Shame and Guilt: Curatorial Practice at the Amsterdam Museum
The below text is excerpted and adapted from the presentation we gave during the Shame & Guilt session of the symposium. In it, we discuss our curatorial practice at the Amsterdam Museum and present a case study of the museum’s exhibition and research project around the Golden Coach and how it connects to concepts of shame and guilt, especially in acknowledging the Dutch colonial past.
The Netherlands has been reckoning, and continues to reckon with, its colonial past and colonial heritage. On July 1, 2021, the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, publicly apologised for the extensive involvement of former city governments in the worldwide slave trade. This was a significant step, as the Dutch government has not (yet) issued a formal apology on a national level. In 2019, the Amsterdam Museum decided to no longer use the term “the Golden Age” as a synonym for the seventeenth century, as it was definitely not a golden age from the perspective of people who were enslaved or otherwise oppressed by colonial systems. This decision was not isolated from the museum’s ongoing collaborations and dialogues with activists, grassroots movements, artists and other initiatives in the city that have been fighting for equity for a long time. As a city museum, we aim to reflect the diversity of this city, but we also acknowledge that our collections still represent an inherently white and socially privileged perspective. The decision to no longer refer to “the Golden Age” sparked public outrage within national borders, giving rise to claims that ‘banning’ this term removes part of Dutch identity and wrongly shifts the narrative from pride to shame. The critique is comparable to the backlash to the anti-blackface activists who have been protesting the racist caricature of Black Pete for decades now.
Resistance to, and activism within, institutions has always existed and has instigated changes and developments, whether as resistance to slavery on Caribbean plantations 400 years ago, through the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement, or through the international anti-colonial movement that had its headquarters at the Amsterdam-based Surinamese Society.
The Amsterdam Museum’s major exhibition The Golden Coach (June 18, 2021 – February 27, 2022) reflects on the Golden Coach, a widely discussed object on loan to the museum by the Royal Collections of the Netherlands. The carriage was gifted to the Dutch queen Wilhelmina for her inauguration in 1898 and until recently was used by the royal family every year on Prince’s Day and for weddings and other ceremonies. It has become a contested heritage object, partially due to the painted panel on the left side of the vehicle: Tribute from the Colonies. Depicted in this painting are people of colour from the colonies paying tribute to a young white woman who symbolises the Netherlands. An increasing number of people find this glorifying depiction of colonialism inappropriate for national celebrations. Questions that have increasingly emerged in public debate include whether the carriage should continue to be used on Prince’s Day and during Orange weddings and inaugurations, and whether the carriage deserves to be adapted or belongs in a museum.
The exhibition featured a multiplicity of voices and perspectives on the carriage, both contemporary and historical, and gave insight into the shifting social and political contexts of Amsterdam from the late 18th century until today. It was curated by an interdisciplinary research team that organised regular feedback sessions with a diverse sounding board of about 25 people, also from outside the museum: researchers, museum professionals, activists and so on. With an extensive public program and a large-scale research project, we aimed to facilitate a national dialogue about contested heritage and identities.
As part of the exhibition, the Amsterdam Museum commissioned 17 artists from different generations and with various (cultural) backgrounds to offer artistic and critical perspectives on the Golden Coach by creating artworks in which they reflected on the rituals that encompass the coach, the materiality and craftsmanship of the vehicle and the colonial past and its impact on the present.1
One of the commissioned artworks was BLOODY GOLD (2021) by AiRich, a reinterpretation of the Tribute from the Colonies panel, in which the violence and dehumanisation of the romanticised image on the coach are made visible. AiRich references archival documents, photographs and other materials in a collage that expresses the stories and emotions behind the Golden Coach and Dutch colonial history that still too often remain hidden or unspoken. AiRich speaks about her work in this short video.
Still from “NL AiRich – De Gouden Koets” in which the artist discusses her commission artwork BLOODY GOLD (2021).
In her ongoing research on contemporary artistic practices and museum collections, junior curator Inez van der Scheer (Amsterdam Museum) asks: How do critical art practices interact with museum practices and their collections? What is the nature of these collaborations, as museums are still in power when they select and commission artists to respond to the collections and narratives of the museum? By positioning artists of colour to deal with colonial heritage and address the violence and dehumanisation of it, do we not run the risk of reinforcing the idea that colonialism and slavery are Black and Brown history rather than White history, which at the museum is still presented in its gilded glory and without shame?
Inez van der Scheer spoke to two artists in the exhibition whose work engaged with the contested panel of the Golden Coach and who contributed their critical original work to the exhibition. Both noted that the current trend in Dutch museums of inviting Black and Brown artists to collaborate with them to address issues of colonialism or the erasure of Black and Brown people by institutions raised some concerns for them – shame and guilt not being among them. They talked about the fatigue of being commissioned to relive generational colonial trauma, about being anxious, about being pushed into a niche they did not choose, and they expressed concern that these conditions may push this generation of artists of Colour into competition with each other, leading to burn-out and over-exposure. They wondered who would leave their artistic mark when this trend of dealing with contested heritage had exhausted itself. They expressed anxiety, exhaustion and frustration, a new host of emotions emerging from the very collaborations intended to serve as reparative vehicles for the shame and guilt of the institutions. We hope that reflection continues about where these emotions are stored and processed, whether they are sat with and whether they can be subsidised and about the place of emotional experiences in the debates around colonial heritage that museums are currently engaged in.
This case study of shame and guilt in curatorial practice will be further explored and is part of a larger research project on how to connect the approaches of cultural institutions, artists and academics to further the collective conversation and turn it into tangible research. In the wake of the symposium “The Future of the Dutch Colonial Past” in November, 2021, the Amsterdam Museum is also editing an anthology that will be published by Amsterdam University Press in 2023.