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A rough guide to Dutch Museums and diversity

Three years ago, when writing up my PhD at University College London, I met Sara Wajid, the founder of Museum Detox. And I took a quick-and-dirty DETOX course myself.

At the I time had worked in London museums for about 5 years. I had managed learning and funding projects that I believed made a real difference to welcoming a broad range of visitors to the museums I worked for.

Embarrassingly, it was not until I met Sara that I realised ‘welcoming’ a range of visitors is not enough. Diversity is something museums itself should embrace and practice. Museums have to show their understanding outwardly, openly and internally. Its management teams need to lead by example and accept that museums lack behind if they do invite people with a BAME-background into their galleries, but not into their board and management rooms.

The blurb to this event read that I was going to ‘spit some lyrics and tell truths on diversity in Dutch Museums’. I won’t get too lyrical this evening, but I’d like to present two cases that tell truths indeed about diversity and the Dutch museum scene.

The first case discusses the tradition of Saint Nicholas and Black Pete as represented in Dutch museums; the second case discusses the South Africa exhibition at the Rijksmuseum – the national gallery in Amsterdam.

I find the Dutch tradition of Black Pete unpleasant to talk about: it is a sensitive issue in the Netherlands and more than puzzling – if not downright offensive – to outsiders.


The painting above by Jan Steen shows the tradition of Saint Nicholas as celebrated in the seventeenth century. Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, brought presents and sweets to this family (gingerbread made with spices from the colonies: Indonesia, Surinam, the Dutch Antilles). Saint Nicholas himself is not depicted here.


The next image is from a nineteenth-century children’s book. The tradition is now celebrated on a grander scale: Saint Nicholas arrives in the city of Amsterdam. He sits up high on his horse, smiling and handing out sweets to children. Next to him is his ‘helper’: Black Pete. Pete sits on a mule, bent forward and does not look friendly at all: he is a stereotype of a black enslaved servant, subservient and angry. The children run away from him in fright.

This seemingly out-dated image sadly has not changed much to date. In the Netherlands popular voices have repeatedly described Saint Nicholas festivities with Black Pete as ‘an innocent children’s tradition’, an element of Dutch culture that cannot change. The annual black-facing of white people, clownishly acting as helpers of Saint Nicholas, is not racism, they argue, it is an inherent aspect of Dutch culture.

Counter voices still protest against black stereotyping and racism, explaining how hurtful the tradition is to a wide segment of the Netherlands’ multicultural society. Public protests by artist Quinsy Gario in 2011, citizens’ petitions and an outspoken condemnation of the Black Pete-tradition by both the U.N. (2013) and the Dutch Children’s Ombudsman (2016), finally led to more colourful Petes (with purple and pink face paint) on a popular children’s TV-programme in 2016.

The way Dutch museums have dealt with presenting Black Pete over the last decade shows what a complex, sensitive topic diversity was and remains to be in the sector.

The Van Abbe Museum of Modern Art in Eindhoven, in the province Brabant, already protested against the Pete-tradition as early as 2008. For their exhibition Be(com)ing Dutch they invited two German modern artists, Krauss and Bauer, who commented on the racist tradition in the museum’s galleries.

The Van Abbe Museum, however, had to cancel planned artist performances in the city centre as it received several dead threats from Extreme Right parties. The Museum was open about their anger and frustrations facing the threats and public outrage, having to cancel their programme.

The Van Abbe is not a major museum in a big city in the Netherlands. I believe that, exactly because of its location in the periphery, it can do things somewhat differently and be more outspoken.

Six years later, in 2014, the Rijksmuseum organised a small exhibition, The birth of Black Pete, in its print room, based on eight 19th-century prints.

The look and feel of this exhibition was different from the Be(com)ing Dutch exhibit in Eindhoven. Where the Van Abbe made clear their gallery was a political space where one could stage protests, the Rijksmuseum explained the Pete-tradition historically and statically, referencing old illustrations from nineteenth-century books written by male, white authors. There were no counter-voices (from the past, nor the present) and there was no explicit disapproval of the tradition in the 21st century, neither was the exhibit contextualised within the contemporary protests from Dutch artists and citizens against Black Pete. This small exhibition in a major national gallery aims to show – its folder said – that Black Pete’s image has changed over years.

To me it shows, however, that at a national level, museums do not dare to or feel inapt to be outspoken about the role they can and want to play when it comes to telling a story of racial diversity and representing the Dutch multicultural society they work for.

Recently the Rijksmuseum has been in the picture with its long-awaited South Africa exhibition: Goede Hoop. Their 2017 exhibit was a display about the historical, colonial, post-colonial and post-apartheid ties between South Africa and the Netherlands. In the Dutch museum world it was regarded as a practice round for the Rijksmuseum’s planned exhibition on slavery history in 2020: how would the national gallery deal with the Netherlands’ history of systematic violence, slavery and racial hierarchy?

Reviews in national newspapers were overall positive: they were mostly descriptive, explaining the lay-out of the exhibitions.

Critical voices, however, came from within the sector: two lecturers from the Amsterdam curatorial school Reinwardt praised the Rijksmuseum for its daring project, but argued its main focus on colonial history ignored present-day South Africa and how Dutch colonial history links to current mechanisms of racism abroad and within the Netherlands.

The museum further received a critical public letter from several museum professionals. One of their many points made was: the audioguide’s voice-over was Adriaan van Dis who was called ‘an Africa expert’. He is a Dutch ‘white’ writer who had lived in South Africa.

(I place ‘white’ in between quotation marks, because Van Dis’ background is complex: he’s from a colonial Dutch-Indonesian family and was raised within a mixed-race context. For me, the fact that his diverse background and its relevance for the exhibit was not addressed seems another missed opportunity.)

So far I have not read a public response to these criticisms from Rijksmuseum Director Taco Dibbits. I would have loved to hear his thoughts. Not in the first place because it is clear that discussing race in museums in the Netherlands seems to be like walking a very fine line.

The Rijksmuseum shows it wants to take part in this discussion by planning an exhibit about slavery in 2020. It would be good to hear what role and goals they have set for themselves. I wonder:

  • What audiences do they want to reach?
  • How are they going to work together with BAME audiences and descendants of slaves?
  • Are they going to invite different voices?
  • Are they going to work together with curators and researchers from former colonies, such as Surinam?

On a national scale it seems difficult for major Dutch museums to articulate their relationship towards cultural diversity.

I am an invincible optimist and hopeful about the future of museums in the Netherlands. The Dutch Museum Association has subscribed to Code Diversiteit (‘code diversity’) and says it wants its members to improve diversity when it comes to programming, audiences and staff. (So far – you may have noticed – I’ve only spoken about programming: large Dutch museums like the Rijksmuseum have not been that explicit about diversifying their audiences or staff members either.)

The Dutch minister of Culture herself, Jet Bussemakers, easily admits that there is still a long road to go and praises initiatives such as Code Diversiteit.

I remain optimistic, realising that when diversifying museums we should perhaps not look towards the big national galleries in the Netherlands for examples: local museums with strong ties to their communities are likely to make a difference here.

This talk was part of the Monday evening programme of the international Museum Next conference 2017 in Rotterdam: Museum Detox x TENT take-over. Museum Detox is a network of museum professionals in the United Kingdom with a Black, Asian, ethnic minority (BAME) background. Since 2014 the network has grown from 3 to 120 members.

Stefanie van Gemert talked about diversity in the Dutch museum sector. The event was hosted by the local TENT Gallery in Rotterdam.

About the author – Stefanie van Gemert

Stefanie is a freelance Educator and Researcher who worked, amongst others, for the Van Gogh Museum and Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, and for the Wallace Collection and UCL Art Museum in London.

Her PhD research at University College London was on post-colonial literature and the perception of Dutch art abroad.

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