My research primarily focuses on the spatial and architectural legacy of early 20th-century colonialism in postcolonial cities, such as Casablanca, Morocco and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However, this inquiry has provoked an interest in the remnants of colonialism in former “metropoles,” such as Amsterdam.
The most troubling encounter with these vestiges occurred during my visit to the material archive of Dutch colonialism, located in Amsterdam. Such European collections, established and furnished with late 19th– and early 20th-century imperial and colonial plunder, have sought to recalibrate their purposes in the post-colonial era to serve as opportunities for guests to reflect on the racialized violence and hubris that underpinned the projects that occasioned their founding. The recently renovated Royal Museum of Central Africa (outside Brussels) along with the Tropen Museum (Tropical Museum) in Amsterdam are examples of repositories that have reshaped their purposes in this way.
This essay reflects on my experience with a small sample of the material traces of colonialism displayed in the Tropical Museum in Amsterdam. I argue that despite the best intentions of present-day curators to confront the racialized violence and delusions that underpinned colonialism, selected objects in the permanent collection at the Museum nonetheless reinforce the Eurocentric gaze. I first sketch the history of the museum, then offer comments on a small sample of its vast permanent collection. I conclude with a reflection on the broader implications of these colonial remnants and the museum.
What is “Tropical” about the Tropical Museum?
Tropen or “tropical,” as in “tropical architecture,” relates to the notion of “tropicality,” a reductive discourse of representations that suggests Said’s notion of Orientalism (Arnold, 1996; King, 1995; Clayton and Bowd, 2006). Tropicality, like Orientalism, draws racialized distinctions between Europeans and Non-Europeans. It was developed and saw its fullest expression during the colonial project of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Arnold has described the notion of the “tropical” as a “way of defining something environmentally and culturally distinct from Europe,” much in the way that Said examined Orientalism as a discourse aimed at drawing imagined distinctions between the “orient” and “occident” to rationalize “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Arnold, 1998, p. 2; Said, 1978, p. 3).
The Tropical Institute and Museum was first established as the Colonial Institute and Colonial Museum in Amsterdam in 1926. The Colonial Museum was occupied by the Nazis between 1940 and 1945, then was converted to the Royal Tropical Institute and Tropical Museum in 1950 (Lohmann, 2016). The nation’s government officials saw a need to shift the focus of the museum amidst changing global dynamics—the Dutch acknowledged Indonesian independence in 1949 (four years after it was declared)—and thereafter “the museum expanded its mandate to include all “tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world” (Ibid., p.17). Today, the institution, located in East Amsterdam, serves as a public “ethnographic” museum with a permanent collection of approximately 175,000 objects and rotating exhibits.
The Tropical Museum has positioned itself as a “Museum of World Cultures” that displays exhibits with “objects that all have a story to tell about humankind. Stories about universal human themes like mourning, celebration, ornamentation, prayer, conflict” (‘History of Tropen Museum’; ‘About Tropen Museum’). The overriding message the museum conveys concerning its orientation is that, “despite cultural differences, we are all essentially the same (About).”
Yet this “ethnographic” “Museum of World Cultures” glosses over, or worse, silences the violence, racism and injustice that produced its collection and the “founding violence” of the museum itself (Trouillot, 1997; Edkins, 2003, p. 53). As such, this space provides an ideal site to reflect on the legacy of colonialism.
Coping with the Legacy of the Colonial Project
I found the traces of the imperial and colonial projects contained in the museum disturbing. The colonial project was founded on delusional notions of a “civilizing mission” as justification for exploiting territories for settlement and/or resource extraction (Wright, 1991; Young, 2001). Those colonizer objectives, premised on a racialized order backed by violence, prompted me to consider the ways these appear in the museum. As Mitchell has observed: “The Oriental was a creation of that [colonial] order, and was needed for such order to exist. Both economically and in a larger colonial order that depended upon at once creating and excluding its own opposite” (1988, p.164).
Vitalis has argued that a common tactic for reproducing this order through knowledge occurs in the notion of “recoding.” He has highlighted how the Journal of Race Development was recoded as the Journal of International Affairs and became the preeminent international relations journal, Foreign Affairs, in 1922. Vitalis explained scholars recoded “race development” or “enlightened imperialism” as “economic,” “political” or just “development,” and in some cases, as “nation-building” (2015, pp.133,173,178). Anievas, Manchanda and Shilliam sharpened the implications by arguing that “new terms and vocabulary often remain embedded within the same racialised logics that they claim to displace or, at the very least, dispense with” in the field of international relations” (2014, p.10).
Recoding terms drawn from past historical narratives represents a significant problem for coping with the legacy of the colonial project. Muppidi has suggested these altered vocabularies run the risk of reconceiving of colonialism—and colonial violence—as a potentially “desirable model of governance for our times” (2012, p.8). Efforts to re-envision or “recode” the purpose of the exhibits and displays of the Tropical Museum raise the question of whether the institution can ever escape its founding legacy.
Inside and Beyond the Colonial Archive
In my view, there are things so searing that they cannot be unseen by those who visit the Tropical Museum. For example, the institution displays the deranged accoutrements of the racialized pseudo-science that nourished the colonial and imperial projects of the 19th and early 20th centuries. My immediate reaction when viewing these objects was to turn away in revulsion. It is, in fact, disorienting to encounter the twisted racism that underpins many of the items, which represent, in effect, the material traces of unrestrained violence, plunder, exploitation and genocide in the Indies, Indonesia and elsewhere.
These objects range from the outright perverse to the celebratory and the mind-boggling. For example, the Tropical Museum offers an exhibit addressing the significance of photography to the Dutch colonial project, which recreates the scene of a sweaty colonial photographer capturing an image of subjects on a boat. This display overlaps with a room dedicated to life-sized mannequins of Dutch colonial figures, such as Jacob Theodoor Cremer, who was the “Joint initiator of coolie regulation” (1880), a “Tobacco planter in Deli (Sumatra)” and a “Joint founder of the Colonial Institute Amsterdam” (1910). The racial slur in the name of the organization along with Mr. Cremer’s role in establishing the Colonial Institute prompts the question of whether this is someone worth showcasing in a museum. Does the display glorify his legacy or are we confronting this unseemly past through the exhibit?
Other notable objects suggest the extent to which colonialism was normalized for families in the metropole. There are puzzles for children that allow them literally and figuratively to piece together stolen islands, such as Curacao. Similarly, there is a ceremonial teapot to commemorate 300 years of Dutch colonial rule of Curacao, a country in the Caribbean near Venezuela that was a part of the Netherland Antilles until 2010.
This said, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that the museum has taken steps to expand the reach of the conversations its exhibits provoke. In October 2017, for example, the Tropen added an “Afterlives of Slavery” exhibit to its permanent collection. That display confronts visitors with “today’s legacies of slavery and colonialism in the Netherlands” (“Afterlives of Slavery” page). However, the three rooms of the exhibit are overshadowed by the organization of the remainder of the permanent collection largely according to former colonial territories (New Guinea, Indonesia, Southeast Asia) that, together, are three times the size of the new permanent exhibit.
The massive and imposing structure of the museum overwhelms its visitors. The magnificent Great Hall is a remarkable space that encourages one to linger and enjoy the space. Yet any ease is interrupted by second-floor signs for “Indonesia” and “New Guinea” that remind visitors of the founding violence upon which the institution was established. The reductive depictions throughout the museum and the structure itself encourages one to confront the fragments of colonialism that have adapted with time.
The Tropical Museum brings the visitor into contact with the racism, pseudo-science, unapologetic exploitation and hubris of the imperial and colonial project. Visitors confront the extent to which colonial violence seeped into the everyday life of those living in the metropole. The children’s puzzles, accoutrements and commemorative teapot made me uncomfortable, because they point to the ugly beliefs and rationalizations underpinning everyday colonial life. That is, the objects themselves prompt consideration of the ideas that produced them and of the broader portent of colonialism for the present and the future for all of those nations and peoples it affected.
Vitalis concluded his indictment of the racist origins of international relations in White World Order, Black Power Politics with a question, “what other unselfconscious factors of the day distort scholars’ understandings, given that so many in the American academy were hypnotized so long by the seeming truths of racism (2015, p. 181)?” My experience at the Tropical Museum extends this question to the traces of violence that seep into our everyday lives in the present: What traces will the injustices of racialized, exploitative, structural and actual violence of the current moment leave? How will those who inherit the buildings, museums, institutions, ideas and cities we have produced look back on our participation in those systems?
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Tropen Museum. “About” Page. Available at: https://www.tropenmuseum.nl/en/about-tropenmuseum Accessed November 20, 2018.
Tropen Museum. “History of Museum” Page. Available at: https://www.tropenmuseum.nl/en/themes/history-tropenmuseum
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Rob Flahive is a third-year PhD student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) and Instructor in the Department of History. His research explores the spatial and architectural preservation of early 20th century colonial urbanism in cities in the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa. He is interested in the intersections of urbanism, architectural theory, history, historic preservation, and international politics. He holds an MA from American University of Beirut and a BA from Washington University in St. Louis.