Portrait Gallery of the 17th Century (formally known as ‘Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age’), Amsterdam Museum

Amsterdam Museum drops term ‘Golden Age’

Yosola Olorunshola, 18.09.2019
Questioning the narrative on the Netherlands' colonial past
One of the Netherlands’ landmark museums has taken steps to challenge a dominant narrative in the country’s history.

The Amsterdam Museum has announced that it will no longer use the term Golden Age (Gouden Eeuw) in its exhibits, arguing that it perpetuates a view that the Dutch 17th century was a period of uninterrupted peace, prosperity and intellectual flourishing.

The term has been used by historians to describe the period between approximately 1609 and 1713 when the newly independent Dutch Republic became one of the most influential European states. It is known as a period of expanding international trade and thriving visual culture – the age of the Dutch East India Company as well as artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer.

But the term has been scrutinised for focusing on the prosperity of the period, ignoring the role that international slavery, indentured labour, the violence of the emerging Dutch empire, poverty and war played in shaping the century and the country’s identity.

“The Golden Age occupies an important place in Western historiography that is strongly linked to national pride,” Tom van der Molen, the curator of the 17th century at the Amsterdam Museum said in a statement from the museum.

“But positive associations with the term such as prosperity, peace, opulence and innocence do not cover the charge of historical reality in this period. The term ignores the many negative sides of the 17th century such as poverty, war, forced labour and human trafficking,” he said.

The name of the museum’s semi-permanent collection has been changed from “Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age” to “Portrait Gallery of  the 17th Century”. 

As a rebrand, it’s a significant climb-down, but one that goes beyond words to offer a more nuanced picture of Dutch history. Later this month, the museum will hold a symposium for both museum professionals and community members on how it presents its 17th-century collections.

It is also planning a photography exhibition of well-known Dutch people of colour, depicted as real historical figures living in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The exhibition challenges the white-washing of the so-called Golden Age, highlighting the presence of people from across the world in this defining chapter of Dutch history.

The decision to ditch the term has sparked a backlash from the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who described the decision as “nonsense”.

“I will carry on calling it the Golden Age,” he said, in his weekly press conference. “Let’s not waste our energy on renaming the Golden Age – a beautiful term. We can talk about what wasn’t good, but let’s devote our energies to creating a new Golden Age.”

His comments highlight an ongoing tension between the legacy of the Dutch empire, and the country’s present-day identity, grappling with the reality of a diverse nation. Debates over Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a blackface figure who makes annual appearances as the companion to St Nicholas in Dutch Christmas celebrations, have gained international attention and led to clashes on the country's streets. While some claim Black Pete is a harmless children’s character, anti-racist protesters highlight the racialised, dehumanising tropes he embodies.

In the same week, Britain’s history as a maritime power also came under scrutiny after the Department for Transport launched a campaign celebrating Britain’s shipping history with images of trading ships used between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Historians and academics were quick to point out that the ships pictured were specifically used to transport slaves, indentured workers, and spoils from Britain’s colonies. 

“This is what happens when the historical memory is limited to a narrative in which we simply abolished slavery – it is remarkably tone-deaf, never mind historically illiterate,” historian Kim Wagner told the Guardian.

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “This tweet was intended to promote the future of Britain’s maritime sector, which accounts for 95% of British trade. Needless to say, we apologise if any offence has been caused.”

The decontextualised imagery highlights the need for greater public understanding of the relationship between empire and Britain’s rise as a global power.  As steps to decolonise museums across Europe develop, the Amsterdam Museum’s decision serves as a reminder of the role museums can play in questioning and redefining the foundations of national pride.

This year’s Museums Association Conference and Exhibition will feature a number of sessions on decolonisation. The conference takes place 3-5 October at the Brighton Centre. Book your ticket here.


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