Lesson: Michael Blum: National Identity at a Distance

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Art, Global Studies, Government, Literature, and English
  • National Identity at a DistanceNational Identity at a Distance


written by Joseph Keehn II

Be[com]ing Dutch is a two-year project, which began in 2006, developed by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. The start of the project began with The Gathering, a three-day event of discussions and debates led by creative thinkers and artists living in Eindhoven. The second stage of the project consisted of a Caucus where the focus was concentrated on the region of Eindhoven as a “place where multiculturalism is practiced on an everyday basis.” The final stages of the project include an exhibition of selected and commissioned works. A major publication released after the project’s duration recounts the research and development of the entirety of the project.

“The subject of Be[com]ing Dutch is how we want to live together at a time of immigration, globalization and cultural change.” The original exhibition at the Abbemuseum was divided into three sections: Imagined Past, Imagined Present, and Imagined Future. The installation at the New Museum is a futuristic staging of an Israeli refugee dwelling relocated from the Abbemuseum to the New Museum. Addressing the nation’s identity with the influxes of cultures in the Netherlands, this lesson will use “Museum as Hub: Be[com]ing Dutch at a Distance,” the New Museum’s installation of the Abbemuseum’s Be[com]ing Dutch, as a case study in creating a dialogue among visitors about national identity and its role in the future.


  • Students will be introduced to issues of national and cultural identity
  • Students will examine creative license and its relevance
  • Students will be introduced to issues surrounding refugees and immigration


Creative license is the authorization of imagination in a work of art. Creative licensing brings forth questions of what is innovated, borrowed, and recycled.
Homogeneous is the uniformity or sameness throughout a cultural structure.
Multiculturalism is the ideology of racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity within the demographics of a specified place.
National Identity is the shared identity of individuals in a nation and refers to both the distinguishing features of the individuals as a group and the individual’s sense of belonging to that group.
Nationalism is the ideology and/or social movement focused on the nation and its shared cultural values.
Normative values are standards used by individuals and societies to define what they determine to be appropriate.
Xenophilia is the opposite of xenophobia. It is commonly used to describe an attraction to foreign people, cultures, or customs.
Xenophobia is the fear or intense dislike of foreigners or people from a country other than one’s one.


Michael Blum’s images from the digital archives
Comparison Timeline located in the sidebar of this lesson

Lesson Strategy:

Class Discussion: Imagined Past
What does “imagined” mean? Is it fiction? Nonfiction? Is there a space for creative license?

Have students list out in two columns some of their favorite works of literature in either fiction or nonfiction categories. Are there any works that do not fit in either category? Why do these works not fit in either category? Does a work that is rooted in historical accounts but has a fictional plot relegate it strictly to the category of fiction? How factual does a work have to be to move it over to the nonfiction category?

Divide the class into three groups, and have each group read one of the following sources on the history of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Students should make notes distinguishing the facts and the interpretations of the sources.

The Middle East Research and Information Project
Jewish Virtual Library
Council on Foreign Relations

Have students share the facts from the sources. What are the common occurrences? Dates? Groups involved? Territory disputes?
Have students share the interpretations. How do these differ as reported in each source? What is the same? Overall, what does this tell us about sources that we reference? What biases are present?

Activity: Imagined Past “What if…” Writing
Students will pick a historical fact from their discussion on the Arab-Israeli Conflict and write a reversal of the history of the event. What if that event did not happen? Or what if the outcome was in favor of another group? How would history be rewritten? Students should address the subsequent events that would be affected by the change in history and how today would be different based on those changes.

Class Discussion: Imagined Present
Provide students with the definition of nationalism. What is meant by “shared cultural values”? List out these possible values that could determine a national identity and answer the following questions:

  • How does this add to the previous conversation about the factual and the imagined?
  • Where do these values come from? Whose culture? Are there values embedded in all cultures? List some of these.
  • Do all cultures share the same values within a nation? What values are contentious or disputable?
  • How would you create a national identity taking into account these contentious values? How would you handle these values?
  • Ask students to integrate immigration into this conversation. What are some values immigrants likely want to hold onto? What is immigration’s role in national identity?

Activity: Imagined Present Mock Debate
Divide the class into two teams: Affirmative vs. Negative. The question the students will be addressing is “Should a nation’s national identity take into account the refugees within its borders?” The Affirmative team will argue “yes” and the Negative team will argue “no.” Refer to the Additional Resources section at the end of this lesson for supporting evidence that the Affirmative and the Negative teams will need to cite in their debate.
Possible issues to be debated:

  • Current laws and regulations pertaining to refugees
  • Case studies of refugees in history and their contributions to the hosting nation
  • Research that supports or disclaims immigrants/refugees as necessary in considering national identity

The debate will consist of the following:

Step 1: Affirmative team will present to a panel (this can consist of the teacher and other faculty members) an abstract of what they will be arguing for. The team should have at least 3 points of relevance for immigrations inclusion.
Step 2: Negative team will present to the panel their abstract, including at least 3 relevant points.
Step 3: Affirmative team will present their first point.
Step 4: Negative team will have the opportunity to question the Affirmative team on this point.
Step 5: Negative team will respond to the Affirmative team’s first point and then present their first point.
Step 6: Affirmative team will have the opportunity to question the Negative team on their point.
Step 7: Affirmative team will respond to the Negative team’s first point and then present their second point.
Repeat steps for the remaining points. The last steps are for each team to conclude their arguments. These closing remarks should recap each team’s points, and address which points where not thoroughly responded to by the opposing team. The panel then will ask the teams the following questions:

  • What arguments involving refugees make this topic contentious?
  • What points of discussion were not addressed in this debate? Why?
  • Both teams have valid points/arguments. Who is going to determine which points/arguments have more value? What negotiation is going to occur?
  • What are the effects of these values being included in determining national identity? Excluded?
  • Consider that the Affirmative team becomes history. What would the future national identity be? Consider the Negative team and answer the same question.
  • Are they asked to give up some aspect of their cultural identity? Why?

Look at Michael Blum’s images in the digital archives: Imagined Future Part I

  • The title of this work is Exodus 2048. What does the year of the title imply about the artist’s investigation?

Exodus 2048 takes it title from the Exodus 1947, a ship carrying Jewish emigrants from France to Palestine in 1947. “The year is 2048. Global politics have changed dramatically and the U.S. no longer plays such a prominent role. One effect of this new development on an economic and a political level is that they have stopped giving aid to Israel. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are at the point of exploding because of the enormous growth of the Palestinian population. The pressure of the Israeli Jews is so great that they are forced to leave the Holy Land. A boat with 4,500 refugees is adrift in the North Sea and after a heated debate in the Dutch parliament the refugees are accommodated in various public buildings throughout the Netherlands. The Van Abbemuseum is one of these and provides temporary accommodation for 113 Israeli refugees in the clock tower while they await their asylum application.”3 The concept for this refugee camp relocation from the Van Abbemuseum to the New Museum, speaks to the sensitive issues of transient populations and people without a state or nation. To create a distance between the viewer and this sensitive topic, the artist has staged the work in a theatrical setting.

  • Describe the space and the conditions of the installation. What about this appears to be theatrical? Why would the artist choose to use “staging” for this topic? How does theatre remove us from reality? How does it connect us to it?
  • What national identity is in question?
  • What evidence has the artist provided us to determine the identity of these refugees?
  • Referring to your “What if…” writing, what “What if…” scenario is Blum interrogating?
  • Why do you think Blum is investigating the national identity of the Dutch in a future staging? What are the benefits of questioning a topic in a future tense?

Read the interview “20 Years After the Exodus 2048 Odyssey: Miri Stern invterviewed by Lotte Müller.” Imagined Future Part II

  • What is the subject of the interview?
  • How does the title of this work relate to Michael Blum’s installation?
  • What were some of the reasons that Miri Stern states as the causes for the Israelis leaving their country?
  • Miri Stern stated “In hindsight, I know that the whole country deserted upon a mere rumor.” Why do you think a people would leave based on a rumor?
  • What are some reasons for fear? What do people fear?
  • List out some of the fears that Miri Stern cites. Be specific.
  • In terms of national identity, whose national identity is being negotiated? On what grounds?

Activity: Imagined Future “What if…” Writing

Using their writing from the Imagined Past “What if..” scenario, have students continue by projecting the history into the future. What are the future consequences of the changed history? What outcomes do they predict? Be sure to include historical references as support for your speculations.

1 Press release “Be[com]ing Dutch Begins: Van Abbemuseum launches award winning two year project.” January 2007.
2 Museum as Hub Paper, Vol. 5, p. 1.
3 Museum as Hub Paper, Vol. 5, p. 6.


Either writing activity can be used as a homework assignment.


Extending the Lesson

Have students read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policmen’s Union: A Novel

Discuss Chabon’s use of the historical and his speculations. Have students compare their “What if…” writings with Chabon’s and find the similarities and differences. Are there any common writing devices that both employ? What devices are different?


Contributions to each discussion.
Writing assignments from Imagined Past and Imagine Future sections.
Participation in the mock debate.

Additional Resources

Resources are encouraged to be used in the debate activity.

The Middle East Research and Information Project
Jewish Virtual Library
Council on Foreign Relations
Wikipedia on the Exodus)
History of Israel from Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Kramer, Leonie ed. The Multicultural Experiment: Immigrants, refugees and national identity. Sydney: Macleay Press, 2003.
Fitzpatrick, Peter and Patricia Tuitt eds. Critical Beings: Law, Nation and the Global Subject. Ashgate Publishing, 2004.
Horst, Cindy. Transnational Nomads: How Somalis Cope With Refugee Life In The Dadaab Camps Of Kenya. Berghahn Books, 2006.

Lesson Plan: Michael Blum: National Identity at a Distance