By Sanne Letschert


Image: Diorama of a Slave Dance, Gerrit Schouten, 1830, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam


I must say I was somewhat surprised when I first heard about the exhibition the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is planning for 2020 on the history of slavery of the Netherlands. Being on the dark side of the Dutch past, before this exhibition the Rijksmuseum almost paid no attention to the subject and tended to focus more on the successes of the Dutch during the colonial era. Even though a lot of ‘treasures’ on display were acquired in the old colonies, the connection is not always clearly made. This upcoming exhibition seems to break with this more moderate and nationalistic approach of the Rijksmuseum and the new director, Taco Dibbits, seems to head for a different direction. This new direction manifests itself already in the current exhibition ‘Goede Hoop’, which focuses on the relationship between South Africa and the Netherlands since 1600.

These exhibitions seem to fit in the increasing conversations in the field about more inclusion and diversity in museums. As an art history, heritage and memory student the discussion on the issue of representation is not new to me. Being a ‘hot topic’ once again, it seems relevant to take a look at the current professional and academic approach of this issue.

The Incluseum

On the blog ‘The Incluseum’ Porchia Moorem, a Critical Race Theorist, writes about inclusivity and diversity initiatives in the museum field. In her post ‘An (Afro)Futuristic Gaze at Race and Museums’, she highlights that inclusivity in museums is of great importance. She tries to ‘dismantle’ the system of the neo-colonial museum based on critical points of power in museum spaces. She sees her work as a continuation of her ancestors for civil rights, equity and representation. As far as she is concerned, the communities of colour remain disengaged with museum spaces. In other words, these communities are not well represented in museums. They cannot engage and thus remain excluded. Despite the spacemaking efforts of museums and its communities, the imbalance in representation remains.

Contact Zone

The way Moore refers to the power relations in museums, the imbalance in representation and the spacemaking efforts to deal with these issues remind me of the academic article ‘Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited’ by Robin Boast, published in ‘Museum Anthropology in 2011. In this article Boast elaborates on the concept of the contact zone. According to Boast, the contact zone has become a synonym for the inclusionist, collaborative programs museums are setting up to promote their postcolonial status. When being a contact zone, the museum functions as a space for collaboration and discussion between the museum and the source community. This should empower the communities of which the museum holds the heritage.

However, he is critical of the use of this concept because of its inherent asymmetry and the fact that the institution of the museum seems to be inherently (and persistently) neo-colonial. For example, it is the Western, ‘dominant’ culture that provides this zone and the objects often remain in their collections. He argues that the concept of the contact zone has become a justification for museums to maintain their colonial collections. This doesn’t entail he does not encourage this kind of collaborations, but more that the structure of museums needs to be revised.

New Spaces

In a way, the texts of Moore and Boast play with this idea that the museum is providing, or could provide, a space where the West and the Other could come closer together. When talking about this space, Moore doesn’t focus on collaboration between museums and the source communities and stakeholders, as Boast does, but really emphasizes the way the source communities are represented in the museum. This is, I think, another objective for the same space but relates to the same issue.

In defining the space of the museum, the approach of the two writers is different. Boast, writing an academic text, approaches this issue through the concept of the contact zone. The concept provides the framework to analyse the development of museums as intercultural collaborative space. Where this gives direction, it also forms a limitation. Moore focuses more on why inclusion matters in museum work and writes from her own objectives.

Both writers remain critical about the ‘content’ of the space. As a place where power relations manifest itself, one can ask: whose heritage is actually being represented in the museum? Who can relate to exhibition? Who will think there are stories left untold? Is the exhibition inclusive? Definitely in the case of the new exhibition in the Rijksmuseum this might questions worthwhile asking.

A New Direction?

Heading for a new direction with this exhibition, the Rijksmuseum has the change to review the way it represents the history of slavery. How many sides of history is it going to show? The exhibition could be a step forward in the way the Other is represented in the museum. More attention for the dark side of the slavery past is not only a recognition of this past, but will also lead to the fact that the descendants of slaves feel more empowered and can relate to the story being told.

It remains to be seen what the set-up of the exhibition will be, what themes will be discussed, wat objects will be displayed and how they will be described. Will it confront the Dutch with the black pages of their past? Will it invite the visitors to step into the contact zone and to engage in the discussion of inclusion? The museum of the future is going to have to deal with the issue of representation without a doubt. With this exhibition the Rijksmuseum might take a step in confronting not only the Dutch people, but also the museum as an institution with its deeply rooted, neo-colonial legacy.

Boast, R., ‘Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited’, Museum Anthropology, Vol.32, No.1 (2011), pp. 56-70.