The future of protocol; How new rituals might modernize protocol in our highly individualized age
Protocol is a term we tend to associate with the complex noble behavior of times gone by. Adopted by the nouveau riche of the Dutch Golden Age, it mirrored the courtly behavior of Louis IV in France, offering these parvenus a safe system of routines and rituals to dictate their comportment and ensure they were doing the right thing. A blatant love of art in all its forms belonged to these behavior patterns. Protocol and all it signifies is something we appear to have outgrown these days. Individualized and globalized society requires that ‘anything goes’ in our patterns of behavior. And yet, there is a hunkering for the comfort of ritual. The question is then: how new and creative rituals might help us in this highly individual and global age?
Everything in those houses was placed there by design and had a specific ceremonial function or significance. It was all about covert storytelling.
As a student of Art History, and in my very early professional life I made a study of court life in the late 17th and early 18th century under William III and Queen Mary, king and queen of Great Britain and Ireland. My studies resulted in the book ‘The Royal Progress of William and Mary’, which took close look at the palaces and stately homes – their decoration, furnishings, the art selected for display – of the court circle in the Netherlands and Great Britain. It soon became clear that there were numerous similarities in all the residences. It was apparent that amongst all that pomp and circumstance, nothing was there by coincidence. Everything in those houses was placed there by design and had a specific ceremonial function or significance. It was all about covert storytelling. About lineage – showing aristocratic status; about ambitions – showing power play; about virtues – putting the owner-inhabitant in a good light; about belief – in God and about loyalty – to the king. The houses were there to receive visitors and those crossing the thresholds knew exactly how to interpret the allegory all around them. Likewise, they were fully versed in how to behave in these same surroundings. Protocol, or etiquette, was the order of the day and behavior towards one another in strict accordance with the rules was expected.
In the footsteps of the French aristocracy
During my research on William and Mary I found a hand-written document in the royal archives giving precise instructions for the handling of the Prussian ambassador’s visit to Windsor Castle in 1695. The document describes in minute detail the movements of the ambassador and his entourage. The document suggests that every object in every room was to be presented for its specific function.
The contents of this document show striking similarities to Norbert Elias’ description of the culture at the court of Sun King Louis XIV. (‘The Court Society’, 1969). Elias describes the many daily ceremonies at royal palaces such as Versailles. There was the ‘lever’ (the royal rising) and the ‘coucher’ (the royal retirement to bed). The ceremonies were attended by the king and queen’s favorites, who were privileged to be handed an item of royal clothing during the event. These were odd rituals, with no practical application, and which were totally false. The king and queen did not actually sleep in the state bedchambers but in much smaller chambers at the end of their respective private apartments, each apartment being identical to the other as the protocol of a diplomatic marriage commanded. This in turn explains the symmetry of the royal palaces – two identical wings stretching away from a communal center and culminating in the apartment with a cabinet and a wardrobe. This classical style was widely adopted by rich and important subjects and can be admired in many formal homes from that period.
What moved this class of wealthy ‘democrats’ to adopt a style so similar to that of the ruling class they despised?
Parvenus and protocol
Later in my career I was commissioned to write books about the Amsterdam canal houses from the same – 17thcentury – period. These houses were the domain of the merchant class – wealthy parvenus and first or second generation entrepreneurs. Close examination of the houses showed a style very similar to that of the Dutch (copied from the French) aristocracy. What moved this class of wealthy ‘democrats’ to adopt a style so similar to that of the ruling class they despised? Again, the use of a highly symbolic and denotational protocol was an effective way to express power, influence and wealth. And so we find numerous highly decorative canal houses with painted ceilings, many denoting Aurora, or dawn, a popular bedroom theme. Whilst it is hard to imagine Calvinistic Dutch merchants going as far as to observe the rituals of ‘lever’ and ‘coucher’, their imitation of the aristocratic way of life will certainly have given them delusions of aristocratic grandeur. Court culture would be familiar to them through their merchant dealings with powerful foreign aristocracy, some of them being ambassadors at the international courts.
A most effective – if indeed not the most effective instrument of protocol was art. Art in the broadest sense of the term: architecture, painting, sculpture, applied art, park and garden design, to name but a few. Even music and theatre played their role. Protocol was embellished by art productions of the highest quality. It is interesting to note that though the precise details of a ceremony have been lost in the course of time, the ‘hardware’ of protocol survives in great quantities. We can still visit numerous stately homes and formal houses and admire the often well-preserved or finely restored decoration and furnishings. Here lies the power of art. The beauty (and the value) of these objects has ensured their preservation and survival through the ages. If, in addition, we know the maker, the story and the background, the value of these relics increases further because we know the history, and the meaning of the object.
Ceremonies survive on a much more lowly scale too. What about the ribbon cutting ceremony to open a new building; the baptizing of a ship with the smashing of a champagne bottle against its side; the arch of family and friends to welcome the newly-wedded couple out of the church. But who nowadays knows exactly what the ribbon, the champagne or the arch stand for?
Though fascinated by historical protocol, my free-thinking and unconventional Dutch nature means I do not practice it at all. I am more of a curious observer, ever-critical of the function of protocol. And I am not alone in that. Many question the function of ceremonies, the true meaning of which has been lost in the mists of time. It would seem that even protocol specialists are at times critical of traditional protocol, particularly in the Netherlands, where the newly founded Protocolbureau is seeking to modernize the profession. Perhaps this is thanks to the influence of our king, Willem Alexander, who years ago stated in an interview that he is not ‘a protocol fetishist’. Apparently he too questions the relevance of ‘the way it has always been done’ if that relevance is lost on people. So if our highest authority is beginning to question things now, is there any real reason to continue with protocol? Well, even as a critical observer of these conservative traditions, I can think of a number of reasons why we might:
1. Protocol helps with the logistics of ceremonial moments.
The word protocol originates from the Greek ‘protokollon’ meaning ‘the first page’. Protocol is the first page of the scenario for an important meeting or event. If gives the rules of the game. This is very important, especially where many people are involved. Clear rules are needed to ensure the event runs smoothly and that its aims are achieved within the timeframe available.
2. Protocol ensures the safety of high-ranking people at public events.
Employing strict sets of rules, protocol ensures that every act and every movement of every person present is pre-planned such that any departure from the planning is quickly and easily detected.
3. Protocol brings democracy to public ceremonies.
Protocol determines exactly how people are to behave in a given ceremonial situation. If you stick to the official rules then there will be no risk of offence through improper behavior. Protocol is a leveller, just like British school uniform.
4. Protocol as immaterial heritage attracts tourist interest
As the world shrinks and we all become global citizens, ceremonies begin to be regarded as important elements of national identity and social coherence. Whilst the popularity of institutions such as the church and the family unit is on the decline, that of national ceremonies is on the increase. Quaint protocol with, for many, incomprehensible rites and routines, has a mystical value and hence public appeal. This immaterial heritage is greatly valued, not least for its comical entertainment value.
5. Protocol can lend (symbolic) meaning and value to important moments
Protocol is of course not (only) comical. Much of what it contains still has meaning to a greater or lesser extent. Much of that carried out in the name of protocol represents timeless values which, if correctly understood, lend an extra symbolic value to the ceremony. The meaning may remain hidden and yet still be understood in an abstract way, through a feeling of togetherness, for example.
The central focus should be on ‘meaningfulness’ or ‘functionality’ if you like
And this point – the meaning and value of protocol – brings me gradually to my concluding remarks about the ‘modernization of protocol.’ The central focus should be on ‘meaningfulness’ or ‘functionality’ if you like.
Back to togetherness
We have for decades now been living in a highly individualistic society. Gradually, we are beginning to see the downsides of this shift. We lose contact with others, we are alone on an ever-broadening playing field and with an ever fuller life to manage. There is no ‘togetherness’ in which to reflect on our own lives and to mirror ourselves in others. Coping with life alone is hard work. Many burn out. Our longing for a sense of community increases. But community in its previous form does not suit – it is outdated and irrelevant. We seek new, more specific, even tailor-made routes to a community far more relevant to our modern selves.
And there are people already working to achieve this for us. Take Meike Ziegler. She came up with a modern concept for protocol. Creatuals or ‘creative rituals’ are specially developed for all manner of important moments in life: the opening of an event, a company merger, a jubilee, marriage, birth, death, etc. Meike, the founder of the company Creatuals, is an artist who develops tailor-made ceremonies for clients, who participate in the production of the event itself. There is always a tangible result, a piece of (communal) art, which the client takes away from the event as a lasting embodiment of the creatual.
Just one simple example: her grandmother died and at the funeral Meike stood before the coffin and said: “Look everyone. This is grandma’s pearl necklace. The one she always wore. She was so proud of us all. WE were her true pearls! She was the thread. She kept us together.” Then Meike took her scissors and cut the thread of the pearl necklace, catching the pearls in a bowl, saying: “Grandma is dead now, the thread is broken. I will put the thread in a little bag and tie it to her coffin to go with her to the grave. We will have to do the binding ourselves now. So please, pass the bowl around and each take one pearl. Keep it close to you always and think of each other every time you see or feel the pearl!”
This was a truly new way to mark an important ceremonial moment. Anybody could come up with ideas like this, if we take time to make them up and organize them. By adding something personal or specific to the occasion we add special value to the ceremonial moment, so that it will stay in mind forever.
Maybe we should try to look at protocol in the same way: do not (just) follow the traditional, worn-out cliches, but (also) think of specific characteristics or elements that make the ceremony stand out as a unique event. In this age of individualism we need those additions to feel satisfied with the occasion. But also think collective: the moment should be a moment for all, where everybody participates, so that all will feel included. This is the original reason for protocol: doing something together to mark a special moment. So make it special in a modern sense. All you need is an innovative and creative mind…