Rewrite The Institute – The Amsterdam Museum
In October 2016, 800 posters were spread across Amsterdam. Each of them pictures one of the 180 people who represent the 180 different roots whose fruits sweeten this city. Seeing Tracian Meikle and Beylula Yosef, two community organizers whose senses of community are an important part of my experiences here, representing Jamaica and Eritrea throughout this city never ceases to brighten whatever moment I’m having. I remember the many, many messages with the question if we knew people from certain countries and states because the list still wasn’t complete. The times when someone posted a call to find a person from a relatively small country and/or archipelago and we all tagged the same person? That was fun. Unfortunately it only took one stroll through the Amsterdam Museum to be reminded of the fact that in the proverbial 95% of Dutch institutions, Black people might be part of the promo but we’re absolutely not part of the profile.
With their Amsterdam DNA exhibit, the Amsterdam Museum claims to “give you an exciting overview of the history of Amsterdam.” Going through the exhibit reminded me of the many conversations I’ve had with people who work in Dutch museums and wonder why their institute isn’t visited by a more diverse group. When they ask me why my people and I aren’t crowding these spaces, what they basically want to know is: “Why aren’t Black people drawn to Whiteness?” To rewrite the institute is to rephrase our presence (in the ‘show’ as well as the building), to reposition ourselves in the dominant narratives that frame histories, current realities but also futures. It’s also about telling people to “let’s not stand on ceremony here” because clearly nobody expected us in these institutes in the first place. Whenever the words “us” and “our” are used, Dutch museums use them to refer to white people and/or Western culture(s) and we are either presented as colonial and other stereotypical props or completely erased. One of the most institutionalized forms of erasure, is the presentation of dates we should all celebrate. For example: one of the exhibit walls carries the title “City Of Freedom: 1945 – now.” In 1945 the Netherlands still had colonies and they still do. On the far right of that wall there’s a text informing people about the first Dutch constitution that was adopted in 1798. Above the text is an icon of a piece of paper with the constitution’s first article written on it: “All people equal as people.” If this article is from 1798 but slavery wasn’t abolished in 1863 and stretched until 1873… on whose equality is this ‘freedom’ based?
I addressed part of my deep-rooted discontent during the two 1 hour-tours I gave there on Nov. 3 and 10. Aside from reconsiderations with regards to celebratory dates, one of the focus points of my tour was the way the museum depicts enslaved people. In the corner of what is called The Golden Room, a space with gold painted walls that “informs” the visitor about Amsterdam in De Gouden Eeuw (the Dutch Golden Century), there are two walls that “discuss” slavery. The walls are bright red and enslaved people are reduced to the icon as seen on this picture. All the icons aimed to represent enslaved people are hunched over or in a kneeling position. And what’s up with the white shorts?
As people on both tour affirmed: nobody would so much as dream of daring to portray the death of Jewish people in the gas chambers during World War II as a cube with floating icons. Nobody ever should and in the Amsterdam Museum nobody did: the victims of WWII are honoured on a big wall with what could easily be thousands of small icons of men, women and children. Some have hats, others have ties or other accessories. In the midst of the icons we can read the number of people who we killed. Isn’t that… different.
How the abolition of slavery was portrayed? I’m so glad you ask. Instead of so much as the slightest mention of revolutionaries like Tula and Baron or the crucial part the Marroons and indigenous communities played in the liberation of enslaved Black people in Suriname, Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten, the museum only mentions that in 1803 Denmark was the first European country to abolish slavery. Instead of icons that, for example, portray sculptures like the Kwakoe statue in Suriname and Statue des Esclaves, the abolition of slavery is depicted as this second picture.
Right before the second tour, one of the people who works at the museum told me that as a result of the criticism we voiced during our first tour, the museum will now change this image about the abolition of slavery. It goes without saying that some of the people who went with me on the tour and I will continue to press for a better, non-colonial retelling of the Netherlands’ history of slavery.
The Amsterdam Museum presents a dollhouse version of one of the biggest eurocentric myths the Dutch educational system has been feeding us since forever: “The enslavement of Black people wasn’t our most loving moment but those were the times. Plus, let’s not forget that some of our ancestors were good masters and they blessed your ancestors freedom. Luckily none of this has anything to do with who and where we are now. We’re so glad that’s solved. Here, have some more mayonnaise while we continue with the truly important conversations.” It offers insights to what it is that makes institutes (co-)fund and/or bust open their doors to screen films like the one about Michiel de Ruyter when they wouldn’t dream of doing the same for movies about, for example, Boni. At least not one directed by a Black director who isn’t interested in a eurocentric recalling of the revolution he was part of… It’s also in line with the understanding of where Black and Brown women are positioned in the archives of institutes like Atria, the Amsterdam based institute on gender equality and women’s history. Yes, it’s beyond fantastic that The Comrade Chandra Frank made the de- and reconstruction of this institute part of the very important work she’s doing but the number of Franks who are filling Atria’s shot calling-seats is telling.
I come from a family of historians and other people with a great interest in history. I was passionate about it in high school, I’m passionate about it until this very day. Still, I have zero interest in visiting Dutch museums unless the goal of my visit is de/reconstruction. The proverbial 95% of them only cares about me and my people when it’s time to put some gas in that Diversity Bandwagon and/or crank up their ticket sales. In the Netherlands, we are constantly hit in the face by normalized attacks on our being, our presence. I refuse to buy tickets to the degradation of our humanity.