In Brief

Amsterdam Museum Will No Longer Use “Golden Age” to Describe Dutch Colonial Past

The museum announced that it will no longer use the term to describe 17th century Netherlands, saying it whitewashes its problematic colonial past.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Night Watch” (1942)

The Netherlands in the 17th Century was a global empire that sprawled its tentacles in many parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. An economic power, it led the world in science and art achievements for more than a century, a period that was later termed the “Golden Age” (Gouden Eeuw). It was the age of the Dutch East India Company as well as the heyday for artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt. But now, the Amerstdam Museum announced that it will no longer use the term in its exhibitions and materials, saying it whitewashes the Netherland’s problematic colonial past.

“The Golden Age occupies an important place in Western historiography that is strongly linked to national pride,” said Tom van der Molen, curator of the 17th century at the Amsterdam 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,” he continued. “The term ignores the many negative sides of the 17th century such as poverty, war, forced labor and human trafficking.”

As a start, the museum has changed its permanent collection’s title from “Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age” to “Portrait Gallery of the 17th Century.” The decision quickly drew the ire of Dutch right-wing politicians, including the country’s prime minister, who called the announcement “nonsense.”

“I will carry on calling it the Golden Age,” said the Dutch prime minister Mark Ruttein 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.”

Later this month, the museum will hold a symposium for museum professionals and community members on how to present its 17th-century collections to the public. It will also host a photography exhibition in which 13 Dutch people of color will be seen posing as historical figures living in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Their portraits will be exhibited next to existing portraits of historical Dutch figures.

“These are important steps in a long process, but we are not there yet,” Judikje Kiers, director of the Amsterdam Museum, told the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, according to the Guardian. “We will continue to work with people in the city to uncover underexposed stories and perspectives of our shared history.”

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