Interview with Malika Smeulders

A post by Peter Jordens.

As reported previously, Curaçao-born Valika Smeulders became Head of History at the Rijksmuseum, the National Museum of the Netherlands in Amsterdam, on July 1, 2020. Her alma mater, the University of Leiden, recently interviewed her. Here is a segment of the interview, in which she talks about her new job.

Right at a time when the fate of statues of certain historical figures has become uncertain, Valika Smeulders has become Head of History at the Rijksmuseum. What changes would she like to introduce [at the Rijksmuseum]? […]

Throughout your career you have been committed to a more inclusive approach toward heritage. Where does that drive come from?

It is partly because of my family history. Earlier generations of my family came from all over the world ―Europe, Africa and Asia― to settle in the Americas and the Caribbean region. You can recognize all those different influences in the family pictures in our home. I was born in Curaçao; my parents were born in Suriname. My forebears were migrants; some were plantation managers while others were enslaved persons or indentured laborers. This family history meant that I was already inclined to think across boundaries. In addition, my parents raised us as world citizens; they read to us from books about travelling and the connections between different regions. This also became my personal experience: because of my father’s education and work, I went to elementary school in three different countries: the Netherlands, Suriname and Curaçao. And later I myself chose to study in Leiden.

Had you ever imagined becoming Head of History at the Rijksmuseum?

No, I never had a clear idea of what I wanted to become. But I have always been interested in how societies evolve and have always believed that we are all in it together. This job is an amazing opportunity in that regard.

What changes do you want to introduce?

The Rijksmuseum already decided a few years ago that it wanted to be a museum of all Dutch people, recounting the stories of all of them. I want to break down the museum walls even more and include voices from outside by, for example, using thinktanks with people who do not often go to a museum. In February 2021, a major exhibition about slavery will commence, and we want people to know that it is not an exhibition just for the usual museum visitors who tend to be white, older and higher educated. We really want to reach and involve a wider group of people, including descendants of enslaved persons.

This is a turbulent year, with the Black Lives Matter protests. How does that affect your work?

The protests have made it clear that museums really must make changes. We had been working on that for some time, but we must move even faster to present a more inclusive narrative. Beside the [abovementioned] slavery exhibition, we are preparing an exhibition about the history shared by the Netherlands and Indonesia. At the same time, we are developing other angles, like those of religion, gender, and life outside the urban centers. I am really looking forward to integrating all these themes in our permanent exhibitions. Our challenge is: How are we going to tell the story of the Netherlands in a multivocal way? The different stories should not remain separate, but should come together in symphony.

With so many historical topics being so explosive right now, is your job as Head of History more difficult?

Yes, History is certainly a different subject compared to when I was a student; things were a lot calmer then. Now just about everyone has an opinion and this requires us to remain in contact with the outside world. As a museum, we must be sensitive to what is going on in society, while contributing to societal debate based on scientific research. […]

For the complete, original interview in Dutch, go to https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/nieuws/2020/09/hoe-vertellen-we-het-verhaal-van-nederland-meerstemmig. The University of Leiden’s website also provides an English translation of the full interview at https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/news/2020/09/how-should-be-tell-the-story-of-multivocal-the-netherlands, from which a segment has been selected and edited for language by Peter Jordens for Repeating Islands.

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