UU employees can contribute on Utrecht History Night. Professor Beatrice de Graaf will be giving a lecture about her essay for History Month. It is going to happen at the city library on Neude square, the same place as the Tolerance Carrousel.  

The Utrecht Archives, an institution with which the Tolerance Carousel has closely collaborated, will also open its doors that night. The exhibitions, including Here to Stay, will also be open for visitors at night. They are also going to hold lectures and a writing workshop. Moreover, the Utrecht Archives will be the meeting point for several city walks and tours. 

If you’re looking for music, visit the Dom church, where the Utrecht-based duo Solo is going to perform. Furthermore, the church, which will be shrouded in darkness throughout the evening, can be explored by torch. 

The full programme (in Dutch) can be found on the website of the Utrecht History Night.