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The Mauritshuis Bust and the Volatile Heritage Debate in the Netherlands

The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories, not without its detractors

The past month has seen heated debate in the Netherlands, triggered by local media reporting that the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague had removed a bust of its 17th century slave-trading founder Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen. Although the bust has been absent for several months, it has taken until now for a volatile debate over how the Dutch should deal with disputed heritage to reemerge. Several members of parliament joined the discussion. Antoinette Laan, an MP for the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, warned of importing ‘the American tendency to oversensitivity’ and questioned if history was being ‘rubbed out’. Leading Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf ran with the headline ‘Iconoclasm. Stop the Forgery!’, teasing an article in which two academics argued that ‘the moral vanity from which slavery is now being condemned, indicates a complete lack of historical awareness’. The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte added that he found the decision ‘crazy’ and guilty of ‘judging the distant past through today’s eyes’.

Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Mauritshuis, responded by arguing that the decision was part of a reorganization of the museum's collection in order to reflect a ‘growing discussion in society’ about the country’s colonial past and the role of the museum’s founder within that history. This meant that alongside the removal of the bust – which was actually a plastic replica made in 1986 – from the museum’s foyer, they were presenting a newly installed room devoted to contextualizing the life of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen: ‘this is about improving the way we tell the story so that we can share all aspects, positive and negative, with our visitors.’

Bust of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, 1987, after an original by Bartholomeus Eggers, c. 1664, height 132 cm. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, 1987, after an original by Bartholomeus Eggers, c. 1664, height 132 cm. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, 1987, after an original by Bartholomeus Eggers, c. 1664. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

It is far from the first Dutch institution to reconsider sensitivities. In 2015, Amsterdam’s celebrated Rijksmuseum began renaming artwork titles in its collection – for example, the 1900 painting by Simon Maris originally called Young Negro-Girl was renamed Picture of Girl Holding a Fan. Earlier this year, Amsterdam’s alderman for art and culture Simone Kukenheim suggested in her maiden speech that it was time to establish a museum about the history of slavery: ‘this story deserves its own place, because the whole story has to be told – that's very important.’ At the same time, Amsterdam’s JP Coen Elementary School has announced that it wants to change its name, to remove associations with the 17th century governor-general of the Dutch East Indies Jan Pieterszoon Coen, known as ‘the Butcher of Banda’. Meanwhile, the defence of such contentious titles and monuments carries across the political spectrum, from liberals to conservatives and populists. What do they fear?

They are afraid of an erasure of history that would contribute to a loss of established Dutch identity. What will follow this reconsideration of heritage and pride in the Netherlands’s ‘glorious past’, to which these controversial figures contributed to? Most of the statues and monuments to these contested 17th century (Golden Age) figures were actually produced during the 19th century, when the Netherlands became a proper nation state and was in need of a historic narrative supported by heroic myths and figures. Other memorials came about during the late colonial period, when battles for independence had to be countered. But the consequence of all of this is that, today, we are still celebrating historical figures who carried out war crimes and genocidal actions during their colonial expeditions and trade missions.

'Good Hope. South Africa and The Netherlands from 1600’, 2017, installation view, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

'Good Hope. South Africa and The Netherlands from 1600’, 2017, installation view, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

'Good Hope. South Africa and The Netherlands from 1600’, 2017, installation view, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The recent Dutch tendency to question and remove titles and statues has an obvious global dimension – campaigns such as #RhodesMustFall, #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movement have directly inspired Dutch activists. Recent events in Charlottesville and Ferguson have also had a direct impact on perception and action within the Netherlands. In this sense, the instant global dissemination of images and knowledge has created a new activist impulse. So, when the Rijksmuseum received an open letter that extensively criticized their 2017 exhibition ‘Good Hope. South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600’ for propagating a Eurocentric perspective, selective amnesia and dubious terminology, it was sent and signed by both South African and Dutch activists.

Similarly, a 2017 letter to Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Arts accused the institution of claiming criticality in contemporary art practice while still holding a blind spot in its own self-awareness – it was signed by an international crowd. The open letter to Witte de With was sent ahead of the institution hosting ‘Cinema Olanda: Platform’, an extension of the Dutch Pavilion in Venice, conceived by the artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh. The exhibition and programme aimed to look at the ways in which colonial legacies exist within contemporary Dutch society, and the manifold ways it has influenced language, demography and culture over time. Van Oldenborgh’s Venice pavilion was harshly criticized by the Dutch press, aghast that the artist would question the inclusivity of Dutch history and contemporary society. But the open letter to Witte de With called attention to the fact that while its project aimed to ‘shed light on underexposed aspects of the Netherlands’ recent post-colonial history’, it did not account for the arts centre’s own name – it is named after Witte Corneliszoon de With, a 17th century Dutch naval officer who ran violent expeditions for the Dutch East India Company. The Witte de With later announced that it would undergo a name change in 2018 to remove this reference.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Prologue: Squat/Anti-Squat, 2016, film installation in two parts. Courtesy the artist and Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Prologue: Squat/Anti-Squat, 2016, film installation in two parts. Courtesy the artist and Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Prologue: Squat/Anti-Squat, 2016, film installation in two parts. Courtesy the artist and Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam

There is a side to the debate which is far older, of course – consider the ongoing and similarly heated discussions around Zwarte Piet (a blackface caricature which is part of the annual Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas). Protests around this have been going on for over half a century. In 2008, during the ‘Be[com]ing Dutch’ programme at Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum, artists Annette Krauss and Petra Bauer had to cancel their march against Zwarte Piet due to death threats. In 2012, a public protest against Zwarte Piet by activist Jerry Afriyie and artist Quinsy Gario went viral after the police violently ended it. And last November, protesters on their way to the national ‘Arrival of Sinterklaas’ parade were forced to stop at a highway near the town of Heerenveen by an organized counter-mob – protesters claimed that police present at the scene did little to defuse the situation.

Nevertheless, we are living at a time in which postcolonial discourse and decolonial practices within the Netherlands are rapidly changing. What’s different? Most new activists calling for change are second and third generation (post)colonial migrants, educated in the Netherlands, who are now claiming their own voice within public debates, institutions and space. While their parents were still seen as temporary guests or foreigners, they are full citizens who want to claim their full rights. And in doing so, the questioning of history, structures, systems, perspectives and consequences has thrown the country into a state of flux – at once part of an undeniably global tendency, while the questions at the forefront of debate are specifically Dutch. Change is slow, and continually meets with plenty of opposition. But it is happening.

Main image: Jan de Baen, portrait of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, 1668-1670. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Vincent van Velsen is a curator and critic based in the Netherlands.

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