Slavery should be better taught in Dutch schools, according to the general director of the Rijksmuseum, which next year will put on its first major exhibition on the dark side of the Netherlands’ colonial past.
‘I think it is essential that it is added to the school curriculum to create a better understanding of each other and where we come from,’ he said in an online press conference online. ‘It is part of Dutch history, and that history should be made more and more complete in school curricula.’
The Rijksmuseum will next February open an exhibition that has been three years in the making, involving 100 objects borrowed from all kinds of institutions, and tells 10 stories of people involved in the slave trade that powered the Netherlands from the early 16th century until 1863.
It is a subject that still, the curators admit, sparks controversy. Earlier this year prime minister Mark Rutte told parliamentarians that it would be ‘too polarising’ to apologise for the nation’s slaving past during a debate on modern-day racism.
Amsterdam Museum last year stopped using the term ‘Golden Age’ entirely in recognition of the great wrongs of the age, such as slavery. Meanwhile, a debate has raged on whether or not the Royal 19th century golden coach should still be used, as one panel contains images some people consider racist.
But Taco Dibbits, who welcomed a commission recommending the repatriation of art looted during colonialism, said we should not blink at a discussion of the negative sides of the period, including slavery.
‘Slavery was an essential component of the colonial period in the Netherlands and many generations have suffered unimaginable injustices as a result,’ he said. ‘The past has been insufficiently examined in the national history of the Netherlands, including at the Rijksmuseum. We should address historical subjects of relevance today…and we felt that slavery is of great importance to our society today. Black Lives Matters shows the urgency that this subject is addressed.’
The story will be told through 10 stories of individuals, from those who broke the shackles of slavery to an African servant in the Netherlands and wealthy sugar industrialist. Objects will range from the Rembrandt portrait of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit to chains and a set of manacles used to keep slaves from escaping at night.
Valika Smeulders, head of history at the Rijksmuseum, said that previously museums had focused on an economic narrative of this period, rather than its basis in slavery.
‘[Why it has taken so long for these stories to be told] is a good question,’ she said. ‘I think it has been really difficult for people to bring different historical perspectives together. For the longest to time you had economic history. There has been academic research into the social history. There’s a huge public debate going on in which people point out that it is so important to bring that social history into museums as well.’
The Rijksmuseum is dedicated to presenting the story behind all of its objects, and slavery will be a part of the tale in the future, said Dibbits. He added that it has produced a special magazine for all Dutch language schools, and the exhibition will be accompanied by a play for children.
‘The Rijksmuseum should be a house for everybody, and by telling a more complete history of the Netherlands, we also aim to have a more complete public, to include more people,’ he said.