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  • Letters to the Future

    In 1998, inhabitants of the Netherlands were invited to give an account of one day of their lives on behalf of a national campaign entitled Letters to the Future. The day in question was 15 May 1998. The initiative to this project had been taken by three large institutions preoccupied with Dutch culture: the Dutch Centre for Popular Culture (Utrecht), the Netherlands Open Air Museum (Arnhem), and the Meertens Institute (Amsterdam). The aim of this epistolary project was the construction of a large national archive of daily accounts by as many different Dutch people as possible. Consulting this archive would enable future scholars to gain insight into the everyday lives of people by the end of the millennium.

    The campaign brought about a yield of over 52,000 letters. The collection was archived and stored at the Meertens Institute in acid-free folders and boxes. As a result, the institute became the manager and keeper of a unique collection of egodocuments. Future researchers who intend to investigate eating habits, dress habits, feasts, rituals, joys and sorrows, relationships (family, friends, colleagues), religion, sexuality, old age, etc. in the way they were experienced by the end of the millennium, will encounter, at the Meertens Institute, a wonderful archive containing contemporary and personal source material about this period. To serve the interests of the general public, a selection from the letters was used to compile a book and an exhibition related to the project.

    The idea of establishing such an archive was not entirely new. Similar projects had been embarked upon in Scandinavia. In 1991, the Swedish were called on to produce a daily account of 14 May of that year. This resulted in some 10,000 letters. A year later, 55,000 letters poured in after a similar request had been issued in Denmark. With this example in mind, the initiators of the Dutch Letters to the Future project could draw up an appropriate forecast concerning both the amount of material to be expected and the time required to process it. The Scandinavian example also provided useful information as to protection of privacy matters.

    Letters

    The letters to the future were offered in various shapes and manners: handwritten (either gracefully or illegibly), typed, by e-mail, recorded on cassette tape, stored on floppy disk, and even in the form of beautiful drawings. School groups often presented the result of a joint effort. Occasionally, letters were accompanied by items that were believed to risk extinction in the next millennium, such as erasers and toothbrushes. Not only photographs and cash receipts, but also home-made items like drawings and pieces of embroidery were entrusted to the future.

    People wrote about everyday things: what was eaten, what clothes were worn, how warm it was, dealings with friends, what had happened in the schoolyard that day, etc. The accounts also include personal, emotional occasions, which sometimes stand in stark contrast to each other, like festivities (weddings, births, anniversaries) versus funerals, incestuous experiences, unhappy memories, feelings of loneliness, etc.

    The letter writers range between the ages of 8 and 98 and are from all walks of life. The largest age group is that between 45 and 75. Letters were sent in by schoolchildren, elderly people, housewives, househusbands, an asylum seeker, a taxi driver, a monk, a prostitute, a businessman, a prison inmate, a GP, a farmer, students, and so on. The respondents also included Dutch residents of foreign descent and some 400 Dutch people living abroad.

    Book

    In order to serve as a basis for the book Letters to the Future, a selection was made from the first 3,000 letters that had been read and documented. The ultimate selection comprises 62 of the most amusing, sad, and remarkable letters from the collection.

    Ad de Jong and Carla Wijers (eds), with the cooperation of Albert van der Zeijden

    Brieven aan de toekomst [Letters to the Future], Het Spectrum (Utrecht) 1999. 243 pp. ISBN 90 2746706 4