When the Amsterdam Museum announced, in September 2019, that it would no longer refer to the Dutch Republic’s most robust period of cultural and economic ascendancy as its “golden age” — a term that glosses over the gross inequities of the period — Sarah Mallory, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art and Architectural History at Harvard and a scholar of the period, took notice.
“That term, ‘golden age,’ is so integrated into the way that people think about the Netherlands in the 17th century and its incredible flowering of arts and culture,” she says. Think Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Dyck. “It’s also a signal to remember some incredibly important reasons why that [flowering] was able to happen.” Namely: the spoils of the Dutch slave trade.
Over the course of two centuries, the Dutch enslaved and sold an estimated 600,000 people from Africa. That ugly colonial history will be the focus of an exhibition at another Amsterdam institution, the Rijksmuseum, when it reopens after its pandemic closure. “They’re calling it ‘Slavery,’ full stop,” Mallory says. The directness of that approach inspired Mallory to imagine how a museum could best address the complicated global legacy of slavery. “What would we put in it?” she wonders. “What voices would we include? What would this museum look like? What objects would be there? And what kind of conversations would we have? That’s really kind of the genesis of the program.”
The program Mallory is referring to is a four-part virtual conference series, which is free and open to the public and begins April 9, that will discuss how to rethink collections steeped in colonial history. The sessions are presented by the Center for Netherlandish Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Harvard Art Museums, and Harvard University’s Department of History of Art and Architecture.
One of the organizers is Kéla Jackson, whose graduate work at Harvard explores the contemporary art of the African diaspora. Although she doesn’t study 17th century Dutch art, “the question of colonial history and how best to present it is something that’s pressing even for someone like me,” Jackson says. “The ever-present past is reverberating into our future. Each of us has to deal with questions of race and slavery and the histories that a lot of people are just now trying to grapple with.”
When the Amsterdam Museum changed its “Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age” to “Portrait Gallery of the 17th Century,” the country’s prime minister called the announcement “nonsense.” He was not alone. Mallory is well aware of the critics who say that viewing history through a contemporary lens is a mistake.
“I would just say that learning more about our history only adds to a work of art. It makes it richer,” she says. “We have to remember that these artists were not working in a vacuum. We have to accept that slavery and the legacy of slavery is a part of our history and return the voices we haven’t heard to the archives.”
“Art Museums and the Legacies of the Dutch Slave Trade: Curating Histories, Envisioning Futures” begins Friday, April 9. Separate registration for each event is required. Details and registration forms may be found at hvrd.art/dutchslavetrade.
This article was updated on April 7 to delete a reference to the Dutch slaves coming entirely from today’s Ghana.
Kelly Horan is the deputy editor of Ideas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.