Although the Tropenmuseum was built in 1926 to exhibit the cultures the Dutch had conquered, often brutally, its purpose now is almost the opposite: to reflect on colonial history and the paradoxes it entails to this day, and to educate northern people about the world outside Europe and North America. It’s one of the world’s great ethnographic museums, deeply involved in preserving local cultures. Its imaginative displays are housed in an absolutely spectacular building. Even the outside walls deserve study, replete with carvings of peoples from around the world.
You enter a few steps below ground level, and mount a small circular staircase (or lift) into the main exhibit area. Take a few steps forward, and you’re in a colossal central space with three full storeys of exhibits on broad balconies, in addition to a large area for kids. The atrium has the grandeur we associate with the Victorian era in England.
As a sampler of the remarkable variety the museum offers, here are a few Tropenmuseum exhibits I’ve seen on two recent visits:
Soulmade: Jasper Krabbé Meets Tropenmuseum A contemporary artist was let loose in the huge storage areas of the museum, and allowed to bring out and group anything he wanted any way he wanted. He was then commissioned to make paintings in response to those objects, to be exhibited with them. Nothing is labeled, which makes it much more intriguing.
West Asia and the Steppes Where else could I sit happily in a yurt for 20 minutes and watch three screens’ worth of Central Asian steppes and the people who populate them? I didn’t understand a word and it made no difference at all. Apart from that, I was fascinated by the models of houses and villages of people in Islamic West Asia (the so-called “Middle East”). On the news, we usually hear only about “terrorists” from that part of the world. A whole section on the three great religions points out their similarities, and the sources of discontent in all directions, not just “us” versus “them.” Like so many exhibits here, it makes the viewer think and question assumptions.
Grand Parade – a theatrical art installation by Jompet Kuswidananto This almost indescribable convergence of life sized figures by a contemporary Indonesian artist brings together a quasi-military parade, a parade of artists and dancers, and a political demonstration – all done with costumes and equipment rather than sculptures of people! Sounds and movement happen at prescribed times.
Sugar, Slavery and Spices The exhibits on sugar and slavery, which I’ve visited in the past, are bloodcurdling as well they should be, giving only the facts. The conquering of the Spice Islands is an especially horrific story. I’ll never use a nutmeg again without remembering that a virtually whole island population was exterminated to ensure the Dutch monopoly on that product. The 1,000 survivors of a population of 15,000 were enslaved and forced to work in the nutmeg groves.
The Tropenmuseum is a great place to get an education both about what is priceless about peoples whom Westerners know little about – Latin Americans, Asians, Africans and others – and about the history of our relationship with them and why it is so fraught. You could spend days there, but you’ll relish even an afternoon.