A Mandatory Trip to an Incomplete Identity

Last week it was all over the news; VVD, CDA, D66 and the ChristenUnie want all children in the Netherlands to visit the Rijksmuseum at least once whilst in school. In their government formation talks the parties talked about making it mandatory for schools to arrange these trips to the museum. The compulsory visits are part of a broader culture package that operates under the working title ‘Without Community, no Individual’. The formative government claims that this is all part of creating a positive sense of national identity.

After reading the article The Whitechapel Picture Exhibitions and the Politics of Seeing by historian Seth Koven I realised museums have long been used as an institution to educate and shape the nation. Henrietta and Samuel Barnett, who viewed great art as property of the nation, created the Whitechapel Exhibitions in 1881 in an attempt to build a national culture based on consensual citizenship. It would help transcend class divisions and forge a unified nation.

The museum attracted a staggering number of visitors over the years, but also grappled with problems. What little evidences survives suggests that the East-London working-class, the target group of the museum, challenged the organizers’ claims of authority and could not always identify themselves with the chosen art objects that were supposed to represent their life style. The exhibition faced accusations of elitism and insensitivity to the cultural endeavours of their public, both problems that contemporary museums sill deal with according to Koven.

This brings me back to the Rijksmuseum. If a museum, that was only intended for a small group within society, like the Whitechapel Picture Exihibiton was, struggled with representation, how can one museum include the whole Dutch nation and teach us something about national identity? This was the first question that popped into my mind after reading the news.

When the Rijksmuseum reopened in 2013, former director Wim Pijbes put the emphasis on the success of Dutch history. This included the Dutch merchant spirit, the trade and the master painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. Pijbes motto was: The museum is ‘The Treasury of the Netherlands’. But by only showing one side of our nations history, Pijbes excluded at lot other narratives. I would like to point out two.

‘Conscience is formed by memory; and no society can live in peace with itself on the basis of a false or repressed past, any more than an individual can’ – Ollivier de Berranger (1997)

By focussing on just the highlights of Dutch history, the Rijksmuseum does not pay enough attention to the history of everyday life, therefore excluding the important contribution of women to society. By telling just the stories of the grand figures within history, the Rijksmuseum practices a similar approach to history as the teaching method of the Dutch Canon, which has been criticised for excluding women. But the most obvious part of history that is absent in the Rijksmuseum is what we in Holland call ‘de zwarte bladzijde’(which could be translated as ‘the black pages‘) and revers to our slavery history.

The museum manages many objects that refer to slavery history. There are dioramas of slave plantations made by Surinam-Dutch artist Gerrit Schouten, there are many etching and some paintings with images of slaves, and there are child slaves serving as servants in the background of portraits. All these objects have not yet found their way to a temporary or main exhibition within the museum. But luckily that’s about to change. It is important that it does since ‘many people today are seeking to learn about their cultural heritage, perhaps to gain a sense of belonging’, claims historian Klare Scarborough. By including the narrative of slavery the museum breaks with the tradition of showcasing a nationalist vision, and in addition show the ancestors of former slaves that they are part of Dutch history.

This exhibition is planned to open in 2020, so what do we do until then? Do we still send every Dutch child to a museum that tells us a fragmented version of our history? Will these trips learn these youngsters about national identity, or will it exclude some because they do not see themselves represented within this national museum? These are questions our gouvernement should think and debate about before they decide what creates and forms this so-called national identity. I for one think if we want to teach our children about national identity through visits to the Rijksmuseum, we must first make sure that this museum represents all aspects of Dutch history and includes every narrative.

Tjarda van der Spek