Slavery exhibit at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Yesterday, I went to the Slavery exhibit at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The exhibit is a historic event; the first large scale public acknowledgement of the role that the slavery played in Dutch colonial and domestic history. It’s open until 29 August and I encourage everyone who can to get yourself a ticket and go. You can read more about the exhibit in this article from the New York Times.

The exhibit is in the form of ten stories. They are the stories of seven slaves, one group of slaves, a woman who married two different slave owners, and a man who is considered an abolitionist. The stories are compelling as are the artifacts and particularly the documents that the museum has on display along side them. I was particularly impressed with the fact that there was a QR code to go with each document. It was easy to scan the code and access the text of the documents on my phone in a font I could read. It gave me a deeper understanding of the significance and brutality of the power of the written word in administration.

However, this morning, as I reflected on the exhibit, I felt disappointed. The exhibit presents slavery as a closed chapter in Dutch history. It starts by introducing slavery and ends with the abolition of slavery. It doesn’t address the legacy of slavery in Dutch culture or society. There was an opportunity to open a conversation on the institutional racism that slavery represented and the traces it left behind that the curators failed to seize.

The story format worked. I was interested in all of the stories and the artifacts and art and documentation that went along with each story were fascinating to look at and examine. And yet I felt like there were missed opportunities. The fact that one slave owner had images of his plantation but never visited his plantations is mentioned but the significance of this should have been named. The Dutch romanticized their property, land and human, in the colonies and failed to acknowledge the human price that was being paid every day for their Golden Age wealth.

The white peoples’ stories we did hear left room for doubt. Did the woman who married two slave owners have any idea what kind of human price was being paid to support her wealth? How about a different question? How could she have not known? What kind of willful ignorance would be required to not listen to or read news that must have been coming from the plantation one way or another?

Did the man who wrote the abolitionist play really want to abolish slavery? He bought slaves himself, but they were for his own cook and housekeeper, who, he wrote, couldn’t do their work without slaves because free Blacks ran away or didn’t work hard enough. These facts were introduced and held up to the light in the exhibit, which was good. But then why call him an abolitionist at all?

Finally, I found myself missing the story of the purposeful slave owner or slave trader. By that I mean, not the noble, proud man on a horse paintings stories we’ve been hearing for centuries, but what about the stories of the choices these men made, the orders they gave, the interactions they must have had that created and maintained a system of oppression that endures to this day? While slaves have disappeared from the record, these men kept meticulous records. I feel like the other half of the story of suffering is the story of the relentlessness with which white men and their cronies caused this suffering and that we should examine those stories carefully as well.

All of this is not to say that the exhibit was poor. On the contrary. I was thoroughly impressed with the exhibit and the stories I heard will stay with me. The stories covered the globe from Ghana to Brazil to Suriname to India. The Dutch were quite the travelers even then, let’s not forget. But I left wanting more, wanting more brought to light, wanting more conversations coming out of this exhibit.

Let’s hope that this is the beginning and that the Rijksmuseum will follow up this exhibit with more so we can continue to learn. Through learning we can begin to acknowledge what still requires our attention and how to do better in the future.

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