On a quest at the Rijksmuseum

In front of, “Militia Company of District VIII under the command of Captein Roelof Bicker” painted by Bartholomeus van der Helst in 1639, looking at the enslaved boy in the middle.

In 2014 the Rijksmuseum reopened its doors for the public, after a renovation that took more than a decade. The museum did not meet the 21st-century requirements anymore, therefore an extensive renovation was needed. Thence the museum was under construction in most of my memories. In 2014, however, the renovation was finished and visitors were welcomed in a refurbished Rijksmuseum. The critics were full of praised, hereby the museum managed to attract a record number of visitors to the exhibitions (2.5 million in 2015). The Rijksmuseum is a national museum, so it offers mostly a presentation of Dutch art throughout the centuries. I visited the Rijksmuseum with a certain mindset this November, namely examining the story of the Netherlands created by the museum. My main interest, as a historian in colonial history, is how the museum narrates the national history as inclusive as possible. So, to what extent does the museum pay attention to those oppressed and enslaved during the eras when others commissioned dozens of self-portraits to show off their accumulated wealth?

Of course, the museum is mainly known for its possession of famous paintings from, amongst others, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen, and Johannes Vermeer. One can say the Nachtwacht is the highlight of the museum as it is shining in the center of the museum. A walk of fame, consisting of other famous paintings, will guide the visitor to the much-treasured pearl of the museum. Directly right of the Nachtwacht is the room with paintings from the second half of the Dutch “Golden Age”. Everything in the room contributes to the creation of a rather patriotic feeling since the Dutch are presented as this great naval nation. The overseas conquests were vital in acquiring the wealth necessary for producing the exuberant paintings displayed in the other rooms. But was it really a period of  “power and prosperity”? And for who exactly?

Rijksmuseum room: 1650-1700, Second half of the Golden Age

Rijksmuseum room: 1650-1700, Second half of the Golden Age

One would assume to find answers to those questions in the room called: The Netherlands Overseas. The title seems to refer to Dutch colonies in as well the East as the West. However, the majority of the paintings displayed in this room were related to Dutch connections with Japan and China. There were exactly four paintings related to Dutch possessions in Surinam and contemporary Ghana. These paintings depicted a white man/woman in the front with the enslaved painted -on a much smaller scale- in the back. The enslaved on the paintings were there to indicate the wealth of the white persons in the front. The museum seems to pay a disappointing amount of attention to the manner in which the Dutch accumulated the wealth throughout the so-called Golden Age.

Rijksmuseum Room: The Netherlands Overseas Rijksmuseum Room: The Netherlands Overseas

One should try to find portraits of people of color when walking around in museums like The Rijksmuseum. It seems to be an impossible task. My interest in this absence was reinforced after visiting an exhibition by Kehinde Wiley in the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) last year. In this exhibition, Kehinde Wiley repainted famous 17th- and 18th-century European paintings, but replacing the wealthy white man with Afro-Americans from Harlem (NY). Aside from the fact these paintings are absolutely astonishing, the political aspect of Wiley’s work is rather intriguing. Wiley has an aim with his work. Namely to indicate that portrayals always have been a presentation of power, mobility, and status, thereby consistently excluding people of color. In his work, Afro-Americans are empowered by portraying them on grand and life-size paintings. Wiley also counteracts stereotypes of black men by portraying them in a vulnerable and feminine manner, thereby contrasting the dominant violent narrative from the media. For me, Wiley’s exhibition was one of the best I have seen because he makes his work political and indicates the hidden language in paintings (and museums).

Kehinde Wiley's exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (spring 2016) Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (spring 2016)

So here I was at the Rijksmuseum –inspired by Kehinde Wiley’s work – looking for a portrait of someone with African heritage. Eventually, I found one in the section special selection: Javanese Courts. This section was dedicated to art from the former Dutch colony: the Dutch Indies (now: Indonesia). However, in this room -somewhat out of context- was also a depiction of five dioramas on Surinam during the colonial era, and thus the portrayal of a black man painted by Isaac Israels. The black man was a KNIL soldier. The man was recruited in -nowadays- Ghana to fight for the Dutch in their colony in the East. The sign next to the painting explains how the man ended up in the Dutch Indies and why he was named Kees Pop. Apparently the Dutch were unable to pronounce his real name and dubbed him with the Dutch name “Kees Pop”. The man served 12 years for the KNIL and received several medals for his work. The painter decided to make a portrait of the soldier before he embarked on a ship that would bring him back to Africa. The Dutch were able to recruit soldiers in -nowadays- Ghana because until 1871 they possessed Elmina Castle, which was located on Africa’s west coast. This castle functioned as an important center during the Transatlantic slave trade until slavery was abolished by the Dutch in 1863. Israels painted the KNIL soldier in 1882, after a service of 12 years. This indicates that Dutch influence was still persisting in the region of Elmina and people were desperate to make a living.

Potrait of a Wounded KNIL Soldier by Isaac Israels in the Rijksmuseum

Potrait of a Wounded KNIL Soldier by Isaac Israels in the Rijksmuseum

One could ask the question: why should this matter to someone without a profound interest in the colonial past of the Netherlands? The fact is that the Rijksmuseum is a national museum, hence a place in which all people of this nation should feel represented. The museum aims to present art from the collective Dutch history. Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995) formulated legitimate questions in his book “Silencing the past. Power and the Production of History”, namely how do we collectively decide which events to include in this collective history, and which to exclude. The answer to this question can be found by tracking down power during the production of historical narratives (Trouillot, 1995), thus looking closely at the process and conditions of all actors involved during the creation of a certain narrative. Neglecting certain events as a part of the collective history happens during four moments (Trouillot, 1995): 1) the making of the sources, 2) the making of the archives, 3) the making of the narratives, 4) the making of history (retrospectively interpreting the sources, archives, and narratives). Silencing of events happens when power is unevenly distributed, therefore the creation of history is merely the narrative of the one in power. Consequently, the history of the victor is perceived as the collective, although it is merely the dominant story.

Museums, especially national museums, should strive for inclusiveness, therefore a -more or less- equal representation of all narratives concerning periods as the “Golden Age”. In order to become more inclusive, museums should be braver and less afraid of tackling sensitive issues (E. Nightingale & C. Mahal, 2012). Museums should be experimental when interweaving different histories and communities together. Furthermore, museums should be aware of the changing demographics and transforming societies, thereby modifying their exhibitions and programs (E. Nightingale & C. Mahal, 2012). Lastly, museums should aim for a more diverse staff, as this seems to be a prerequisite for the above-mentioned adaptions. These recommendations seem not only relevant for museums but for history education at large.

National museums are intertwined with the national history of a country, therefore it is revealing to examine the presentation of a nation at its national museum. When abroad, this provides one with insights on a country/nation’s perspective on history, however doing this in your own country can be as informative.

I only spent one day in The Rijksmuseum, so if you feel I overlooked certain rooms in the museum please let me know of course.

Sandell, R., and Eithne Nightingale Museums, Equality and Social Justice (London 2012)
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, Silencing the Past. Power and the production of History (Boston 1995)

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