In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic became a robust world power, its prosperous economy paving the way for a flourishing of art, culture and intellectual thought. This was the era of Spinoza and Huyghens, of Rembrandt and Vermeer and van Dyk. Historians have long referred to the period as the “Dutch Golden Age”—but now, a major museum in the Netherlands has announced that it will do away with the term, arguing that it glosses over the ugly realities of Dutch ascendancy.
Tom van der Molen, 17th-century curator at the Amsterdam Museum, said in a statement last week that the institution will remove all “Golden Age” references in its galleries over the coming months, according to Taylor Dafoe of artnet News. The name of one of its permanent exhibitions, housed in the Amsterdam Museum wing of the city’s Hermitage Museum, has also been changed from “Dutchmen in the Golden Age” to “Group Portraits of the 17th Century.”
“The Western Golden Age occupies an important place in Western historiography that is strongly linked to national pride, but positive associations with the term such as prosperity, peace, opulence, and innocence do not cover the charge of historical reality in this period,” van der Molen explained. “The term ignores the many negative sides of the 17th century such as poverty, war, forced labor, and human trafficking.”
As the Netherlands has been turning a critical eye to its history in recent years, the Dutch Republic’s involvement in the slave trade has become a particular point of contention. According to Leiden University’s African Studies Center, Dutch involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade arose in the 17th century and lasted for some 200 years. The state operated fortresses along the Gold Coast, known today as the Republic of Ghana, from which they shipped enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. It has been estimated that the Dutch traded as many as 600,000 Africans over two centuries.
Many museums in Europe have been grappling with their colonial legacies, with France often leading the way in its push to repatriate artworks taken without consent from their countries of origin. Last year in the Netherlands, The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum removed a bust of its founder from its lobby because Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen had been governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil and made a fortune in the slave trade. That decision was controversial, and the Amsterdam Museum’s recent announcement has been as well. Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the move “nonsense,” according to Mike Corder of the Associated Press. “[T]here were, for sure, things you can think of that weren’t good in the Golden Age,” Rutte said, “but I think it’s a great name.”
In spite of the pushback, the Amsterdam Museum is moving forward with its plans to make its halls more inclusive and more sensitive. Later this month, Dafoe reports, the museum will host a symposium for both museum professionals and community members about how it presents its 17th century collections. It is also launching a photography exhibition that features 13 Dutch people of color posing as historical figures, their portraits interspersed among the newly re-named “Group Portraits of the 17th Century.” The show seeks to spotlight the “lively community of people with roots in non-Western European countries in 17th-century Amsterdam,” as curator Jörgen Tjon A Fong puts it—a community that is not often represented in traditional portraiture.
“These are important steps in a long process, but we are not there yet,” Judikje Kiers, director of the Amsterdam Museum, told the newspaper Het Parool, per the Guardian’s Daniel Boffey. “We will continue to work with people in the city to uncover underexposed stories and perspectives of our shared history.”