Colonialism and slavery: European museums confront their past

The museum acknowledges that it has been slow to adjust to its past. “The colonial past, and in particular the slave trade, is a subject of regular public debate,” says Wallica Smulders. “In schools and museums, however, these topics are not adequately considered.”

When the Rijksmuseum celebrated the end of ten years of renovation work in 2013, it was the initial signal for a significant revision of the formulations used on the catalogs and plaques. The old-fashioned or racist words have been removed from the titles of works of art and a special multimedia tour has been created that sheds new light on the colonial history of the Netherlands.

“The history of the Netherlands is also world history. The society we live in today is a legacy of this story,” says Wallika Smulders. The Dutch slave trade specialist was born on the island of Curaçao, a former Dutch colony in the Caribbean , which is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is essential that museum staff have different cultural backgrounds if you want to accurately present such a diverse story – and this only applies to exhibitions on the subject. Doesn’t happen.” We need fundamental, long-term change. This is the only way to ensure that the diverse knowledge we have is truly embedded and used in all fields,” she says.

Stolen Cultural Property – Complicity of Institutions

The idea is also finding its way into other institutions in Europe. In 2018, after a five-year renovation, the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, for the first time critically examined the brutal occupation of the Congo by King Leopold II – a U-turn for the museum, which is still under colonialism. portrayed rather positively. Today, the history of Belgian colonialism is ornate, as is the way in which the museum came into possession.

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The German museum association E.V. has issued guidelines that regulate the handling of plundered art or illegally acquired artifacts. They underscore the responsibility of museums to provide the communities from which the pieces come access to the art and culture of their ancestors. This includes the establishment of digital acquisition books that enable communities to find stolen cultural assets. In addition, the guidelines encourage a stronger exchange with countries of origin and ethnic groups. On the one hand, you want to know more about the individual pieces. On the other hand, it should help to agree on how to deal with items for which the origin is not explained or for which it is known that they entered the collection in a suspicious manner.

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