Rijksmuseum, the national museum of arts and history of the Netherlands, will stage a major exhibition facing up to the subject of slavery in the country by presenting ten human stories from centuries of colonialism.
Between February 12 to May 30, 2021, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the national museum of arts and history of the Netherlands, will showcase an ambitious exhibition that examines the country’s uneasy ties with slavery.
Asked if the exhibition would cover countries beyond those Netherlands was involved in, Valika Smeulders, head of History Rijksmuseum says that “we’ve chosen to focus only on the Netherlands’ colonial history which is 250 years already; we will focus on two parts, both the transatlantic slave trade and the Indian Ocean part.”
In a video shown about the exhibition in the online news conference, a Black woman who is asked about her opinion says her feelings waver between “sadness and incomprehension.”
She is looking at foot shackles that kept slaves locked even at night, “without giving them even a chance to dream”, as Smeulders puts it. Junior Curator of History at Rijksmuseum Stephanie Archangel calls this state of “being in chains 24/7, an intense form of oppression.”
General Director of Rijksmuseum Taco Dibbits says they’ve been working on this exhibition since 2017, long before Black Lives Matter became front and centre in the world’s consciousness. That being so, Dibbits comments “Black Lives Matter addresses many issues addressed in the exhibition. The colonial part of Netherlands’ history plays an important part, slavery has an important part in what Netherlands is like today.”
Dibbits adds, “The Rijksmuseum is the national museum of art and history. Slavery is an integral part of our history. By delving into it, we can form a more complete picture of our history and a better understanding of today’s society.”
According to Dibbits, the more than 250 year history of slavery by the Netherlands has usually been presented through an economic history perspective. He says “we wanted to tell the story of people. We will have ten rooms, and ten stories of ten people.”
The press materials elaborate: “They include enslaved people and slaveholders, as well as individuals who broke the shackles of slavery, an African servant in the Netherlands, and an Amsterdam sugar industrialist.”
According to press materials, “The exhibition spans the Dutch colonial period from the 17th to the 19th century. It features the trans-Atlantic slavery in Suriname, Brazil and the Caribbean, and the part played by the Dutch West India Company (WIC); and Dutch colonial slavery in South Africa and Asia, where the Dutch East India Company (VOC) operated. The effects of the system in the Netherlands during the period are also highlighted. As a whole it offers a geographically broad and at the same time specifically Dutch view which has never been seen before in a national museum.”
Senior Curator of the History Department at Rijksmuseum Eveline Sint Nicolaas explains the ten individuals through which the slavery stories are told, starting with a slave called Wally, who works in a Surinamese plantation. Sint Nicolaas brings our attention to the exhibition’s displays, which place “objects of prosperity [of those benefiting from slave labour] versus tools [that the slaves used to create that prosperity for their masters]”. She calls them “two separate worlds that meet”.
According to Smeulders, the exhibition will interest anyone in its exploration of “how you cope with systemic injustice” and “a lot of people from a lot of countries will find their history in this exhibition.”
Smeulders says there were many beautiful stories that they couldn’t tell through objects so they had to give up on those but that there was such a wealth of histories they had no trouble finding other examples. “We invite you to step into the shoes of people who lived then and view the exhibition,” she adds.
Sint Nicolaas points out that there are about 40 objects from the Rijksmuseum’s own collection and 100 from other collections. “Some objects are quite unusual for the Rijksmuseum and will make you do a double take,” she smiles. “All ten stories will be highlighted on the website,” she concludes.
Thumbnail photo: Unknown, The attack on Captain Tack at Kartasura by Suropati in 1684 under Susuhunan Amangkurat, 1900-1950. Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen
Headline photo: Unknown, Multiple leg cuffs for chaining enslaved people, with 6 loose shackles, ca. 1600-1800. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum