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A Dutch Golden Age? That's only half the story
The grand hall at Hermitage Amsterdam, with the Amsterdam Museum’s permanent exhibition ‘Portrait Gallery of the 17th Century’ (formerly called ‘Dutchmen of the Golden Age’). Photo: Joel Frijhoff.

by Nina Siegal

AMSTERDAM (AFP).- Elisabeth Samson, an 18th-century freeborn black woman, made millions as a coffee planter and exporter using slave labor in the Dutch colony of Suriname. She was one of the wealthiest women of the era, but few people have ever heard her story.

That’s why her image is one of 13 diverse portraits recently added to a collection of paintings of the city’s wealthiest trade groups. Before the additions, the Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age, as it was known, was a sea of all white and mostly male faces. It resides in a wing of the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam that houses part of the Amsterdam Museum’s collection.

Among the other new portraits in the display are of Elieser, a young black Jewish man who served in the household of a Spanish poet-merchant; and Sychnecta, a Native American man who was once displayed in an Amsterdam human zoo.

These photographic portraits, created using contemporary models in period clothes and settings, are part of an exhibition called “Dutch Masters Revisited,” and they were being shown to “promote inclusion and social equity,” according to Margriet Schavemaker, the museum’s artistic director.

Schavemaker used the show’s opening to announce that the Amsterdam Museum will jettison the term “Golden Age” for the era in the 17th century when the Netherlands was a world leader in art, science and trade, because that term tells only half the story.

“We believe that the Golden Age is, in a way, the story of the winners, and it hides the colonial past of the country,” Schavemaker said in an interview. “It hides slavery, but also it covers up poverty more generally. Not everyone participated in the Golden Age, not at all.”

The announcement was immediately met with widespread condemnation, and the museum’s social media feeds were flooded with negative comments. Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the decision “nonsense” in a televised interview and said he would keep using the label. Michel Rog, the leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, said the museum’s decision was “too ridiculous for words,” according to the newspaper De Telegraaf. But it’s clear that the tide has shifted in the Dutch museum world and that leaders of several top cultural institutions are reviewing the familiar ways of communicating history to the public and seeking alternatives. Many curators and scholars say those institutions have to overcome a colonial mindset.

“If you want to protect an open and democratic system, it will mean that you have to promote greater inclusion of what you understand as ‘Dutch,’” and that means telling new stories and coming up with new terminologies, said Karwan Fatah-Black, a lecturer in Dutch colonial history at Leiden University, who has served as a consultant to a dozen museums in the Netherlands. “There is an implicit hierarchy built into many of the Dutch cultural institutions, and that has to be made explicit.”

“Decolonizing” takes many forms. In Rotterdam, it means changing the name of a contemporary art center called Witte de With, because the Dutch naval officer whose name it bears was involved in colonial enterprises (his name, incidentally, translates to “whiter than white”); in The Hague, it comes about through research into the man behind the name of the Mauritshuis art museum, Johan Maurits, a Dutch governor of Brazil, who initiated the slave trade there; at the Van Loon Museum, the Nieuwe Kerk and the Rijksmuseum, it manifests in exhibitions that explore colonial histories and slavery.

Pieter Emmer, a professor emeritus of colonial history at Leiden University cautioned that while expanding our perspectives on other aspects of history is important, we should not “throw out the baby with the bath water. Because that’s what’s happening now.”

“If you do away with these historic labels, the past becomes a kind of gray mud of indistinguishable facts and figures,” he said. “You need to sometimes typify a period, even if historic labels cover only a part of historical reality,” he added. “If you want to use terms like ‘the Age of Poverty,’ or ‘the Age of Slavery,’ or ‘the Age of Disease,’ that applies to all ages. That’s not what makes the period stand out.”

Jörgen Tjon Fong, the curator of the “Dutch Masters Revisited” display at the Hermitage, said there’s good reason to get rid of vague terms that only apply to select groups of people.

“If you talk about the Golden Age, people think they know what that story is about,” he said. “What we forget to tell is that it was only about 1% of society. People in Holland were stricken by poverty, there were internal wars going on, and on top of that there was slavery as well. The people in the Netherlands today are not just descendants of that 1%; they’re descendants of the 99% as well.”

Using the more neutral term “17th century,” he added, means “You can load it with new stories and new perspectives.”

Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum, said in an interview that the museum will keep using the term Golden Age, especially when it refers to 17th-century Dutch painters represented by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals and other old masters. But, he added, the museum “wants to give a more complete picture of history by adding other perspectives.” The museum has recently changed some of the terms it uses, removing words such as “Negro” and “dwarf” from artworks and their descriptions.

More significantly, the museum is addressing the less golden aspects of Dutch history by putting together the major exhibition, “Slavery,” set to open in September 2020. The show will center on the stories of 10 individuals, from enslaved people to boatbuilders and colonial governors, who played a role in the Dutch slave trade, and part of it will be incorporated into a permanent display at the Rijksmuseum when the exhibition closes.

Adm. Witte de With was an officer with the Dutch East India Co., which was a key player in the slave trade, and his narrative tells part of that story. That’s why the Rotterdam art center is not only changing its name but also engaging the local community in the process as “part of making visible colonial legacies,” according to Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, the museum’s director.

The art center was named in the 1980s, she pointed out, after the street where it’s located, Witte de Withstraat, so that it could become a destination in a part of the old city center that didn’t have much commerce. Today it is thriving, in part because the art center turned it into a cultural hub.

“The name fulfilled its mission,” Hernández Chong Cuy said. “But our larger mission is to present art and theory, and if we are true to our mission and our values now, the name creates a number of obstacles for us to achieve our goals.”

The museum has invited a diverse group of young people to collaborate in the process of choosing a new name, she added, but renaming the whole institution will take time. So far, she said, the group has only renamed one exhibition space.

The Mauritshuis in The Hague, home to a royal collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, including Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” became the center of a media whirlwind early this year when it temporarily removed a bust of Maurits from its display.

The museum is housed in Maurits’ former 17th-century mansion, known at the time as the “Sugar House” because it was thought to have been built by money Maurits earned from slave-run sugar plantations in Brazil.

Emilie Gordenker, the director of the museum, who will soon take the helm of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, explained that the bust had been removed temporarily to make way for a more complex installation focused on the complex history of the man. But, she added, the controversy prompted her to develop an exhibition around Maurits that ran this summer, and to ask the museum’s research team to study his personal history. Although the museum had to confront a Twitter storm, she said that, in the end, the public debate was a productive one.

“In these situations where we start talking about names — Mauritshuis, Witte de With or Golden Age — it can really engender a fruitful discussion about history,” Gordenker said.

“What we have learned from this is that our mandate as a public institution is to offer as many perspectives as possible,” she said. “It’s up to you, as a visitor, to form your own opinions. We realized that there’s a very large gray area between the two poles, and that’s where we want to be as a museum — in that gray area.”

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