donderdag, mei 27, 2021

Rijksmuseum: Slavery told in ten stories

On Tuesday afternoon 18 May 2021 a special occasion took place. The king opened the exhibition ‘Slavery’ in the renowned Dutch national Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The fact that it was shown live on television by the public broadcasting company indicated its importance.

For some 400 years our small country was a colonial world power. How do we look back on that period now? Are we looking back at all? In her book White Innocence (English publication 2016, Dutch 2018) academic Gloria Wekker ascertained that The Netherlands quite quickly turned the pages on that colonial past. And that possibly an increasingly stronger growing racism in The Netherlands stems from the fact that our country has not come to terms with its colonial past. She wonders how the self -image of a nice, civilized, tolerant and non-racist country relates to a past where this same country colonized strange peoples and enriched itself by trans-Atlantic slave trade? She calls it a paradox. In fact The Netherlands is still struggling with an unresolved trauma, according to Wekker.

It looks as if The Netherlands is now extremely occupied with looking back, and with the painful process of dealing with that trauma, in books, in films, in television programs. And not least through the exhibition Slavery in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Valika Smeulders, Head of History in the Rijksmuseum and one of the compilers of the exhibition, told in her word of welcome that the choice had been made to show the reality of slavery through the lives of 10 main characters.


Smeulders in her word of welcome:

‘We tremendously look forward to taking you with us on a journey through a 250 year history, where you will meet ten people. Ten very different lives: people who were slave owners, people who had to live in slavery, people who were outspoken against it or who struggled free from it. *

By diving straight into those lives it becomes clear that slavery is a system imposed by people, weathered by people, and abolished by people. My ancestors, your ancestors, our ancestors. What they have lived through and seen, endured and conquered, it is that inheritance they are giving us here as a commission. So that we can stand on their shoulders.

This exhibition shows the Dutch past of slavery in Brazil, Suriname, the Caribbean, South-Africa and Asia, and how this has changed The Netherlands.

People in slavery were not allowed to have possessions, nor to write, and they were not being portretted. They only had one instrument to pass on their story: their voice. That is the reason that in this exhibition you do not only see art, objects and archive material. You hear the spoken history, transmitted from generation to generation.’ As by Valika Smeulders.

Exhibition as commission

To me this is a beautiful image. As visitor to the exhibition we are taken by the hand, on a journey through a very painful part of our history. But to better understand ourselves and our country it is absolutely necessary to immerse ourselves into it. This can lead to self-reflection, contemplation, new insights and necessary change, in ourselves and in our country. That, as I understand it, is the commission this exhibition imposes on us. We can become better people, our country can become a better country.

But of course we first have to go and see for ourselves, as soon as the museums are open again. A good preparation is watching the moving and artful documentary Nieuw Licht, by Ida Hoes (still to be found on NPO Plus). In this documentary the compilers of the exhibition share how they, coming from different backgrounds, working their way through the process found new insights for themselves.

*The ten stories can be found on the website of the Rijksmuseum 

Hennie de Pous-de Jonge 
Translated by Lotty Wolvekamp 
Photo: Laura Reijnders

Further reading: An honest talk about racism