Presenting the Colonial Past in the Museum

Presenting the Colonial Past in the Museum

A public lecture by Rijksmuseum curator Maria Holtrop reveals the ways in which the museum is dealing with the complexities of showcasing the colonial past for the general public.

Jacob Maris3
Simon Maris, Young Woman with a Fan, 1906, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum.

On February 6 2019 Maria Holtrop gave a presentation at the University Library on the complexities of (re)presenting the colonial past in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. As a curator in the museum’s history department Holtrop is particularly well placed to speak on such matters. She was involved in the exhibition Goede Hoop (2017) which examined the historical relations between South Africa and the Netherlands from the 17th century until the present. Her presentation in Leiden considered a number of artifacts in the collection of the Rijksmuseum and discussed how the biographies of these objects, their owners and makers might be more fully understood by looking them from a post-colonial perspective.

One of the objects she discussed with the oil painting Young Woman with a Fan (1906) by Simon Maris, which depicts a model used frequently by the artist. For a long time, this portrait was thought to represent a particular type rather than a portrait of an actual individual. This meant that the painting was given titles (many of which would now be considered offensive) that focused on the perceived ethnicity of the young woman while art historians long neglected the historical identity of the sitter. The current title, Young Woman with a Fan, is a more neutral approach and is the result of a museum-wide effort to amend titles that reflect modern sensibilities.

Jacob Maris2

Maria Holtrop pointed out that contentious titles previously given to works of art like Maris’ painting have not been erased from the museum’s record so that there is no question of hiding the colonial past. This is a small but important step in acknowledging the very real effects of colonialism in the collections of European museums. Currently there are efforts underway to establish the identity of the young woman so that a more complete and accurate picture may be formed of both the painting, and the context in which it was created.

Maria Holtrop is currently working on the much-anticipated slavery exhibition organized by the History Department that will open at the Rijksmuseum in September 2020.

You can read more about the Rijksmuseum Terminology Project here.