Capitalizing On a Violent Heritage

The politics of selling African art mostly collected during colonial era to private collectors.

The Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam. Image: Wiki Commons.

The proposed sale of the Africa Collection at The World Museum (Wereldmuseum) in Rotterdam, has sparked some interesting debates in Dutch media lately. Unfortunately some important questions and issues around this sale are not being discussed. Since the Dutch government is cutting the arts and the culture budget heavily, the museum has planned to sell the Africa collection to private collectors and to focus solely on Asia and Oceania in the future. Through the sale the museum hopes to generate a small sum of 60 million euro and be independent from government subsidies. The Netherlands seems to be the only country in the world that has capitalized heritage through proposing such a sale.

African museums, Dutch ethnology museums and the Dutch Cultural Council have been strongly opposed to the proposed sale. The Dutch newspaper NRC reported that director Stanley Bremner is tired of all the (international) critique: “The Netherlands is obviously not ready yet for this modern form of museum management.” Contradicting messages on the proposed sale reached the Dutch media. At first it seemed like the municipality would agree to the sale but only a few days later Rotterdam, which owns the collection, decided to postpone its final decision. The municipality will discuss how to handle the advise from the Dutch Cultural Council, who has advised that a Dutch core collection should be established. It is not clear if the Africa collection would fall under this new core collection but if it would, the collection would be protected.

Dutch ethnological museums such as the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and The National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden do not appreciate Mr. Bremner’s modern form of museum management because the collection would disappear in the hands of private collectors. Instead the museums find that the collection should be protected as Dutch cultural heritage. Other reasons why critics believe the collection should not be sold relate to history of the Dutch in Africa. Experts state that the objects bear witness to the history of the so-called ‘expansion of Dutch activities’ in Africa. Most of this ‘Dutch activity’ in Africa was concentrated in three regions: Ghana, South Africa and Congo. These ‘activities’ undertaken by the Dutch inform, alongside with some Christian converting practices, the meaning and history of the Africa collection. For instance, the relationship between Ghana and the Netherlands goes back for around 400 years: during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Dutch had captured Elmina from the Portuguese on the Gold Coast in Ghana, which became the Dutch headquarters for slave trade until the British seized it.

The World Museum’s collection consists of around 10,000 objects from, amongst others, West-Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Congo. They were given to the museum at the end of the nineteenth century. The museum started to collect its own art objects afterwards. The proposed sale of the Africa collection is to be understood within the historic context of ethnological European museums. This history is grounded in the practices and disciplines of colonial ethnology and anthropology. Colonial ethnology produced certain racial images around Africa that are still visible in the mainstream western imaginary of Africa today. The representation of Africa within the ethnological museum was highly influenced by these imaginaries and stereotypes of the ‘African’.

Due to an increasingly multicultural society in the Netherlands, ethnology museums were forced to change the way they represent ‘other’ cultures. The previous (historical) ‘other’ that has been on display in the museum space is now attracted to come visit the museum. This impelled ethnological museums to think about the concept of heritage. For instance, the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden has initiated a project that dealt with the changing role of the ethnological museum in a changing society. This project was relatively successful because it critically engaged with questions of ‘culture’, ‘ethnicity’ and representation in the museum space but there’s no way of denying that the National Museum of Ethnology still largely adheres to the practice of displaying neo-traditional aspects of material culture. The idea of heritage has always been existent before but the raison d’être for museums changed. The heritage discourse in the Netherlands is to a great extent governed by policies, rules and regulations. However, heritage is also strongly related to remembering, commemorating and forgetting sites and events in history, which can be viewed as cultural process. The Africa collection is not only cultural heritage because of its material aspects but also because of the history around the collection. The role of the Netherlands in the time of slavery and colonialism and the legacies thereof form and shape the importance of the Africa collection.

The Netherlands seems to suffer from collective historical amnesia with regard to its role during slavery and colonialism in Africa. Or perhaps we should call it aphasia for describing metaphorically the cultural “inability to recognize things in the world and assign proper names to them,” a concept that American historian Ann Laura Stoler has introduced with regard to colonial histories in Western societies. In the debates around the proposed sale the colonial history of the Dutch is hardly mentioned. Experts are interested in what the art objects could tell about the relations between the Dutch tradesmen and Africans but not in placing this within a colonial historic framework that would actually make a contribution to Dutch history.

This history, the intangible nature of the collection, is what African museums are concerned about. Dutch ethnological museums do not refer to this history but to the obligation to protect Dutch cultural heritage. Rudo Sithole, director of — yes — “AFRICOM,” the International Council of African Museums, has indicated that African museums must have a role in the sale especially because it is not clear which objects have been stolen or rightfully bought or donated. Last year, Mr. Bremner stated that African museums would never be able to buy the collection and that the climate in Africa would not be appropriate for African art objects. The World Museum has not consulted the African museums.

The Africa collection is seen and treated by the Wereldmuseum as a commodity that is detached from its historical context. In a country where Sinterklaas is seen as an important cultural event that deserves to be protected as cultural heritage (the problematic figure of Black Pete magically disappeared in the request put forward to UNESCO), where the research and commemoration of slavery in the Netherlands has experienced an ultimate low through the closing down of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (more about this in a future post), and in the light of the commemoration of 150 years of the Dutch slavery abolition this year, one would expect museums like the World Museum to start dealing with their historic legacies instead of selling them off.

  • Chandra Frank recently graduated from the Centre of African Studies at the University of Cape Town where she wrote her master’s dissertation on the proposed sale of the Africa collection at the Wereld Museum Rotterdam. She is currently based in Amsterdam and has a strong interest in heritage, identity and culture.

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