Prejudice and Preconceptions: Effects of a Suppressed Dutch Colonial History

By: Jackie Gase

Last week we discussed Dutch identity and how the landscape of the Netherlands is self-reflective. The readings this week complicate this notion of Dutch identity that is based on a past Dutch history. I focused on how the past economy and environment of the Netherlands is incorporated in the current landscape, and how this landscape is evidence of a Dutch identity based on their past and present culture. However, as this week’s readings show, there is another aspect to Dutch identity that was developed by colonial enterprises and World War II. Looking at public monuments and museum exhibitions focused on a Dutch history, we can see how the Dutch seem afraid of parts of their past, refusing to acknowledge and accept their imperfect history of colonial control and semi-involvement in the victimization of Jews. The Dutch put on a front, always representing themselves in a positive light, not denying but ignoring the bad parts of their history. Because of this national perspective, local populations follow this response to Dutch national history and memory. Analyzing the Familieverhalen uit Zuid- Afrika exhibition at the Tropenmuseum, and looking at the public perception of the Van Heutsz Monument and the Coentunnel, it is evident that the Dutch do not know how to interact with their unpleasant past. Because of this they end up with involuntary prejudices and essentialism in exhibits, and apathy toward public monuments.

To be clear, I do not think that there is a purposeful ignorance by the Dutch toward their national history. But because of the lack of knowledge about this past, the Dutch do not have a strong connection to these parts of their history, and thus do not know how to respond to them. The Netherlands has evolved with Dutch pride and to focus on the better aspects of their culture and history. This stance has infiltrated all aspects of current Dutch culture and it is hard to turn around and do something different that past society has suppressed. So, when the Dutch do try to connect with this past involuntary biases and preconceptions may shine through. This is evident in the Familieverhalen uit Zuid-Afrika exhibit at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.

Leslie Witz and Ciraj Rassool in their article, Family Stories or a Group Portrait? South Africa on Display at the KIT Tropenmuseum, 2002-2003: The Making of an Exhibition, examined the Familieverhalen exhibit arguing that despite the museum’s objectives to present South African social histories opposite to an ethnographic “western” display, they inadvertently relied on some of the non-native prejudices and biases that they were trying to reject (737). First, Witz and Rassool describe a short history of conventional ethnographic research and display for the Tropenmuseum.

A lot of western museums gained their non-western material in the colonial period by researching and collecting items that seemed primitive and exotic to their culture. The Tropenmuseum was one of them. The Tropenmuseum was initially known as the Colonial Museum showcasing a collection of products from sites in the East Indies which were controlled by the Dutch (Witz & Rassool 740). These exhibitions displayed the native objects of local communities in the East Indies as objects of the “other,” places and people distinctly different from the intellectual and advanced western society. Furthermore, these displays emphasized the power of colonial control and Dutch settlement, these objects could be likened to trophies celebrating Dutch authority and expansion.

When the Dutch started to lose control of its colonial assets after World War II, the museum changed its name to no longer reflect current colonial research, but broadening its focus on places that were distinctly different from the Netherlands (Witz & Rassool 741). While exhibiting, collecting, and researching places not a part of their colonial history, the Dutch still examined and displayed these objects in a colonial mindset, with the outlook that these countries are exotic and “other.”

By the 1970s, as countries previously under colonial rule became independent nations, former colonial nations wanted to develop relationships with their ex-colonies as equal entities with “their own histories and cultures,” no longer a part of a colonial history (Witz & Rassool 741). Personally, this establishment of co-operative relationships seems phony. It is like the country wanted to sooth any hard feelings these places may have toward their previous oppressors, like no hard feelings that I exploited your culture and thought of you as distinctly inferior, now we are equals, let bygones be bygones. Regardless, these good relationships were further emphasized by the change of the museum format. The museums became places to learn about the tropics and the Netherlands’ relations with them (Witz & Rassool 741). It was no longer an ethnological examination of the “other” through a colonial lens. All colonial collections were placed in storage and the history of the Dutch colonial period was hidden from public knowledge. The new exhibitions focused on international cooperation and cultural diversity (Witz & Rassool 741).

In this history, we see that when the Dutch changed their thinking toward their colonial enterprises, they hid any knowledge of their colonial past in order to develop a new identity based on diversity and acceptance. However, the ignorance of the past makes it harder to promote a new identity since you have prior preconceptions and prejudices that you haven’t come to terms with. These prejudices and preconceptions will inevitably come out in display and design of exhibitions. As was with the case with the Familieverhalen exhibition.

The 2002-2003 exhibition collaborated with South African families, artists, and designers to produce a display that represented familial stories of contemporary South African society to demonstrate the complexity and flexibility of identity. The Tropenmuseum did not want to link this exhibit with a past colonial context of ethnographic display, but rather to look at individuals and not essentialize a group of people into ethnic categories (Witz & Rassool 738). In their determination to challenge ethnic and racial classificatory systems of representation prescribed in the colonial period, the museum emphasized the collaborative relationship with South Africans stating that “the scene is South Africa, the stories are South African, the families are South African … it is a completely South African story. The initiative is Dutch, the rest is a South African story” (Witz & Rassool 745). However, as Witz and Rassool mention it is much more about the Netherlands when we look at decision making, conceptualism, and construction of the exhibition in Amsterdam (745).

These processes are the most crucial aspects of producing an exhibition. The Dutch decided how things would be presented, how they would look, and what they would focus on, and the South Africans were just the subject and employees. The authority of the exhibition laid with the Dutch. An example of this is the story of one of the South African photographers involved in the exhibition who came to Amsterdam to visit the show. When he saw that his photographs were displayed small and fragmented, he was disappointed since he thought the exhibition would be focused on the photographs of the families. The photographs seemingly disappeared among all the other items the Dutch curatorial team decided to display (Witz & Rassool 753).

In this sense, the exhibition reflects a colonial approach to “collaboration.” The Tropenmuseum team conceptualized and designed the exhibit and used the work of South Africans to do so, not asking for commentary on how the South Africans wanted their display to look. This corresponds to how the Dutch colonized areas and took their work to display on their own terms, exploiting the artists. Furthermore, since the authority of the exhibit was with the Tropenmuseum it established a hierarchy between the Dutch and the South Africans in the same way that there was an inferior and superior classification in the colonial period, the colonized the inferior, the colonizers the superior. Finally, in the curatorial process of determining the concept for the exhibit, the Tropenmuseum fell back onto a essentializing classificatory system when choosing which families would be in the display. Wanting to show that the communities are composed of different individuals with complex life histories they searched for families in specific ethnic categories like Indian, Moroccan, European, essentializing entire groups of people (Witz & Rassool 750). In the end, the Familieverhalen exhibition involuntarily made use of colonial conceptions of non-western societies because of their lack of knowledge of Dutch colonial history.

So, how can Dutch museums present exhibitions like this one without displaying an involuntary bias? Specifically, the Tropenmuseum exhibition should have relied more on the South Africans in the conceptualization and display of the exhibit. They should have asked them to think of which families would be good representations of the South African landscape. Also, the exhibit might have benefited from being displayed at a local South African museum before coming to the Netherlands. This would have provided good feedback from the South African community on the tactics of display and meaning that they got out of the exhibition. This truly would have made the exhibition a South African exhibition with a Dutch initiative; a true collaboration.

Furthermore, I think museums and Dutch society need to confront the past in order to prevent mistakes in the future that reference a past attitude. Instead of hiding the colonial collections, bring them out on display and present them to the Dutch public to educate them on their history of racism and prejudice during the colonial period. Do not showcase them in a positive light, that the Dutch expansion into these places helped the local societies and brought diverse knowledge to the Netherlands. Focus on the not so great aspects of colonialism; the exploitation of local cultures, the “othering” of societies that create racism and prejudice, and note that the current Dutch response to its colonial history is indifference when it should be inquiry. If you do not understand what happened in the past and realize the controversial aspects of it, then you will never be able to create an exhibition without those underlying biases.

Louis Middelkoop and Matthew Pesko similarly argue that it is necessary to provide a full education on Dutch history, highlighting the good and bad aspects of their history. This early education in schools would allow children to grow up with a Dutch identity that is aware of their country’s controversial past, and likely not have the same underlying prejudice the current population who hides from the country’s history has. Much like the analysis of Witz and Rassool, Middelkoop and Pesko analyze public monuments in Amsterdam that are commemorating leaders of the Dutch colonial period that have a scandalous past.

The Van Heutsz Monument was a national monument to a Governor-General of the Dutch East indies in 1904. Van Heutsz was prominent in his day for ending the Aceh War in Indonesia. This war was an armed conflict between the Netherlands and the Muslim Sultan Aceh when the Dutch wanted to seize the region Aceh ruled over for Dutch expansion (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Van Heutsz was the leader who accomplished the subjugation of Aceh, massacring entire villages of the native population, and allowed for Dutch control over the land. His monument reflects this conquest with a statue of himself among a long brick wall with Indonesian style sculptures.

When the monument was built in 1935, there was already controversy surrounding it because many thought the monument was erected out of a political battle of left and right-wing politics (Middelkoop & Pesko). Though, there was no disdain because of the colonial massacring that was being commemorated, it was about the politics and who had the right to erect a monument. Perhaps, this is why the current population criticized the monument so heavily, because it was an attitude from their past. The city eventually replaced the monument in 2007 with a statue of a women and a memorial basin. However, it is noted that the monument still doesn’t explain the history of Van Heutsz and the colonial conquest transparently. The plaque apparently reads that there was a bond between the two nations, noting a friendly alliance during Dutch control (Middelkoop & Pesko). The monument stands as a tribute to the might and cooperation of Dutch colonialism rather than as a memorial to the lives massacred by a colonial Dutch world.

A second monument Middelkoop and Pesko analyze is the Coentunnel. Much like Van Heutsz, Coesn was a leader in the colonizing Dutch East India Company. He similarly killed local populations when he found value to their land and commodities. The Coentunnel, which was named after Coen, connects a highway between the west sides of North and South Amsterdam under a waterway. While the Van Heutsz was semi-replaced and renamed to the Monument Dutch East India-Netherlands, the Coentunnel has little controversy over its commemoration over an equally notorious colonial leader. In interviews, the public had little to no opinion on the Coentunnel and its name stating that the name was symbolic. The city administration itself stated that it would confuse people to change the same, and that changing the name meant they had to change the name of other places named after Coen, Coenhaven and Coenplein (Middelkoop & Pesko). This logic is flawed on the account that those places should be changed as well. In the end, the Van Heutsz Monument was changed, but the Coentunnel was not and there are no plans for it to be.

Mrs. Remine Alberts, an interviewee by Middelkoop and Pesko, stated that there is a reason one monument was changed and the other was not, and it comes down to knowledge of Dutch colonial history. Much of the Dutch public did not know about the history of Coen and his escapades on colonized populations. And to a certain point they did not care because they did not see the point of changing a symbolic name (Middelkoop & Pesko). While the name may be symbolic, it is important to note its existence in Dutch society. This apathy towards a history that they cannot be proud of is detrimental to producing a society aware of racism and prejudices. I think the end quote Middelkoop and Pesko present by Dutch Parliament member, John Leerdam, says it all: “One who doesn’t know the past, won’t be able to understand the present. Somebody who doesn’t know about Dutch history on colonialism and migrant issues is not able to understand the rapid changes we see in the major cities in terms of ethnic background.” To conclude, the Dutch need to do a better job of interacting with their controversial past in order to secure a future that is aware of prejudice and racial preconceptions.


Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Acehnese War.” Encyclopædia Britannica.

“Familieverhalen uit Zuid-Afrika, een groepsportret.” Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. 2002. (featured images)

Middelkoop, Louis and Matthew Pesko. “Symbolic Objects of Dutch Colonial History in Amsterdam: Monuments, Streets and Other Structures.” Humanity in Action, 2008.

Witz, Leslie and Ciraj Rassool. “Family Stories or a Group Portrait? South Africa on Display at the KIT Tropenmuseum, 2002-2003: The Making of an Exhibition.” Southern African Studies 32.4 (2006).



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