Rethinking the narrative of works within museums

Home » Rethinking the narrative of works within museums

The “slavery” exhibition and the new narrative of works at the Rijksmuseum

Frame from the trailer of the exhibition “Slavery: ten true stories” Credit: Rijksmuseum

March 25 marks the International Day in Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Established in 2007 by the United Nations, the day was introduced to commemorate the victims of an atrocious colonial past based on slavery to maintain the prosperity and wealth of European countries.

As we discussed in a previous magazine article, coming to terms with our past is not easy, and developing a fruitful dialogue with our History is indispensable for the development of an ever-evolving society.

Cultural institutions-the custodians of our culture-are called to continuously analyze and question the works and artifacts within them in order to learn about our past and shed light on the values, freedom, and ethics that guided our ancestors.

In this regard, the Rijksmuseum initiated a critical analysis of the works within its collection in 2017. From this four-year-long work, in addition to the removal of outdated and racist terms, an exhibition entitled “Slavery” was curated and a reorganization of the captions of some of the artworks in the museum was initiated.

The emergence of a new narrative: a story that cannot be hidden

According to historians at the Rijksmuseum, between the 17th century and the 19th century, Holland enslaved more than a million people, buying them from trading posts run by companies in Africa and Asia and transporting them across oceans en masse, creating large-scale forced migrations.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, founded in 1885, owes its works to the private collections of the wealthy of that Dutch society. Through these bequests, the museum was required to tell the story of the country’s greatness, wealth and prosperity in history.

The conveyance of this unique message by the artworks and objects in the museum cast a shadow on the events and perspectives of some stories of slavery that had not been told until now.

Since their founding, museum institutions have intentionally not preserved objects related to colonial events. Yet, the same Dutch museum exhibits that showcased the greatness of Holland silently held some faint memories of individuals enslaved at Dutch hands.

The exhibition “Slavery: ten true stories” and the update of seventy-seven captions

Since 2017, curators at the Rijksmuseum have been reevaluating the incomplete stories behind some of the artifacts in the permanent collection and have begun a new curatorial journey with the goal of placing each object back in its most accurate historical context, while also telling the story of their hitherto neglected colonial past.

The historical reconstruction of these events led to the creation of a second informative caption to seventy-seven objects inside the museum and the setting up of a temporary exhibition to show the hidden plots of the works housed in the halls.

Thus, in 2021 the slavery exhibition, curated by Eveline Sint Nicolaas and Valika Smeulders, was opened to the public, showing the inextricable link of some of the works in the Rijksmuseum’s permanent collection to the Netherlands’ slave-owning past.

Through some objects from the collection related to ten stories of people who lived through the slavery period, the exhibition introduced more than two centuries of Dutch participation in the slave trade.

The works presented in the exhibition managed to tell-thanks to the new captions and audio guide-ten true stories of people related to the Dutch history of slavery that had not found a place in the museum until then.

Through oral sources, poems and music, for example, the story was told of Paulus Maurus, a servant of a wealthy family in The Hague who was required to wear a brass collar-which entered the museum’s collection in 1881-because it was owned by the Count of Nassau La Lecq.

Or was told the significance of the blue beads for the descendants of slaves in Sint Maarten. In this Ollad colony in the Caribbean, slaves did not receive money for their labor, but blue beads, the only items they could use in exchange because they were not deemed worthy of using real money.

When slavery was abolished in 1863 also in the Netherlands, as a sign of emancipation the finally free people threw all the beads into the water as a rejection of the colonial system. These blue beads continue to be found off the coast and fished out of the sea by divers and tourists.

The seventy-seven captions added in the layout of the rooms are now displayed alongside the original captions and have been compiled into a booklet available online.


One example: the new caption added to

Still Life with a Turkey Pie
Pieter Claesz, 1627


The Flemish painter Pieter Claesz was just one of many artists who emigrated to the Northern Netherlands in the beginning of the 17th century. This table abounds with luxurious products, among them Asian objects.
Especially eye-catching are the porcelain plate and the nautilus shell. Even in unexpected objects, the presence of Asia is implicit – for instance in savoury pies, which contain ingredients such as cinnamon, mace, cloves and ginger.


The spices in these pies were often obtained by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) through violence and slavery. Cloves came from Ambon, one of the Moluccan islands, which was conquered by the VOC in 1605. The Ambonese had to harvest cloves alongside workers enslaved by the VOC. Nutmeg came from the Banda Islands (south of Ambon), which were taken by force in 1621. Enslaved people had to pick the nutmeg seeds on plantations and strip off their covering (aril).

Condividi su: