The politics of selling African art mostly collected during colonial era to private collectors (in the Netherlands)

The proposed sale of the Africa Collection at The World Museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands has sparked some interesting debates in Dutch media lately. Unfortunately some important questions and issues around this sale are not being discussed. Since the Dutch government is cutting the arts and the culture budget heavily, the museum has planned to sell the Africa collection to private collectors and to focus solely on Asia and Oceania in the future. Through the sale the museum hopes to generate a small sum of 60 million euro and be independent from government subsidies. The Netherlands seems to be the only country in the world that has capitalised heritage through proposing such a sale.

African museums, Dutch ethnology museums and the Dutch Cultural Council have been strongly opposed to the proposed sale. The Dutch newspaper NRC reported that director Stanley Bremner is tired of all the (international) critique: “The Netherlands is obviously not ready yet for this modern form of museum management.” Contradicting messages on the proposed sale reached the Dutch media. At first it seemed like the municipality would agree with the sale but only a few days later the municipality, who owns the collection, decided to postpone its final decision. The municipality will discuss how to handle the advise from the Dutch Cultural Council, who has advised that a Dutch core collection should be established. It is not clear if the Africa collection would fall under this new core collection but if it would, the collection would be protected.

Africa Collection Wereldmuseum Rotterdam (Photo by Lex van Lieshout)

Dutch ethnological museums such as the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and The National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden do not appreciate Mr. Bremner’s modern form of museum management because the collection would disappear in the hands of private collectors. Instead the museums find that the collection should be protected as Dutch cultural heritage. Other reasons why critics believe the collection should not be sold relate to history of the Dutch in Africa. Experts state that the objects bear witness to the history of the so-called ‘expansion of Dutch activities’ in Africa. Most of this ‘Dutch activity’ in Africa was concentrated in three regions: Ghana, South Africa and Congo. These ‘activities’ undertaken by the Dutch inform, alongside with some Christian converting practices, the meaning and history of the Africa collection. For instance, the relationship between Ghana and the Netherlands goes back for around 400 years: during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Dutch had captured Elmina from the Portuguese on the Gold Coast in Ghana, which became the Dutch headquarters for slave trade until the British seized it.

The World Museum’s collection consists of around 10,000 objects from, amongst others, West-Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Congo. They were given to the museum at the end of the nineteenth century. The museum started to collect its own art objects afterwards. The proposed sale of the Africa collection is to be understood within the historic context of ethnological European museums. This history is grounded in the practices and disciplines of colonial ethnology and anthropology. Colonial ethnology produced certain racial images around Africa that are still visible in the mainstream western imaginary of Africa today. The representation of Africa within the ethnological museum was highly influenced by these imaginaries and stereotypes of the ‘African’.

Mami Wata Legba, voodoo sculpture (1973) from the Lomé region (Africa Collection Wereldmuseum Rotterdam)

Mami Wata Legba, voodoo sculpture (1973) from the Lomé region (Africa Collection Wereldmuseum Rotterdam)

Due to an increasingly multicultural society in the Netherlands, ethnology museums were forced to change the way they represent ‘other’ cultures. The previous (historical) ‘other’ that has been on display in the museum space is now attracted to come visit the museum. This impelled ethnological museums to think about the concept of heritage. For instance, the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden has initiated a project that dealt with the changing role of the ethnological museum in a changing society. This project was relatively successful because it critically engaged with questions of ‘culture’, ‘ethnicity’ and representation in the museum space but there’s no way of denying that the National Museum of Ethnology still largely adheres to the practice of displaying neo-traditional aspects of material culture. The idea of heritage has always been existent before but the raison d’être for museums changed. The heritage discourse in the Netherlands is to a great extent governed by policies, rules and regulations. However, heritage is also strongly related to remembering, commemorating and forgetting sites and events in history, which can be viewed as cultural process. The Africa collection is not only cultural heritage because of its material aspects but also because of the history around the collection. The role of the Netherlands in the time of slavery and colonialism and the legacies thereof form and shape the importance of the Africa collection.

The Netherlands seems to suffer from collective historical amnesia with regard to its role during slavery and colonialism in Africa. Or perhaps we should call it aphasia for describing metaphorically the cultural “inability to recognize things in the world and assign proper names to them,” a concept that American historian Ann Laura Stoler has introduced with regard to colonial histories in Western societies. In the debates around the proposed sale the colonial history of the Dutch is hardly mentioned. Experts are interested in what the art objects could tell about the relations between the Dutch tradesmen and Africans but not in placing this within a colonial historic framework that would actually make a contribution to Dutch history.

This history, the intangible nature of the collection, is what African museums are concerned about. Dutch ethnological museums do not refer to this history but to the obligation to protect Dutch cultural heritage. Rudo Sithole, director of — yes — “AFRICOM,” the International Council of African Museums, has indicated that African museums must have a role in the sale especially because it is not clear which objects have been stolen or rightfully bought or donated. Last year, Mr. Bremner stated that African museums would never be able to buy the collection and that the climate in Africa would not be appropriate for African art objects. The World Museum has not consulted the African museums.

Nkisi Nduda, (2nd half 19th century) from DRC (Africa Collection Wereldmuseum Rotterdam)

The Africa collection is seen and treated by the Wereld Museum as a commodity that is detached from its historical context. In a country where Sinterklaas is seen as an important cultural event that deserves to be protected as cultural heritage (the problematic figure of Black Pete magically disappeared in the request put forward to UNESCO), where the research and commemoration of slavery in the Netherlands has experienced an ultimate low through the closing down of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (more about this in a future post), and in the light of the commemoration of 150 years of the Dutch slavery abolition this year, one would expect museums like the World Museum to start dealing with their historic legacies instead of selling them off.

* Chandra Frank recently graduated from the Centre of African Studies at the University of Cape Town where she wrote her master’s dissertation on the proposed sale of the Africa collection at the Wereld Museum Rotterdam. She is currently based in Amsterdam and has a strong interest in heritage, identity and culture.


6 thoughts on “The politics of selling African art mostly collected during colonial era to private collectors (in the Netherlands)

  1. Really interesting post Chandra, with lots in the mix here. The background context reflects the paradox of the liberal cultural value system that the Dutch pride themselves in, and for which they are known. That being they are so tolerant that any suggestion of intolerance is in itself construed as intolerance on the part of those making the accusation. A quirky way of putting it, sure. Added to this is white blindness: the inability to recognize that one’s view of the past and the sociological present is tainted by a privileged, racialised vantage point.

    In part this case revolves around the idea of possession – who are the rightful owners of the material taken to market? Who is legitimately allowed to profit from its sale? And what future lives will these objects take up following their redistribution?

    The repatriation movement has been in motion for more than 10 years already, with the doors of return being broken open by debates about the repatriation of the most startling collections of material artefacts housed and displayed in European collections – human remains.

    Institutions like the World Museum operate under a brand and a sanctioned mainstream discourse of conserving and protecting not collections of the spoils of European nations, but rather the rich and diverse assemblages of the world’s cultures. In that way they legitimize their position as rightful custodians over the material in their collections. Because of course this material is of vital cultural and historical significance for mankind and nobody else has the funds or the skills to preserve it, least of all “donor” communities, the groups seeking the return of their cultural patrimony appropriated under circumstances of unequal exchange.

    More radically, however, is the idea of ephemeral materiality and the preservationist discourse that underpins a Western conception of cultural heritage. Not only is this an arrogant idea, in light of the transient qualities of human material culture, but not all cultures share the same ideas about the use and life-span of material objects. For all we know, if these objects were returned, they could be burned, torched in fiery rituals of purification and reincorporation enacted by their donor communities. And they would have every right to do so.

    Simply put, I think the circulation, appropriation and exchange of contested objects like African Art bring to the fore the problematic aspects of what we mean by heritage and how it is used to affirm and reinforce unequal systems of privilege. The Wereld Museum is ambitious in its attempts to put to market material held in custody on the grounds of polished, updated discourses that dispossessed those who now seek their return.

    • Dutch Museum to sell African Collection

      Crown, Asante, Ghana, now in Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam, Netherlands

      “We are going to sell the entire Africa collection and the Americas collection, and will only keep the top pieces in the rest of our collection so we can focus on Asian art,”.
      Stanley Bremer, Director at Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam.
      We were shocked to read the news that Rotterdam’s Wereldmuseum (World Museum) is planning to sell its African and American collections to cover shortfalls made likely by the economic crisis in Europe and planned cuts in state subsidies to the arts in 2013. (1)

      It is of course not our business to tell a museum how to conduct its affairs. Our concern is, however, the selling of African art objects that may have been looted, stolen or extorted during the colonial era. As we all know, the legal status of many African artefacts is still disputed by the African owners and the European museums that are holding them.

      Drum, Benin, Nigeria, now in Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
      The idea of a museum selling African artefacts undermines all the arguments made for the acquisition and retention of African artefacts by European museums and other institutions. This form of commodification will make many African ancestors turn in their graves and wonder whether their descendants have any cultural values left intact after slavery and colonization.

      The selling and buying of sacred and cultural objects of others has become the business of many, including museums. One recalls the shock and amazement of many when it became known that the British Museum had been in the habit of selling Benin artefacts for cash. (2)

      Bell, Benin, Nigeria, now in Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam, Netherlands
      Selling and buying art objects whose exact legal status is in doubt or contested constitutes risky business and those interested should be aware of this crucial factor that may cause trouble in future.

      Can we assume that the museum would provide all potential buyers the full history of the possession of the objects proposed for sale? It is well known that museums are very reluctant to give detailed information on the acquisition history of African objects in their collections since most of them have been acquired either through violence or in circumstances that are dubious. It may be significant that the Netherlands adhered rather late on 17 July 2009 to the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. (3) Many museums may still not be inclined to abide by the conditions of the conventionas regards transparency.

      Relief, Benin, Nigeria, now in Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam. Netherlands
      African embassies in Europe may find it worthwhile to enter into contact with the Dutch museum to find out what objects are now being proposed for sale and to ensure that artefacts claimed by their peoples and governments are not included or better still, request that they are returned since the Wereldmuseum has now no use for these objects. They should reserve the rights of their peoples and governments to sue whoever buys objects that should have been returned to them long ago. The Wereldmuseum has some 9878 African objects of which 713 come from Angola, 68 from Cameroon, 199 from Ghana, 1134 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 391 from Mali, 353 from Nigeria, including 204 from Benin

      The Dutch were in Africa for a considerable period of time and some of the artefacts in Dutch museums may be of historical value to African States. (4)

      But can the Wereldmuseum continue to be a world museum without African and American collections?

      Sanza, Nigeria, now in Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
      Kwame Opoku, 22 August,2011.

      Pendant , Benin. Nigeria, now in Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam, Netherlands
      1. Dutch-museums-may-sell-treasures-to-make-ends-meet.ashx%2523axzz1VRhcy21C Reuters. “Dutch museums may sell treasures to make ends meet” Dutch “Rotterdam museum may sell its entire African collection,

      2. Martin Bailey, “British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes”, Museum Security Network, “British Museum sold Benin Bronzes for £75 each.”
      4. Some readers may recall that that the Dutch were in Africa for a long time. See “Ghanaian King’s Head Returned by the Dutch” http://www.newstimeafrica.. The article relates the story of the return of the head of a Ghanaian king, Badu Bonsu II, of the Ahanta people, who was decapitated by the Dutch in retaliation for the killing of two Dutch officials. His head was kept for some 170 years in a Dutch museum at the Leiden University Medical Centre. How many more African heads are still in Dutch museums and has anybody bothered to explain how they were secured? Will that also b sold? Will the Dutch follow the Germans and agree to return some of the bodies of Africans taken to Europe for experiments or will they allow the spirits of the dead to roam around and disturb their descendants for failure to perform the customary rites? See K. Opoku, “Namibian Bones in European Museums: How long are the dead to remain unburied? Genocide with impunity. http://www.modernghana“. A History of Ghana, by W. E. F. Ward (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1967) has a good account of the Dutch presence in Ghana from 1598 to 1872 when they ceded their possessions to the British.

      The Dutch had driven out the Portuguese from the Gold Coast in 1637 before they were in turn forced to cede their possessions to the British by treaty in 1872 and thus leave an area where many European countries had sought to secure foothold because of the gold resources in the land. See Albert van Dantzig, Forts and Castles of Ghana, (1980, Sedco Publishing Ltd, Accra) as well as Kwesi J. Anquandah, Castles and Forts of Ghana, (Ghana Museums and Monuments Board, Accra, 1999)

  2. Unfortunately it’s true that the Dutch role in the history of colonialism isn’t thought at all on high schools and universities. As a Dutch person, I had to come to Elmina myself to find out that the Dutch had had a slave castle over there. And yes I felt ashamed of my background and my ancestors being there.
    It’s not common anymore that Dutch children have to learn names of their famous ancestors and dates important events. Yes, the have to learn the name of Willem van Oranje and after that they continue with the 19th century.

    Please note that Mr. Bremer is heavilly critized by Mr. Sjarel Ex, director of the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam. He is mentioning there is a difference between decollection and a total sell out. Secondly he mentions that the collection of the Wereldmuseum is built up by gifts. And who is going to give art works to a museum that sells out everything?

    What not helps in this case is that the Wereldmuseum is located in Rotterdam. Rotterdam is the second largest city in the Netherlands. Even thought it has one of the largest harbors in the world, it is a city that atracts a lot of people with low incomes. And people with a high income are leaving to other municipalities. So Rotterdam is really a city with financial problems. So both the government and the municipality have to cut funds. The municipality of Rotterdam is the owner of the collection of the Wereldmuseum.

    It’s not the first time a Dutch museum tries to sell their pieces. Most recent example is the museum goudA, that sold a piece of Marlene Dumas, a famous Dutch artist, in 2011.

    Members of the parliament were questioning this matter in The Parliament.

    If you compare the Gouda-case to the Rotterdam-case? Why does the first case (which is about one painting) leads questions in the parliament as where the second case (which is about a complete collection) remains in silence?

  3. Just a quick appendage: what is also strange is that Western European cultural antiquities are circulated through different regimes of control and exchange than that of African artifacts. See this article from the NYT for example:

    How is it that if provenance cannot be proven for Western antiquities then they cannot be traded on the open market, while the dubious provenance of African artifacts is of unimportance? A double standard in the management and preservation of “World Culture”?

  4. Given all the controversy, I don;t think they will be able to sell! This year it will be 150 years sine the Dutch belatedly abolished slavery. The collective amnesia may however not disappear!

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