Slave Trade: Mauritshuis museum removes namesake’s bust over slavery debate

Mauritshuis, The Hague (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Ralf Roletschek)Mauritshuis, The Hague (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Ralf Roletschek)

The Mauritshuis museum decided to remove a bust of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, governor of the Dutch colony in Brasil from 1637 to 1644, from the museums foyer. The decision stemmed from "the growing public debate about we deal with slavery in the Netherlands (and in museums)", the Mauritshuis explained, according to the Volkskrant. The removal of the bust sparked a storm of outrage and criticism from people feeling that the Netherlands' history is being destroyed.

The bust was removed from the entrance hall of the museum in September already. No publicity was given to its removal, because museums constantly adapt too social attitudes, head of marketing Koen Brakenhoff said to the newspaper. "We as museum are for that. We do not find in it necessary to advertise every intermediate position broadly." It's disappearance went largely unnoticed, he said.

 That is until historian and curator Imara Limon approvingly noted in the Volkskrant last week that the bust was removed as a sign of disapproval of the presumed share Johan Maurits had in the slave trade. NRC also wrote a piece about it.

These articles were met with outrage and anger on social media, with users complaining about the "iconoclasm" taking place in the Mauritshuis. The VVD and PVV even announced they want to debate this matter with Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven of Culture. "There is a totally wrong movement going on", VVD parliamentarian Antoinette Laan said to the Telegraaf. "We're importing the American trend towards hypersensitivity." The PVV spoke of a "politically correct iconoclasm". 

"Who will be the next victim of this absurd history falsification?" historians want to know, according to the Telegraaf. The newspaper writes that well-known emeritus professors Piet Emmer and Frank Ankersmit are making an urgent appeal to stop letting a small group of activists rewrite our history. The scientists call it absurd how our country is being held hostage by these history falsifiers. 

Ivo Brautigam, community member of radio show Spraakmakers, also criticized the removal of the bust. "Slavery was a nauseating social phenomenon that took place around the world, in many nations", he said to NPO. According to him, the slavery card is currently often used by people to oppose the Netherlands, and that is counterproductive to his belief that the past should be used to bring people of different races together. "Let men like Michiel de Ruyter and Johan Maurits retain their value of the time in which they lived. They did a lot of good things for the Netherlands. Don't deny the past of the Dutch and work from a positive angle on a better society. Burying the past is counterproductive and at the expense of a nuanced conversation about the future."

The slavery debate had a decisive role in the decision to remove the bust, but was not the only factor considered, Brakenhoff said to the Volkskrant. He points out that the bust is a replica, not an original, and there is therefore no strong artistic reasons to keep it.

This was confirmed to AD by a spokesperson for the museum, who added that they are all shocked by the commotion the bust's removal caused. "It is a shame that the wrong image has now arisen. We wanted to give a more complete explanation to our visitors about Maurits. That could be done much better in the museum than in the foyer. Moreover, it is not an original bust, but a replica."

According to the spokesperson, there is absolutely no question of erasing history. "We do not intend to remove other works that have a link with the history of slavery. The seven portraits of Maurits in the museum stay, but they are now provided with a more extensive, nuanced explanation." The website, tours and publications were also adapted.

This is an ongoing process. The spokesperson admitted that the museum doesn't know all the facts around Johan Maurits. "Historian Piet Emmer, for example, says that Maurits earned little from slavery, but others state that he does not count the value of the spin-off, such as repairs to ships. In short, we do not know exactly. That is why we called in the help of historians from Leiden University. The research group is currently being formed."