By Sungwoo (Scott) Cho
Museums are a way for us to learn about our past and monuments are a way for us to remember the fallen heroes and great leaders. There are many different types of museums and monuments around the world, but they all teach us something about history. While museums might seem like a place just to learn about history and the past, but that us, not all that museums are for. A museum is not just a collection of pictures or different artifacts that show us how the past people lived. Many museums have a different meaning, which the exhibits as a whole are trying to tell us something. Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich claims that the framework of a museum is structured by its “grammar”(Hansen-Glucklich, 89). What she means by “grammar” are the different techniques that can be used to make an exhibit for impactful. For example, the main piece of an art exhibit is the most important part of the exhibit, but the way it is arranged or the images surrounding it can change the insight of the people viewing it. Museums such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) give validity to Hansen-Glucklich claim. The USHMM uses imagery and other techniques to convey sadness and just how terrible the Holocaust was.
Museums in the Netherlands use similar techniques to convey different emotions and messages. Cities like Amsterdam is rich with history, and the museums and monuments help us learn about that history. The museum curators in Dutch museums convey that Dutch heritage is just and joyous and that people should be proud to be Dutch. Dutch Museum curators use “grammar” to make it seem like Dutch history is happy and moral. They also use “grammar” to convey the Dutch colonial period as a time where the Dutch spread their culture around the world. However, the Dutch colonial era was a terrible time for the colonies and thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives and cultures. The Dutch curators use “grammar” to sugarcoat the period of Dutch colonialism, so it doesn’t seem as terrible as it really is. For example, the Van Heutsz Monument now renamed to the Monument Dutch East India-Netherlands depicted Van Heutsz. He was the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in 1904, and he was known in the Netherlands as the “pacificator of the Aceh.” In reality, he was a brutal man that massacred entire villages of the native population (Middelkoop, Pesko).
I believe that Museums and Monuments in the Netherlands don’t perform their responsibilities correctly. Museums and monuments are supposed to be places where we can learn about the past whether it is good or bad. However, Dutch museums and monuments are trying to cover up the bad parts of their history such as Dutch colonialism. Museums such as the Koninklijk Instituut Voor de Tropen Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam did just that. In Leslie Witz and Ciraj Rassool’s article “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): 737-754. They talk about the Tropenmuseum and the temporary exhibit Familieverhalen uit Zuid-Afrika (South African Family Stories). Witz and Ciraj go over the temporary exhibit and how it is about nine South African families and how they live their lives (Witz, Rassool 739). However, Witz and Ciraj feel as though the exhibit is really there to further research, collection, and display of the sites where the exhibit is depicting. One thing that is interesting about the Tropenmuseum is the history behind it. It originally started out as a colonial museum that displayed artifacts and items found in the East Indies that the Dutch thought was exotic (Witz, Rassool, 739-740). The exhibits during this time depicted native communities and how they lived. The Dutch generally viewed the natives as less intelligent and as savages. This general opinion of the colonies and their depiction stayed in the Netherlands until they lost their colonies after World War II. The Tropenmuseum changed its name to what it is now and shifted its focus to be less Dutch orientated. Because all of the original Dutch colonies are now independent countries with their own history and culture albeit influenced by Dutch culture, the colonies wanted to a good relationship with the Netherlands and its museums so the public can learn about the Netherlands and its former colonies. Museums became a place to learn about the former colonies and their current relationship with the Netherlands, while the original artifacts and items from the colonial era are hidden from the public eye (Witz, Rassool, 741).
This emphasizes my point that Dutch museums and monuments are not doing their responsibility in keeping the history and teaching us about the past. While Dutch museums do depict history well and educate the public about former colonies. The fact that old exhibits that show Dutch colonialism at its peak and the “exotic” artifacts and items of the natives are hidden away is terrible. It makes it seem as the though the Netherlands is trying to forget about that particularly brutal part of its history. Although other European nations such as England and France also brutally participated in colonialism, the other European countries don’t seem to ignore that part of their history. The Netherlands seems to sweep that part of history under the rug so to speak. When the Dutch changed their thinking towards their former colonies, they concealed their part in colonialism and started to accept the diversity in the former colonies. Although the Netherlands says they want to keep good relations with its former colonies, the fact that they don’t show the artifacts that they collected during Dutch colonialism shows that the whole keeping good relations with the former colonies seems fake. Although a lot of the museums and monuments depicting Dutch colonialism are under criticism for not describing the horror that the Dutch committed on its former colonies, it still doesn’t fix the issue that the Dutch museums and monuments are not doing their responsibility to teach the public about what actually happened during Dutch colonialism.
Museums and monuments can be an excellent way to learn about the past and see it in a different way to how you learn it in school. The “grammar” of a museum can give the museum meaning and a message to tell its viewers. Museums such as the USHMM do exactly this and want the public to feel saddened by the horrors of the Holocaust and just how terrible it was. Also, like the USHMM, it is the responsibility of a museum to teach the public and not withhold the past because it ruins the image of a country. Museums like the Dutch Tropenmuseum doesn’t do its responsibility by hiding the history behind Dutch colonialism and makes it seem like Dutch heritage is happy and just. However, this just makes the Dutch seem they are trying to erase an important part of their history. However bad a part of a history might seem it is worse to hid that part of history and act like it never happened. People can make mistakes, and it is good to learn it. For example, the Holocaust was one of if not the worst event in history. Nevertheless, Germany doesn’t try to cover up what happened like the Dutch do with their colonial past. It is good to learn about all history even if it is good or bad and the Dutch should be proud to show that part of their history.
Hansen-Glucklich, Jennifer. “The Artful Eye: Learning to See and Perceive Otherwise inside Museum Exhibits.” Museums and the Challenges of Representation. Rutgers University Press. 2014.
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).