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2 minutes to read Posted on Monday November 27, 2023

Updated on Monday November 27, 2023

portrait of Annette de Wit

Annette de Wit

Senior Conservator/curator , Maritime Museum Rotterdam

portrait of Beth Daley

Beth Daley

Editorial Adviser , Europeana Foundation

Destination Port City: how Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum made decisions on how to share its colonial past

How can museums acknowledge the multiple stories that make up the past? We hear from Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum about their new exhibition which explores the city’s history through its connection to enslavement and the slave trade.

View of the Leuvehaven harbour in Rotterdam. A calm harbour with small and large sailing ships, next to a street with tall, elegant houses and trees.
Title:
Gezicht op de Leuvehaven/Gerrit Groenewegen. In Copyright.
Creator:
Eric van Straaten
Date:
1782
Institution:
Collection Maritiem Museum
Country:
The Netherlands

An image in this news post depicts inhumane treatment of enslaved people. The image may cause sadness or distress. We have included the image to highlight a historical period and its connection to the exhibition featured in the text. Continue reading or go to our homepage.

In December 2022, a new exhibition called ‘Destination Port City’ opened at the Maritime Museum, Rotterdam. In this exhibition, which will remain on display for the next six years, visitors board a virtual metro and travel through the past, present and future of the port city of Rotterdam. They discover some of the city’s proud moments - from the birth of Rotterdam in 1270 to its successful development as an international trading port - but are also introduced to its history through its connection to enslavement and the slave trade. Annette de Wit, the exhibition’s curator from the Maritime Museum, talks to us about how the exhibition came about and the decision-making process behind choosing and telling difficult stories.

Confronting the colonial past

‘Rotterdam’s colonial past has been in the spotlight recently,’ Annette tells us. ‘Three studies on the subject were published in 2020 alone. So when we started working on our port exhibition at the Maritime Museum, there was no doubt that the city’s colonial past should be highlighted. But where and how?’

In the 17th and 18th centuries, ships from Rotterdam set off for the west coast of Africa, loaded with textiles, spirits, gunpowder and guns. Those goods were used to buy enslaved Africans and transport them to the Caribbean and Suriname. From the colonies, the ships sailed back to Rotterdam with produce grown on the plantations there by enslaved people. Rotterdam merchants had their ships converted into slave ships for this trafficking.

An illustration of a Black woman in chains, wiping her forehead. She wears a white skirt and is naked from the waist up. In the background, a Black person is working on the land with palm trees and mountains in the distance.
Title:
Image from the book Narrative of a five years' expedition. In Copyright.
Creator:
John Stedman
Date:
1772
Institution:
Collection Maritime Museum
Country:
The Netherlands
An illustration of a Black woman in chains, wiping her forehead. She wears a white skirt and is naked from the waist up. In the background, a Black person is working on the land with palm trees and mountains in the distance.

How could the team tell this story? Annette explains: ‘We wanted objects in the exhibition to tell an inclusive story about Rotterdam’s colonial past. We met regularly with an advisory board of experts on colonialism, some of whom have roots in the Dutch colonies, who helped us to make the necessary choices. With this group, we discussed the meaning of objects, how they could be presented and how they were described in the texts that went alongside them.’

Annette continues, ‘We decided to explicitly confront the wealth of Rotterdam with the exploitation on the other side of the world. While one side of the exhibition space is dedicated to shipping, colonial trade and the Rotterdam merchants who not only got rich from that trade but also exercised influence in all levels of government in the city, the other side shows the impact on the inhabitants of the colonies, who were exploited, enslaved and transported to the other side of the world.’

Document of an auction of Snauwschip genoemd de hermina Elisabeth.
Title:
Document of an auction of a so called snauwschipp, Coopstad &Rochussen. In Copyright.
Creator:
Eric van Straaten
Date:
1777
Institution:
Collection Maritime Museum
Country:
The Netherlands
Document of an auction of Snauwschip genoemd de hermina Elisabeth.

‘Showcasing trade, shipping and wealth is easy using objects from the Maritime Museum's collection,’ says Annette, ‘But putting a face to the enslaved is more difficult. Very few images depict what life was like for the enslaved people, either on board or on the plantations.’

One collection item that does so is a book by Scottish officer Stedman, who is one of the few people to record the violence against enslaved people in drawings. His book ‘Narrative of a five years' expedition' is included in the exhibition.

Speaking to today’s generation

Destination Port City sees stories of port and city interwoven with personal stories of inhabitants of present-day Rotterdam. One of these inhabitants is Maureen Mollis. Maureen is a descendant of enslaved people, and is programme leader of the municipal programme for colonial and slavery history of the city of Rotterdam and was also on the advisory board developing this exhibition. In the exhibition, visitors hear from Maureen as she recounts the city's colonial past and explains what this past means to her personally.

Photograph portrait of Maureen Mollis, wearing an orange vest with a black sash, and a gold chain necklace, standing in front of a body of water.
Title:
Portrait of Maureen Mollis. In Copyright.
Creator:
Khalid Amakran
Date:
2022
Country:
The Netherlands
Photograph portrait of Maureen Mollis, wearing an orange vest with a black sash, and a gold chain necklace, standing in front of a body of water.

‘I’m well aware that the prosperity of Rotterdam was earned at the expense of others, and that’s not a pleasant thought. Some people say that the apologies made for slavery in the past are not genuinely meant by the politicians. Those people think it’s about acknowledging the pain, which is still perceived now. For me, personally, it’s about the effect. I’m ready to look further than the pain, to a future in which all the people living here are equal and have equal opportunities.’ – Maureen Mollis

How has the exhibition been received by the community? Annette says, ‘Since the exhibition opened, we, as a museum, receive many questions and requests about the Leuvehaven stories, for example, from artists who want to find out more for their own projects. For me as a curator, it is great to see that 'colonial objects' provided with new research and a powerful personal story speak to the imagination and lead to discussion. Because of the experiences I have gained during the making of this exhibition, I am even more convinced that a multi-voiced approach to the (maritime) past is very valuable and also very important to remain relevant as a museum for new generations of visitors. For other museums looking to tell similar stories, I would advise them to work with advisory boards from the communities and to have an open mind and try to really understand what moves them.’

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