Saturday, June 25

Exhibition on slavery at the Rijksmuseum faces the cruelty of the Dutch trade | Netherlands

The aim of a first exhibition on the Dutch slave trade to be shown at the Rijksmuseum, opened on Tuesday by King Willem-Alexander, is not to “wake up” but to be a “blockbuster” that tells a more real story of the Golden Age has said the director general of the national institution.

Taco Dibbits said his museum had no intention of taking sides in a political and cultural debate, but that the royal visit, broadcast live on national television, highlighted that the wealth bestowed and the cruelty endured was not only relevant to the descendants of the enslaved.

The Slavery exhibition, which showcases 140 objects, ranging from two Rembrandt portraits of luxuriously wealthy married owners of enslaved people to a display of ankle chains, examines 10 lives trapped in the Dutch slave trade between the turn of the century. XVII and 1863, when the practice was finally declared illegal in Suriname and the Antilles.

Wooden and metal footrest
Foot socks used to restrain enslaved people, at the Rijksmuseum Slavery exhibition in Amsterdam. Photograph: Peter de Jong / AP

An audio guide for the exhibition includes the voice and thoughts of Ma Chichi, a woman born into slavery in 1853, who in turn recounts how her grandmother, enslaved in 18th-century Curaçao, urged her to always remember that she was equal to everyone. . “She never did what the lords wanted,” says Chichi in the recording dating from 1958, when she was 105 years old.

Valika Smeulders, curator of the exhibition and director of history at the Rijksmuseum, said it had been vital to unearth the oral history due to the lack of ownership and written evidence of enslaved people. “[Chichi] He talks about his grandmother telling her that you are equal to everyone else, you are equal to the children of the owner of the house, ”he said. “It gives you a feminine perspective, which is quite rare, and it gives you the perspective of people who were so aware of their humanity even though they lived in a system that took all that humanity away from them.”

Dutch traders sent more than 600,000 Africans to North and South America and between 660,000 and 1.1 million people around the Indian Ocean. Last year, King Willem-Alexander apologized for the “excessive violence” of the Dutch colonialists in Indonesia. There is still a lively debate in the Netherlands about the treatment of empire and slavery in schools and public places through street names and statues, as has happened in the UK. But while Dibbits said the museum did not want to instruct people on what to think, it had to “strive to be more comprehensive.”

A drawing of a person of color holding another man's pipe while smoking it
Detail of a sketch titled Augustus of Bengal Holding the Pipe of Hendrik Cloete, dating from 1788. Photography: Marc Moussault / Fotografie Moussault

“We are the museum for everyone, so it is very important to listen but I have also always said … that in the end you also have to make decisions, because you cannot accommodate everything,” he said. “You make the decisions about who you choose to tell the story about, who you involve. I mean, if people want to see it as a waking display, that’s fine, but that’s not what we’re looking for …

“I hope Slavery will be a very successful exhibition for a lot of people to know about,” he said. “And that is also why we made an online version and why it is incorporated into school curricula. So … people who have not thought about it think about it and also continue to emphasize that it is something that concerns us all ”.

Smeulders added: “People are very open about wanting to hang on to what they know, but that of course is not what the museum is about. Yes, we deal with history, but our view of history is continually changing. “

One of the competing revelations of the exhibition, Smeulders said, was that a richly decorated brass necklace donated to the Rijksmuseum in 1881 and engraved with the family crest of the Nassau, Vianden and Dietz families, dated 1689, was probably not a Necklace of dog, as originally thought, but one used by black enslaved people brought back to the Netherlands as servants. “For a long time, people have not wanted to accept the meaning of those necklaces,” he said. “They were always described as dog collars, but if you look at the paintings, those who wear those collars are never the dogs, they are the men.”

A necklace engraved with a coat of arms.
A necklace engraved with a coat of arms, believed to have been worn by an enslaved person. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP / Getty Images

The plan to organize the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was first announced in 2017 with some resistance. “One of the first calls I received was from the royal family home, who would want to support her in any way,” Dibbits said. “I think, I mean, obviously, you would have to ask [Willem-Alexander] yourself, but I think by that you emphasize that this is part of our history which concerns all the people in the Netherlands and not just the descendants of a slave. I mean, it’s about me, it’s about you, it’s about the king himself … it’s about everyone who lives in the country. “

The Rijksmuseum is currently closed to the public, but a digital tour is available and students are being invited for free. The exhibition will remain open until August 29.

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