Wednesday, May 01, 2019


Visit any art or history museum in Amsterdam and you will hear about the Golden Age, a period in the 17th and 18th centuries when Holland’s power and wealth were at their greatest. They are proud of this heritage, and kind of wistful that it’s all over, but, if you dig deeply enough, they acknowledge that all of this power and money had to come from somewhere, and the previous owners probably didn’t give it up without a fight. It was a pretty awesome time to be Dutch… but it was a somewhat less awesome time to be someone who had something that the Dutch wanted.

The tricky business of acknowledging this unpleasantness has fallen to the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam’s grand museum of multiculturalism. It’s a much better museum than you might expect it to be, given that the phrase “museum of multiculturalism” brings to mind diversely coloured children holding hands and singing stupid hippie folk songs. The Tropenmuseum currently has cutting-edge exhibitions of the Hadj, on the influence of Japanese pop culture on the world, and on the exploitation of children in African coffee plantations. But the core exhibits address the dark history of the Dutch in South East Asia.

The Tropenmuseum used to be called the Colonial Museum, and is housed in a gorgeous 1926 building covered in classical friezes of happy brown people toiling in stylised plantations and paddies, as well as exquisitely carved woodwork on the doors and windows.

The conceit in all of these things is that the Dutch and the Indonesians were partners in this exploitation, and it’s certainly true that Indonesia has influences across Amsterdam. The streets in the suburb where my AirBnB is situated are all named after Indonesian islands – Madurastraat, Balistraat, Javasrtraat, Borneostraat – and there are also some pretty great Indonesian restaurants in the city. However, that probably doesn’t make up for all of the slavery and oppression – the Dutch held on to their slaves right up until 1873, 8 years after the Americans and 40 years after the British.

The Tropenmuseum’s approach to this history is, surprisingly, sort of the opposite of virtue signaling. In Australia, museums approach the sins of the past with great histrionics, if not downright hysterics, about the travesty and tragedy of it all. The Tropenmuseum’s approach is comparatively sanguine. It happened, they seem to say, and we are going to neither sugar coat it or flay ourselves about it.

But then, maybe when you’re an eco-minded marriage-equalising gender-neutralising modern Dutch person, treating the massive atrocities of the past with flat objectivity is the only way to maintain your poise. When screeching fury is the expected response to a misaligned pronoun or a plastic straw, how can you possibly scale that dudgeon up to respond to genocide?


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