Colonial art robbery has been the subject of recent debates on European museums and their legitimacy in owning and displaying artefacts, which have been appropriated in a context of oppression and violence. Thus, the overarching topic ‘Africa in The Hague’ aroused my curiosity to examine what kind of stolen art artefacts from the African continent were to be found in the museums of The Hague today. During my internet search I stumbled upon a painting that was going to become the reference point of my ethnographic ‘experience’. This painting, however, was unlike expected, not from the African continent. Indeed, it has been painted in the Netherlands by the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn during the 17th century, which is also known as the ‘Dutch Golden Age’.  

The painting I am talking about is ‘Two African Men’ (1661) displayed at the Mauritshuis. What particularly caught my attention during my online search was the different way in which Rembrandt portrayed these two men. Whereas most paintings of that time would depict people of African descent in relation to wealthy Europeans such as their (enslaved) servants, Rembrandt made them the centre of his piece and the way of their clothing suggests their status as free men. So, I asked myself, what does this particular interest of mine tell me about my own position? The more I delved into this, the more I was struck with how little I knew about the presence of African life in the Netherlands in the 17th century. 

It is technically impossible to visit the Mauritshuis and not engage with Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting of the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (1665) – fair enough, it is a beautiful painting and surely worth paying attention to. However, I wondered, should it not also be impossible to visit the Mauritshuis and not engage with the colonial legacy of the building and its former owner Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen? Why do I even ask this question? Should it not be self-evident to a museum to engage with its colonial past and be transparent about it? I ask this question because I came to understand the importance of visual and textual representations in a museum setting. Even if ambitions of a museum to make a critical contribution exist, how is it ensured that the knowledge of the historical contextualization is conveyed to the museum visitor?

Can’t we expect museums to be well equipped to deal with their colonial legacy and take the different levels of education of their visitors on this into consideration? My expectations towards a museum in the 21st century surely reveal something about my subjectivity in this. Why do I have those expectations? Certainly, due to my own engagement with this subject. However, not every visitor of the Mauritshuis has a similar background. These circumstances already display how my experience of visiting the Mauritshuis will clearly differ from those of others given the fact that our perception of our surrounding is always shaped by our personal biography.

So, when I entered the collection, I was walking up the stairs to find my way to the second floor, where I knew Rembrandt’s paintings were to be found, not knowing I overlooked two of the few textual explanation boards in this museum. Since the focal point of my visit was that one particular painting, I could not wait to see it and thereby – to my great regret – lost my ability to absorb what was going on around me. Would I have read the information boards right away if I was there as a mere visitor? I will have to leave that question open. Was it not my actual objective to try and get an inside perspective as much as possible? Yes, and there is still a lot for me to learn concerning what senses to be guided by. What does actually constitute an insider perspective in a museum? Later on, when I was asked by one of the employees whether I had enjoyed the paintings, I realized how alienated I felt from my known experiences of museum visits since none of the paintings stimulated my emotions the way I was used to.

Instead other encounters and observations evoked my emotions and thoughts. Finally standing in front of the painting ‘Two African Men’ I wondered how best to get an insight into people’s perception and reaction to it. Since a Dutch couple, presumably in their fifties, seemed to show interest in the title of the painting I spontaneously decided to ask if they knew more about his painting: “Do you know more about this painting?” The man’s answer triggered a lot inside me. He was surprised, he said. He did not know that Rembrandt had painted ‘that kind of people’. He only knew he would paint people from the Bible or rich people, he added. What really remains vivid in my memory is the way in which he said ‘that kind of people’. His body language was adding more layers of meaning to the words. Meaning that made me feel uncomfortable, because I sensed it as a way of ‘othering’.

Having had this encounter, I strolled around the museum again, this time not in search of a particular object. That is when I came across an information board with the title ‘Johan Maurits and Brazil’. Apart from one of the two texts at the entrance which mentions Maurits’ status as governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil, this is the only mention of his involvement in colonialism and the Transatlantic slave trade. Had I read it the first time I passed through that room? No. How do we know if people read what is written on those boards? In the short period of time I spent in that room most people walked past the board without paying attention to it. For me reading the explanation on the wall brought the colonial legacies to the forefront, for those who did not read it is probably different.

Information board ‘Johan Maurits and Brazil’
Photo: Mira Demirdirek
Time lapse capturing visitors’ movements around the information board
Video: Mira Demirdirek