The Rijksmuseum recently opened its groundbreaking exhibition on the history of slavery in the Netherlands, “Slavery.” [Also see previous post Rijksmuseum opens its first-ever exhibition on slavery.] During the past few years, Suriname-born director Ida Does have been working with the Rijksmuseum, filming behind the scenes in Amsterdam, St. Eustatius, and Suriname, to observe how the preparations by the curators of the museum took shape. It resulted in her latest film New Light, the Rijksmuseum and Slavery.
SYNOPSIS: What happens when the leading national museum focuses its gaze on the slavery history of the Netherlands? This is the subject of New Light, a highly topical documentary about the genesis of the slavery exhibition in the Rijksmuseum. ‘The Rijksmuseum has to reinvent itself,’ says Valika Smeulders, head of history at the museum. New Light shows up close and personal how painful and bitter, but at the same time healing and liberating such a process can be. Especially due to the contributions of people with roots both in the East and in the West.
Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, makes no bones about it: whether or not we have any slavery-related objects in our collection can never be an excuse not to put up an exhibition about it. A specially compiled new team of two white and two black curators delves into the archives and inspects some objects for the first time, and others in a completely ‘new light’. For example, the curators realise for the first time what the metal collars mean, which were described in the depot as ‘dog collars’, but are anything but. The museum is also gifted a foot stocks, that has been kept all these centuries. It turns out to be a horrific object, that was used to shackle enslaved people in former Dutch-Brazil side by side.
The curators also see other objects in a new light, which in some cases they had looked at hundreds of times before. For example, the black boy with a red cape among thirty white militia members in a 7.5 metres wide militia company painting by Dutch master Bartholomeus van der Helst from 1640, which was painted in the early days of Dutch human trafficking operations. Why had she never seen that boy before, senior curator Eveline Sint Nicolaas wonders. ‘How is it possible that you can walk past a painting time and again and completely miss some aspect of it?’ While compiling the exhibition she, too, became far more aware of her own skin colour, Eurocentric way of seeing and visual baggage. ‘In this exhibition, everything is different.’ Director Ida Does ultimately gave the boy in question a liberating part in the documentary. He is no longer someone’s property, but gets the role that he might have had in a world without slavery.
Meanwhile, New Light also highlights the cultural background of a number of objects that have become part of the exhibition. We travel to Surinam and Sint-Eustatius, formerly the location of many Dutch plantations. Why is there so little trace of these in the Rijksmuseum? Raimie Richardson, an Amsterdammer who descends from enslaved people in Sint-Eustatius, explains why the ‘slave beads’ that he inherited should also be part of the exhibition. These beads used to serve as currency among the enslaved, but oral traditions tell of how they were tossed into the sea in sheer jubilation when the Emancipation Act was enshrined in law on 1 July 1863. Even now, they are still being washed ashore. This produces fascinating scenes that threw new light on a shared history, not just for the Rijksmuseum curators, but for every viewer.
Shifting from documentary to poetic images, director Ida Does imbues the past with a very special emotional range. She tells of Mama Pansa, a marron in Surinam who fled the plantation in search of freedom, weaving grains of rice in her hair in order to be able to grow crops in her new life. The director gives this story a contemporary, almost magical twist that makes it palpable how the history of slavery still reverberates in our present-day society. And that the way we look upon that history is finally beginning to change. Together with the descendants of Surinamese marrons the curators of the Rijksmuseum try to work out how to display the 18th century silk postcard that depicts fleeing women and children.
It is emblematic of the ‘second story’ that can be told with so much of the art in the Rijksmuseum. ‘The white position is not the neutral position,’ curator Maria Holtrop states. But even in the ranks of the Rijksmuseum it proved to be difficult for some to free themselves from the white position. New Light shows personal epiphanies and internal discussions about the exhibition: even the most seasoned curators have to admit that their historical perspective has been very one-sided. In New Light we can see what it means when a museum reinvents itself. And when its perspective finally tilts – literally and figuratively.
For more on “The Slavery” exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, see https://news.artnet.com/art-world/rijksmuseum-slavery-exhibition-1970425, https://nltimes.nl/2021/05/18/rijksmuseum-opens-its-first-ever-exhibition-slavery and https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/18/rijksmuseum-slavery-exhibition-confronts-cruelty-of-dutch-trade